A STORIED LATERAL HIRE

“Are Laterals Killing Your Firm?” is the provocative title of The American Lawyer‘s February issue. The centerpiece is a thoughtful article, “Of Partners and Peacocks,” by Bill Henderson, professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and Director of the Center on the Global Legal Profession, and Christopher Zorn, professor of political science, sociology, crime, law, and justice at Penn State University.

Henderson and Zorn conclude that “for most law firms there is no statistically significant relationship between more lateral partner hiring and higher profits.” As I observed in last week’s post, most big law managing partners have conceded as much in anonymous surveys. Even so, the drumbeat of lateral hiring to achieve top line revenue growth persists, even in the face of dubious bottom line results.

A timely topic

One lateral hire outcome became particularly fascinating this week. On the way out of the top spot at DLA Piper is global co-chair Tony Angel. You might remember him from one of my earlier articles, “The Ultimate Lateral Hire.”

The American Lawyer 2012 Lateral Report identified Angel as one of the top lateral hires of the year — “a typically bold and iconoclastic play by DLA. For a firm to bring in a former managing partner from another firm is rare,” Am Law Daily reporter Chris Johnson wrote in March 2012. According to the article, the 59-year-old Angel was to receive $3 million a year for a three-year term.

With great fanfare, DLA touted its coup. “He’s got great values and he believes in what we’re trying to do and he shares our view of what’s going on in the world,” boasted then co-chair Frank Burch.

At the time, DLA’s press release was equally effusive: “Tony will work with the senior leadership on the refinement and execution of DLA Piper’s global strategy with a principal focus on improving financial performance and developing capability in key markets.”

Predictably, law firm management consultants also praised the move:  “It’s hard to get a guy that talented. There just aren’t that many people out there who have done what he has done,” said Peter Zeughauser. Legal headhunter Jack Zaremski called it a “brave move” that “might very well pay off.”

On second thought…

The current publicity surrounding Angel’s transition is decidedly more subdued. According to a recent Am Law article, Angel and his fellow outgoing global co-chair, Lee Miller, “will remain with the firm in a senior advisory capacity, the details of which will be worked out later this year.”

Two years, plus another 10 months as a lame duck, is a remarkably short period to occupy the top spot of any big firm. Only those who work at DLA Piper can say whether Angel’s brief reign was a success (and why it’s over so soon). Not all of them are likely to provide the same answer.

Separating winners from losers

In 2008, more than three years before Angel’s arrival, the firm’s non-equity partners found themselves on the receiving end of requests for capital contributions. According to Legal Week, “275 partners contributed up to $150,000 each to join the equity.” The move was “intended to motivate partners by granting them a direct share of the firm’s profits, as well as an equal vote in the firm’s decisions.” But it also helped “DLA reduce its bank debt.”

That equitization trend continued during Angel’s tenure. In 2012, the firm’s non-U.S. business reportedly added capital totaling 30 million pounds Sterling “as a result of the move to an all-equity partnership structure.” Again according to Legal Week, the firm’s non-equity partners in the UK, Europe, and Asia Pacific paid on average 61,000 pounds Sterling each to join the equity.”

Perhaps most new equity partners discovered that their mandatory bets became winners. After all, gross profits and average profits for the DLA Piper verein went up in 2012. Then again, averages don’t mean much when the distribution is skewed. According to a Wall Street Journal article three years ago, the internal top-to-bottom spread within DLA Piper was already nine-to-one.

Anyone looking beyond short-term dollars and willing to consider things that matter in the long run could consult associate satisfaction rankings for cultural clues. In the 2013 Am Law Survey of Midlevel Associate Satisfaction, DLA Piper dropped from #53 to #77 (out of 134 firms). That’s still above the firm’s #99 ranking in 2011.

The more things change

Management changes are always about the future. It’s not clear how, if at all, incoming co-chair Roger Meltzer’s vision for DLA Piper diverges from Angel’s. Age differences certainly don’t explain the transition; both men are around 60. Likewise, both have business orientations. Meltzer practices corporate and securities law; Angel joined DLA Piper after serving as executive managing director of Standard & Poor’s in London.

Maybe it’s irrelevant, but Meltzer and Angel also have this in common: Both are high-powered lateral hires. Angel parachuted in from Standard & Poor’s in 2011; Meltzer left Cahill, Gordon & Reindel to join DLA Piper in 2007. It makes you wonder where these guys and DLA Piper will be a few years from now.

AS CLIENTS SPEAK, WHO’S LISTENING?

Many big law firms pursue a path of mindless growth through mergers and lateral hiring, but few managing partners seem to question the wisdom of that strategy. Growth for its own sake gets protective cover in false rhetoric about serving clients. But contrary data continue to accumulate on the subject of what clients really want.

Challenging traditional views

Two recent articles ought to send a chill down the spine of big law partners everywhere. The first is a recent article for the Harvard Business Review Blog, “Why the Law Firm Pedigree May Be a Thing of the Past,” by Dina Wang and Firoz Dattu.

As the title suggests, the authors argue that clients are increasingly searching for value and efficiency at the expense of big law firms that rely on their brand alone to attract and retain business at premium rates. Insofar as the authors believe that truly elite law firms may be in mortal danger, I think they overstate their case. The most sophisticated clients with the most complex problems will continue to seek top legal talent. Much of that talent will reside in elite firms that will retain their stature, provided they create environments that appeal to the best young lawyers.

But it’s more difficult to quibble with the authors’ survey of general counsel at 88 major companies. In matters that were high-stakes (but not necessarily bet-the-company), 74 percent were less likely to use an Am Law 20 or Magic Circle firm than a less-pedigreed firm, provided they achieved legal cost savings of at least 30 percent. (The article suggests that the actual cost savings in such situations could exceed 60 percent.)

Follow the money

Now couple that finding with these recent Counsel-Link survey results:

“Among the firms with 201-500 lawyers, referred to as ‘Large Enough’ firms in this report, the share of U.S. legal fees paid by clients has grown from 18% three years ago (July 1, 2009 – June 30, 2010) to 22% in the trailing 12 months that ended June 30, 2013.”

Who’s lunch are the “Large Enough” firms eating? The megafirms’:

“Simultaneously, the share of U.S. legal fees paid by clients with more than 750 lawyers, the ‘Largest 50,’ has gone in the opposite direction — from 26% to 20% over the same period.”

The shift is even more dramatic in higher fee legal work: “‘Large Enough’ firms have almost doubled the share of high fee litigation matters — those matters generating outside counsel fees totaling $1 million or more (High Fee Work). ‘Large Enough’ firms grew their portion of U.S. High Fee Work from 22% three years ago to 41% in the trailing 12 months.”

Disruption as a powerful market force

How are the “Large Enough” firms doing it? Here’s a partial answer: “‘Large Enough’ firms billed nearly twice as much under alternative fee arrangements as did the ‘Largest 50′ firms over the trailing 12 months.”

None of this should come as a surprise. For years, law firm management consultants have been saying that there are no economies of scale in the practice of law once a firm reaches about 100 attorneys. In fact, maintaining the infrastructure to support continuous expansion at the largest firms actually produces diseconomies.

Embedded interests die hard

Firms engaged in aggressive lateral hiring and law firm mergers might be adding top line revenues, but most are also adding disproportionately more costs. According to the 2013 Hildebrandt Consulting Client Advisory, 60 percent of law firm managing partners said (in an anonymous survey) that their lateral hires had been financial successes. If 40 percent are willing to admit to deploying a strategy that is “break even at best,” imagine how worse the reality must be.

Perhaps the accumulating intelligence about clients’ actual desires and the true costs (both financial and cultural) of a growth strategy will cause some managing partners pursuing that strategy to pause. Maybe they’ll reconsider the construction of global behemoths that serve their own egos but little else. Don’t count on it.

PROOF OF THE PROFESSION’S CRISIS

biglaw-450

This article won the “Big Law Pick of the Week.” BigLaw‘s weekly newsletter reaches the world’s largest law firms and the general counsel who hire them.

Someone should remind law firm leaders that the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination isn’t just for clients. It can work for them, too. The latest Altman-Weil survey of firm leaders is proof of widespread management incompetence, stupidity, and worse.

The survey went to the chairs or managing partners of 791 firms with 50 or more lawyers. Firms with more than 250 lawyers (that is, mostly Am Law 200 firms) had a much higher response rate (42 percent) than smaller firms (26 percent). In other words, the survey results tilt toward big law firm attitudes.

The troubling big picture

The Am Law Daily’s summary includes comments from the survey’s author, Thomas Clay, who said that too many firms are “almost operating like Corporate America…managing the firm quarter-to-quarter by earnings per share.” That shortsighted approach is “not taking the long view about things like truly changing the way you do things to improve client value and things of that nature.”

For example, 95 percent of respondents view increased pricing competition as an ongoing trend, and 80 percent expect shifts to non-hourly billing structures. But only 29 percent have made significant changes to their own pricing practices in the wake of the recession.

Group stupidity

It gets worse. When asked to identify their greatest challenges over the next 24 months, the item that managers cite most often is “increasing revenue.” The rest of the list is, in order: new business, growth, profitability, management transition, cost management, and attracting talent. If you’re wondering where clients fit — other than as a source of revenue and profits in items one, two, and three — “client value” finished eighth.

Long-term thinking? Forget it. The client silo mentality and resulting culture of short-termism are widespread and deep. Almost 30 percent of law firm leaders say their firms lack adequate mid-level partners to whom they could transition clients. In another set of responses, they reveal why: 78 percent say that “senior partners don’t want to retire”; 73 percent admit that “senior partners don’t want to forfeit current compensation by transitioning client work.”

Lateral incompetence

Meanwhile, lateral hiring remains the prevailing strategy to achieve growth. Ninety percent of respondents plan to hire laterals in 2013; more than 60 percent seek entire practice groups. For firms of more than 250 lawyers, the numbers are even more startling: 100 percent plan to acquire laterals; 92 percent plan to acquire groups.

How much time do lateral partners get to prove their worth? Almost 60 percent of responding firm leaders say two years or more; 30 percent don’t set a time frame.

What happens when laterals don’t meet the expectations that brought them into the firm? Two-thirds of firm leaders said that they “sometimes, rarely or never” tell unproductive lateral hires to leave.

Institutional ineptitude

Almost 40 percent of respondents say their partners’ morale is lower compared to the beginning of 2008. And those partners survived the purges of 2009 and beyond.

If you’re looking for contributors to declining morale, try these. Seventy-two percent of firm leaders report that fewer equity partners will be a permanent trend going forward. Three-fourths have either tightened their standards or take them more seriously. Meanwhile, 92 percent of responding two-tier firms don’t have an up-or-out policy as non-equity partner profit centers grow.

To summarize:

Managing partners know that change is coming and clients are demanding it, but firms aren’t revisiting their basic strategies or business models.

Growth and profits finish far ahead of enhancing client value as most law firm leaders’ top concerns.

Leaders view aggressive lateral hiring as critical to law firm growth, but when laterals don’t produce, most firms don’t do much about it.

Succession planning is problematic because senior partners don’t want to relinquish compensation that is tied to their client billings.

As senior leaders continue to pull up the equity partner ladder on the next generation, morale plummets and managing partners worry about the absence of mid-level talent to serve clients in the future.

Taking all of this together, psychologists would call it a severe case of cognitive dissonance — simultaneously holding contradictory thoughts in your head. Those who assert that most big firms are resilient and face no life-threatening problems are wrong. A crisis of leadership is already upon us as lot of supposedly smart people continue to do some really dumb things. Don’t take my word for it; they’re outing themselves.

UGLINESS INSIDE THE AM LAW 100 – PART 2

Part I of this series considered the possibility that a key metric — average partner profits — has lost much of its value in describing anything meaningful about big law firms. In eat-what-you-kill firms, the explosive growth of top-to-bottom spreads within equity partnerships has skewed the distribution of income away from the bell-shaped curve that underpins the statistical validity of any average.

Part II considers the implications.

Searching for explanations beyond the obvious

In recent years, equity partners at the top of most big firms have engineered a massive redistribution of incomes in their favor. Why? The next time a senior partner talks about holding the line on equity partner headcount or reducing entry-level partner compensation as a way to strengthen the partnership, consider the source and scrutinize the claim.

One popular assertion is that the high end of the internal equity partner income gap attracts lateral partners. In fact, some firms boast about their large spreads because they hope it will entice laterals. But Professor William Henderson’s recent analysis demonstrates that lateral hiring typically doesn’t enhance a firm’s profits. Sometimes selective lateral hiring works. But infrequent success doesn’t make aggressive and indiscriminate lateral hiring to enhance top line revenues a wise business plan.

According to Citi’s 2012 Law Firm Leaders Survey, even law firm managing partners acknowledge that, financially, almost half of all lateral hires are no better than a break-even proposition. If leaders are willing to admit that an ongoing strategy has a failure rate approaching 50 percent, imagine how bad the reality must actually be. Even worse, the non-financial implications for the acquiring firm’s culture can be devastating — but there’s no metric for assessing those untoward consequences.

A related argument is that without the high end of the range, legacy partners will leave. Firm leaders should consider resisting such threats. Even if such partners aren’t bluffing, it may be wiser to let them go.

“We’re helping young attorneys and building a future”

Other supposed benefits to recruiting rainmakers at the high end of a firm’s internal partner income distribution are the supposedly new opportunities that they can provide to younger attorneys. But the 2013 Client Advisory from Citi Private Bank-Hildebrandt Consulting shows that lateral partner hiring comes at the expense of associate promotions from within. Homegrown talent is losing the equity partner race to outsiders.

In a similar attempt to spin another current trend as beneficial to young lawyers, some managing partners assert that lower equity partner compensation levels lower the bar for admission, making equity status easier to attain. Someone under consideration for promotion can more persuasively make the business case (i.e., that potential partner’s client billings) required for equity participation.

Such sophistry assumes that an economic test makes any sense for most young partners in today’s big firms. In fact, it never did. But now the prevailing model incentivizes senior partners to hoard billings, preserve their own positions, and build client silos — just in case they someday find themselves searching for a better deal elsewhere in the overheated lateral market.

Finally, senior leaders urge that current growth strategies will better position their firms for the future. Such appealing rhetoric is difficult to reconcile with many partners’ contradictory behavior: guarding client silos, pulling up the equity partner ladder, reducing entry level partner compensation, and making it increasingly difficult for home-grown talent ever to reach the rarified profit participation levels of today’s managing partners.

Broader implications of short-term greed

In his latest book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, Richard Susskind wrote that most law firm leaders he meets “have only a few years left to serve and hope they can hold out until retirement… Operating as managers rather than leaders, they are more focused on short-term profitability than long-term strategic health.”

Viewed through that lens, the annual Am Law 100 rankings make greed respectable while masking insidious internal equity partner compensation gaps that benefit a relatively few. Annual increases in average partner profits imply the presence of sound leadership and a firm’s financial success. But an undisclosed metric — growing internal inequality — may actually portend failure.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask lawyers from what was once Dewey & LeBoeuf and a host of other recent fatalities. Their average partner profits looked pretty good — all the way to the end.

UGLINESS INSIDE THE AM LAW 100 — PART I

Every spring, the eyes of big firm attorneys everywhere turn to the American Lawyer rankings — the Am Law 100 – and the contest surrounding its key metric: average profits per equity partner (PPP). But if the goal is to obtain meaningful insight into a firm’s culture, financial strength or profitability for most of its partners, those focusing on PPP are looking at the wrong ball.

Start with the basics

For years, firms have been increasing their PPP by reducing the number of equity partners. American Lawyer reports that cutbacks in equity partners, when done correctly, are “a solid management technique, not financial chicanery.” But as firms are now executing the strategy, it looks more like throwing furniture into the fireplace to keep the equity house warm.

Since 1985, the average leverage ratio (of all attorneys to equity partners) for the Am Law 50 has doubled from 1.76 to more than 3.5. It’s now twice as difficult to become an equity partner as it was when today’s senior partners entered that club. Between 1999 and 2009, the ranks of Am Law 100 non-equity partners grew threefold; the number of equity partners increased by less than one-third.

Arithmetic did the rest: average partner profits for the Am Law 50 soared from $300,000 in 1985 ($650,000 in today’s dollars) to more than $1.7 million in 2012.

The beat goes on

Perhaps it’s not financial chicanery, but many firms admit that they’re still turning the screws on equity partner head count as a way to increase PPP. According to the American Lawyer’s most recent Law Firm Leaders’ Survey, 45 percent of respondent firms de-equitized partners in 2012 and 46 percent planned to do so in 2013.

But even when year-to-year equity headcount remains flat, as it did this year, that nominal result masks a destabilizing trend: the growing concentration of income and power at the top. In fact, it is undermining the very validity of the PPP metric itself.

An unpublished metric more important than PPP

The internal top-to-bottom spread within the equity ranks of most firms doesn’t appear in the Am Law survey or anywhere else, but it should, along with the distribution of partners at various data points. As meaningful metrics, they’re far more important than PPP.

Even as overall leverage ratios have increased dramatically, the internal gap within equity partnerships has skyrocketed. A few firms adhere to lock-step equity partner compensation within a narrow overall range (3-to-1 or 4-to-1). But most have adopted higher spreads. In its 2012 financial statement, K&L Gates disclosed an 8-to-1 gap – up from 6-to-1 in 2011. Dewey & LeBoeuf’s range exceeded 20-to-1.

This growing internal gap undermines the informational value of PPP. In any statistical analysis, an average is meaningful if the underlying sample is distributed normally (i.e., along a bell-shaped curve where the average is the peak). But the distribution of incomes within most big firm equity partnerships bears no resemblance to such a curve.

Cultural consequences

Rules governing statistical validity have real world implications. Growing internal income spreads render even nominally stable equity partner head counts misleading. Lower minimum profit participation levels make room for more equity partner bodies, but what results over time is Dewey & LeBoeuf’s “barbell” system. A handful of rainmakers dominates one side of the barbell; many more so-called service partners populate the other — and they rarely advance very far.

As Edwin B. Reeser and Patrick J. McKenna wrote last year, in Am Law 200 firms, “Typically, two-thirds of the equity partners earn less, and some perhaps only half, of the average PPP.” Statisticians know that for such a skewed distribution, the arithmetic average conveys little that is useful about the underlying population from which it is drawn.

Why it matters

For firms that don’t have lock-step partner compensation, the PPP metric doesn’t reveal very much. For example, consider a firm with two partners and an 8-to-1 equity partner spread. If Partner A earns $4 million and Partner B earns $500,000, average PPP is $2.25 million — a number that doesn’t describe either partner’s situation or the stability of the firm itself. But the underlying details say quite a bit about the culture of that partnership.

Firms with the courage to do so would follow the lead of K&L Gates and disclose what that firm calls its “compression ratio” and then take it a step farther: reveal their internal income distributions as well. But such revelations might lead to uncomfortable conversations about why, especially during the last decade, managing partners have engineered explosive increases in internal equity partner income gaps.

A future post will consider that topic. It’s not pretty.

THE LAWYER BUBBLE — Early Reviews and Upcoming Events

The New York Times published my op-ed, “The Tyranny of the Billable Hour,” tackling the larger implications of the recent DLA Piper hourly billing controversy.

And there’s this from Bloomberg Business Week: “Big Law Firms Are in ‘Crisis.’ Retired Lawyer Says.”

In related news, with the release of my new book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis, my weekly posts will give way (temporarily) to a growing calendar of events, including:

TUESDAY, APRIL 2, 2013, 10:00 am to 11:00 am (CDT)
Illinois Public Media
“Focus” with Jim Meadows
WILL-AM – 580 (listen online at http://will.illinois.edu/focus)

TUESDAY, APRIL 2, 2013, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (CDT)
“Think” with Krys Boyd
KERA – Public Media for North Texas – 90.1 FM (online at http://www.kera.org/think/)

THURSDAY, APRIL 4, 2013, 11:00 am to Noon (EDT)
Washington, DC
The Diane Rehm Show
WAMU (88.5 FM in DC area) and NPR

FRIDAY, APRIL 5, 2013, 10:45 am to 11:00 am (EDT)
New York City
The Brian Lehrer Show
WNYC/NPR (93.9 FM/820 AM in NYC area)
(http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/)

SATURDAY, APRIL 6, 2013, Noon (EDT)
New Hampshire Public Radio
“Word of Mouth” with Virginia Prescott
WEVO – 89.1 FM in Concord; available online at http://nhpr.org/post/lawyer-bubble)

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10, 2013, 8:00 am to 9:00 am (CDT)
The Joy Cardin Show
Wisconsin Public Radio (available online at http://www.wpr.org/cardin/)

FRIDAY, APRIL 12, 2013
The Shrinking Pyramid: Implications for Law Practice and the Legal Profession” — Panel discussion
Georgetown University Law Center
Center for the Study of the Legal Profession
600 New Jersey Avenue NW
Location: Gewirz – 12th floor
Washington, D.C.

TUESDAY, APRIL 23, 2013, 7:00 pm (CDT) (C-SPAN 2 is tentatively planning to cover this event)
The Book Stall at Chestnut Court
811 Elm Street
Winnetka, IL

Here are some early reviews:

The Lawyer Bubble is an important book, carefully researched, cogently argued and compellingly written. It demonstrates how two honorable callings – legal education and the practice of law – have become, far too often, unscrupulous rackets.”
—Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocent and other novel

“Harper is a seasoned insider unafraid to say what many other lawyers in his position might…written with keen insight and scathing accusations…. Harper brings his analytical and persuasive abilities to bear in a highly entertaining and riveting narrative…. The Lawyer Bubbleis recommended reading for anyone working in a law related field. And for law school students—especially prospective ones—it really should be required reading.”
New York Journal of Books

“Anyone looking into a career in law would be well advised to read this thoroughly eye-opening warning.”
Booklist, starred review

“[Harper] is perfectly positioned to reflect on alarming developments that have brought the legal profession to a most unfortunate place…. Essential reading for anyone contemplating a legal career.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“[Harper] burns his bridges in this scathing indictment of law schools and big law firms…. his insights and admonitions are consistently on point.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Imagine that the elite lawyers of BigLaw and the legal academy were put on trial for their alleged negligence and failed stewardship. Imagine further that the State had at its disposal one of the nation’s most tenacious trial lawyers to doggedly build a complete factual record and then argue the case. The result would be The Lawyer Bubble. If I were counsel to the elite lawyers of BigLaw and the legal academy, I would advise my clients to settle the case.”
—William D. Henderson, Director of the Center on the Global Legal Profession and Professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law

“With wit and insight,The Lawyer Bubble offers a compelling portrait of the growing crisis in legal education and the practice of law. This book is essential reading for anyone concerned about the profession or contemplating a legal career.”
—Deborah L. Rhode, Professor of Law and Director of the Center on the Legal Profession, Stanford University

“This is a fine and important book, thoughtful and beautifully written. It makes the case – in a responsible and sober tone – that we are producing far too many lawyers for far too small a segment of American society. It is a must-read for leaders of law firms, law schools, and the bar, as the legal profession continues its wrenching transition from a profession into just another business.”
—Daniel S. Bowling III, Senior Lecturing Fellow, Duke Law School

“In this superb book, Steven Harper documents, ties together and suggests remedies for the deceit that motivates expanding law school enrollment in the face of a shrinking job market, the gaming of law school rankings and the pernicious effect of greed on the leadership of many of our nation’s leading law firms. The lessons he draws are symptomatic, and go well beyond the documented particulars.”
—Robert Helman, Partner and former Chairman (1984-98), Mayer Brown LLP; Lecturer, University of Chicago Law School

“Every sentient lawyer realizes that the legal profession is in crisis, but nobody explains the extent of the problem as well as Steven Harper. Fortunately, he also proposes some solutions – so there is still room for hope. This is an essential book.”
—Steven Lubet, author of Fugitive Justice and Lawyers’ Poker

“Steven Harper’s The Lawyer Bubble is an expression of tough love for the law, law firms and the people who work in them. The clear message is take control of your destiny and your firm to avoid the serious jeopardy that confronts far too many firms today. Whether you are a partner, associate, or law student, you should read this compassionate and forceful work.”
—Edwin B. Reeser, Former managing partner, author, and consultant on law practice management

“Harper chronicles the disruption of his once-genteel profession with considerable sadness, and places the blame squarely at the wing-tipped feet of two breeds of scoundrel: law school deans, and executive committees that have run big law firms …” –”Bar Examined” – Book Review in The Washington Monthly (March/April 2013)

SOMEBODY’S CHILD

Nine years ago, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Now he wants Congress to repeal the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act that deny federal recognition to such marriages. Apparently, his reversal on this issue began two years ago when his college freshman son told Portman and his wife that he was gay.

Plenty of prominent national figures have similarly changed their views. The tide of history seems overwhelming, even to conservative commentator George Will. Others can debate whether Portman and those who have announced newly acquired positions favoring gay rights are courageous, hypocrites, opportunists, or something else.

For me, the more important point is that his own child’s connection to the issue caused Portman to think differently about it. Applied to lawyers, the question become simple:

What if the profession’s influential players treated the young people pursuing a legal career as their own children?

Portman’s explanation

In 2011, Portman knew that his son was gay when 100 law graduates walked out of his commencement address at the University of Michigan.

“But you know,” he told CNN recently, “what happened to me is really personal. I mean, I hadn’t thought a lot about this issue. Again, my focus has been on other issues over my public policy career.”

His key phrases are pregnant with larger implications: “[W]hat happened to me is really personal….I hadn’t thought a lot about this issue.”

Start with law school deans

As the lawyer bubble grew over the past decade, some deans and university administrators might have behaved differently if a “really personal” dimension required them to think “a lot” about their approaches. Perhaps they would have jettisoned a myopic focus on maximizing their law school rankings and revenues.

At a minimum, most deans probably would have disclosed earlier than 2012 that fewer than half of recent graduates had long-term full-time jobs requiring a legal degree. It seems unlikely that, year after year, they would have told their own kids that those employment rates exceeded 90 percent. Perhaps, too, deans would have resisted rather than embraced skyrocketing tuition increases that have produced six-figure non-dischargeable educational debt for 85 percent of today’s youngest attorneys.

Then consider big firm senior partners

At the economic pinnacle of the profession, big firms have become a particular source of not only attorney wealth, but also career dissatisfaction. In substantial part, both phenomena happened — and continue to happen — because managing partners have obsessed over short-term metrics aimed at maximizing current year profits and mindless growth.

For example, the billable hour is the bane of every lawyer’s (and most clients’) existence, but it’s lucrative for equity partners. If senior partners found themselves pushing their own kids to increase their hours as a way to boost those partners’ already astonishing profits, maybe they’d rethink the worst consequences of a destructive regime.

Similarly, the average attorney-to-equity partner leverage ratio for the Am Law 100 has doubled since 1985 (from 1.75 to 3.5). Perhaps managing partners wouldn’t have been so quick to pull up the ladder on lawyers who sat at their Thanksgiving tables every year, alongside those managing partners’ grandchildren who accompanied them. Not every young associate in a big firm should advance to equity partner. But offering a 5 to 10 percent chance of success following 7 to 12 years of hard work isn’t a motivator. It invites new attorneys to prepare for failure.

Finally, compared to the stability of a functional family, the current big law firm lateral partner hiring frenzy adopts the equivalent of periodic divorce as a cultural norm. Pursued as a growth strategy, it destroys institutional continuity, cohesion, community, and morale. Ironically, according to Professor William Henderson’s recent American Lawyer article “Playing Not to Lose,” it offers little or no net economic value in return.

Adopting a family outlook or a parental perspective isn’t a foolproof cure for what ails the legal profession. Indeed, running law schools and big firms according to the Lannister family’s values (“The Game of Thrones”) — or those of Don Corleone’s (“The Godfather”) — might not change things very much at all.

It’s also worth remembering that Oedipus was somebody’s child, too.

THE CULTURE OF CONTRADICTIONS

In an ironic twist, the latest Client Advisory from the Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group and Hildebrandt Consulting warns: “Law firms discount or ignore firm culture at their peril.” Really?

Law firm management consultants have played central roles in creating the pervasive big law firm culture. But that culture seldom includes “collegiality and a commitment to share profits in a fair and transparent manner,” which Citi and Hildebrandt now suggest are vital. For years, mostly non-lawyer consultants have encouraged managing partners to focus myopically on business school-type metrics that maximize short-term profits. The report reveals the results: the unpleasant culture of most big firms.

Determinants of culture

For example, the report notes, associate ranks have shrunk in an effort to increase their average billable hours. That’s how firms have enhanced what Hildebrandt and CIti continue to misname “productivity.” From the client’s perspective, rewarding total time spent to achieve an outcome is the opposite of true productivity.

Likewise, the report notes that along with the reduction in the percentage of associates, the percentage of income (non-equity) partners has almost doubled since 2001. Hildebrandt and Citi view this development as contributing to the squeeze on partner profits. But income partners have become profit centers for most firms. As a group, they command higher hourly rates, suffer fewer write-offs, and enjoy bigger realizations.

From the standpoint of a firm’s culture, a class of permanent income partners can be a morale buster. That’s especially true where the increase in income partners results from fewer internal promotions to equity partner. Comparing 2007 to 2011, the percentage of new equity partner promotions of home-grown talent dropped by 21 percent.

Lateral culture?

In contrast to the more daunting internal path to equity partnership, laterals have thrived and the income gap within most equity partnerships has grown dramatically. “Lateral hiring is more popular than ever,” the report observes. In contrast to the drop in internal promotions, new equity partner lateral additions increased by 10 percent from 2007 to 2011.

This intense lateral activity is stunning in light of its dubious benefits to the firms involved. The report cites Citi’s 2012 Law Firm Leaders Survey: 40 percent of respondents admitted that their lateral hires were “unsuccessful” or “break even.” The remaining 60 percent characterized the results as “successful” or “very successful,” but for two reasons, that number overstates reality.

First, it typically takes a year or more to determine the net financial impact of a lateral acquisition. Most managing partners have no idea whether the partners they’ve recruited over the past two years have produced positive or negative net economic contributions. For a tutorial on the subject, see Edwin Reeser’s thorough and thoughtful analysis, “Pricing Lateral Hires.”

Second, when is the last time you heard a managing partner of a big firm admit to a mistake of any kind, much less a big error, such as hiring someone whom he or she had previously sold to fellow partners as a superstar lateral hire? These leaders may be lying to themselves, too, but in the process, they’re creating a lateral partner bubble.

Stability?

The Hildebrandt/Citi advisory gives a nod to institutional stability, mostly by observing that it’s disappearing: “The 21-year period of 1987-2007 witnessed 18 significant law firm failures. In recent years, that rate has almost doubled, with eight significant law firms failing in the last five years.” If you count struggling firms that merged to stave off dissolution, the recent number is much higher.

In a Bloomberg interview last October, Citi’s Dan DiPietro, chairman of the bank’s law firm group, said that he maintained a “somewhat robust watch list” of firms in potential trouble, ranging from “very slight concern to oh my God!”

Cognitive dissonance

Here’s a summary:

Culture is important, but associates’ productivity is a function of the hours they bill.

Culture is important, but associates face diminishing chances that years of loyalty to a single firm will result in promotion to equity partnership.

Culture is important, but lateral hiring to achieve revenue growth has become a central business strategy for many, if not most, big firms. It has also exacerbated internal equity partner income gaps.

Culture is important and, if a firm loses it, the resulting instability may cause that firm to disappear.

As you try to reconcile these themes, you’ll understand why, as with other Hildebrandt/Citi client advisories, the report’s final line is my favorite: “As always, we stand ready to assist our clients in meeting the challenges of today’s market.”

BONUS TIME – 2012

It’s always interesting when two respected legal writers approach the same story in different ways. That happened in the coverage of recently announced associate bonuses.

Ashby Jones at the Wall Street Journal penned an article in the November 27 print edition of the paper that ran under this headline:

“Cravath Sends Cheer — Law Firm Lifts Bonuses for Some Associates as Much as 60%”

As always, Jones accurately reports what is true, namely, that Cravath, Swaine & Moore led this year’s associate bonus announcements with an increase over last year’s base bonus levels. Five paragraphs in, he acknowledges that this significant bump still leaves associates well below the 2007 pay scale. The highest associate bonuses this year are $60,000, compared to $110,000 for combined regular and special bonuses in 2007.

Meanwhile, at the New York Times…

On the same day that Ashby Jones’s article ran in the WSJ, Peter Lattman at the New York Times was a bit more circumspect. In that paper’s print edition, the bold line that ran in the middle of the story reads:

“[Cravath's] year-end awards set the bar for others, and the payouts are up a bit in 2012.”

Like Jones, Lattman observes that base bonus amounts are substantially higher than previously. But he correctly notes that “when spring bonuses are added to the equation, there has been little increase for Cravath’s associates over the last two years. The law firm did not award spring bonuses in 2012, but last year paid its associates a small stipend in addition to a year-end award. When 2011′s spring bonuses and year-end bonuses are added together, total bonus compensation actually exceeds this year’s level.”

Both Jones and Lattman report that Cravath had $3.1 million in average partner profits for 2011. For perspective, that’s slightly above the $3.05 average for 2006, and not all that far from the $3.3 million all-time high in 2007. Needless to say, associate bonuses haven’t enjoyed a similar recovery. But depending on what happens in the spring, they still could, which leads to a final point.

Who’s right?

The answer is Elie Mystal over at Above the Law. Mystal observes that spring bonuses more properly belong in the analysis of total compensation for the immediately preceding calendar year. That is, a bonus paid in early 2011 is really compensation for 2010.

The analysis is straightforward. Big law firms waiting for more complete information on how the fiscal year will end preserve flexibility by lowballing the November bonus numbers. Evidently, Cravath concluded that its $3.1 million average partner profits for 2011 were inadequate to justify any significant spring bonus for associates in early 2012.

The fate of the “special” bonus

The question now is whether spring bonuses are gone forever. After all, they first appeared as “special bonuses” — meaning that they came with this implied caveat: don’t build those dollars into next year’s expectations. Of course, that message has landed on deaf ears. But it gives firm leaders a way to convince themselves that it’s fair to leave associate compensation far below 2007 levels, even though average partner profits have recovered almost completely to those lofty heights. Indeed, some firms have even bested their pre-recession records.

In all of this, two things are working against associates who dream of a return to the good old days (of 2007). First, the glut of attorneys grows as the demand for new associates shrinks. Second, most law firm leaders are dealing with a revolution of rising expectations among senior equity partners. The potential loss of a rainmaker strikes fear in the hearts of many firm leaders.

But here’s a reason to hope. True visionaries seeking long-term institutional stability let such troublemakers walk. They promote cultural values that transcend the impact on the current year’s income statement. They let resulting gains in client service and attorney morale produce ample financial and non-financial rewards for all.

And all of this reveals itself in how partners at the top of a firm treat associates at the bottom — a place where too many seem to have forgotten that they themselves once stood.

A BIG LAW FIRM THREE-WAY

With Hurricane Sandy and the election dominating last week’s headlines, news of another blockbuster merger didn’t receive the attention that it deserved. Later this month, the combination of SNR Denton, the Canadian firm (Fraser, Milner & Casgrain – FMC), and Paris-based Salans will create a 2,500-attorney enterprise known as Dentons, assuming their respective partners approve the merger. The transaction merits a closer look.

Not so long ago

Twenty years ago, Elliott Portnoy graduated from Harvard Law School. In 2002, he joined Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal. Prior to that, he’d headed the public policy group of Arent Fox, an Am Law 200 firm, in Washington, D.C.

In June 2006, at age 40, Portnoy became the youngest chairman in Sonnenschein’s history. At the same time, the firm released a new strategic plan whereby it would increase average equity partner profits from $800,000 to $1.4 million by 2008. That didn’t happen.

In 2007, Sonnenschein had 600 lawyers and average partner profits of $915,000, but since then it hasn’t seen profits numbers that high. Central components of its strategy have been the aggressive recruitment of lateral partners and the pruning away of others. In early 2008, 37 lawyers and 87 non-attorney employees received their walking papers. By year-end, average partner profits had dropped to $805,000. Of course, the onset of the Great Recession contributed to that decline, but many other firms weathered the storm with much less damage.

Time to merge

The 2008 drop in average partner profits didn’t seem to affect Sonnenschein’s strategic plan. Aggressive lateral hiring continued, including 100 lawyers from failing Thacher, Proffitt & Wood in December 2008. Average partner profits kept dropping — to $780,000 in 2009. The following year, 2010, brought the ultimate lateral hiring event: Sonnenschein’s merger with U.K.-based Denton, Wilde & Sapte to create a 1,200-lawyer firm.

As a Swiss verein, the two firms retained their independent financial status. But according to the Am Law Global 100, SNR Denton’s first full year as a combined entity produced overall average partner profits of $700,000 in 2011. The former Sonnenschein side of the firm reported $880,000 in average partner profits, so Portnoy heralded the merger a success and “not a destination, but a part of the journey.”

The journey continues

In 2011, SNR Denton was one of several firms exploring merger possibilities with Dewey & LeBoeuf as it careened toward disaster. According to the Wall Street Journal, Sonnenschein’s leadership had named its proposed deal “A Phoenix Rises from the Ashes” and contemplated a full-scale merger that combined all 1,000 Dewey & LeBoeuf attorneys with SNR Denton. Borrowed money would have financed the transaction — a tactic apparently drawn from the big law firm “lessons not learned” list.

Unexpected bad news may have saved SNR Denton from itself. According to the Journal, the deal was gaining momentum when it cratered after Dewey’s revelation that Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. had opened a criminal investigation into Dewey.

Doubling down on a dubious approach

The journey has now led to the proposed combination of SNR Denton, FMC, and Salans. If consummated, the merger would double the size of the current SNR Denton. If the transaction goes through, what results won’t be a partnership. Whether it would become a profitable business venture for the participants is an open question.

To help answer that question, SNR Denton’s management got limited outside help. According to Portnoy and SNR Denton’s global chairman Joseph Andrew, “branding and advertising advisers” recommended a single-name moniker, Dentons. (Do they know that Dr. Dentons are children’s pajamas with feet?) But Andrew also noted that the firm used no strategic legal consultants or advisers in its process.

I don’t know if the other firms had advisers. Nor do I know if Salans had advisers in 1998, when it blazed a trail by becoming the first major law firm to complete a transatlantic merger, acquiring Christy & Viener. But that transaction didn’t turn out very well.

Maybe this time will be different. For the sake of many fine lawyers and even greater numbers of staff who are relying on management to chart a wise course for three law firms, let’s hope so. Among the most important lessons of Dewey & LeBoeuf are these: the margin for leadership error is slim and the consequences of missteps can be catastrophic.

IS IT REALLY MORE COMPLEX THAN GREED?

Revisionism is already obfuscating the story of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s demise. If facts get lost, the profession’s leaders will learn precious little from an important tragedy.

For example, the day after Dewey & LeBoeuf filed its bankruptcy petition, Clifford Winston and Robert W. Crandall, two non-lawyer fellows at the Brookings Institution, wrote an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal offering this analysis: “Dewey’s collapse has been attributed to the firm being highly leveraged and unable to attract investment from businesses outside the legal profession.”

Attributed by whom? They don’t say. Anyone paying attention knows that outside investors bought $150 million in Dewey bonds. But apparently for commentators whose agenda includes proving that overregulation is the cause of everyone’s problems — including the legal profession’s — there’s no reason to let facts get in the way.

Another miss

On the same day that the Winston & Crandall article appeared, a less egregious but equally mistaken assessment came from Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor William Henderson in the Am Law Daily: “More Complex than Greed.” Bill and I agree on many things. I consider him a friend and an important voice in a troubled profession. But I think his analysis of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s failure misses the mark.

Henderson suggests, “One storyline that will attract many followers is that large law firm lawyers, long viewed as the profession’s elite class, have lost their way, betraying their professional ideals in the pursuit of money and glory. This narrative reinforces that lawyer-joke mentality that lawyers just need to become better people. That narrative is wrong.”

What’s wrong with it? In my view, not much, as “House of Cards” in the July/August issue of The American Lawyer now makes painfully clear.

What happened?

Rather than the greed that pervades “House of Cards,” Henderson suggests that Dewey & LeBoeuf reveals the failure of law firms to innovate in response to growing threats from new business models, such as Axiom and Novus Law. Innovation is an important issue and Henderson is right to push it. But as the story of Dewey’s failure unfolds, the inability to innovate in the ways that Henderson suggests — using technology and cheaper labor to achieve efficiencies and cost savings — won’t emerge as the leading culprit.

Rather, greed and the betrayal of professional ideals lie at the heart of what is destabilizing many big law firms. In that respect, most current leaders have changed the model from what it was 25 years ago. Am Law 100 firms’ average partner profits soared from $325,000 in 1987 to $1.4 million in 2011. Behind that stunning increase are leadership choices, some of which eroded partnership values. As a result, many big firms have become more fragile. If greed doesn’t explain the following pervasive trends, what does?

– Short-term metrics — billings, billlable hours, leverage — drive partner compensation decisions in most big firms. Values that can’t be measured — collegiality, community, sense of shared purpose — get ignored. When a K-1 becomes the glue that holds partnerships together, disintegration comes rapidly with a financial setback.

– Yawning gaps in the highest-to-lowest equity partner compensation. Twenty-five years ago at non-lockstep firms, the typical spread was 4-to-1 or 5-to-1; now it often exceeds 10-to-1 and is growing. That happens because people at the top decide that “more” is better (for them). Among other things, the concomitant loss of the equity partner “middle class” reduces the accountability of senior leaders.

– Leverage has more than doubled since 1985 and the ranks of non-equity partners have swelled. That happens when people in charge pull up the ladder.

– Lateral hiring and merger frenzy is rampant. One reason is that many law firm leaders have decided that bigger is better. The fact that “everybody else is doing it” reinforces errant behavior. Growth also allows managers to rationalize their bigger paychecks on the grounds that they’re presiding over larger institutions.

Throughout it all, associate satisfaction languishes at historic lows. No one surveys partners systematically, but plenty of them are unhappy, too. Unfortunately, such metrics that don’t connect directly to the short-term bottom line often get ignored.

Innovation won’t solve the problem

A few successful, stable law firms have shunned the now prevailing big law model. They innovate as needed, but far more important has been their ability to create a culture in which some short-term profit gives way to the profession’s long-term values. What is now missing from most big law firms was once pervasive: a long-run institutional vision and the willingness to implement it. Too often, greed gets in the way.

With all due respect to Messrs. Winston, Crandall and Henderson, sometimes the simplest explanation may also be the correct one.

DEWEY’S L. CHARLES LANDGRAF: THE PLIGHT OF THE LOYAL COMPANY MAN

This is the last — for now — in a series profiling Dewey & LeBoeuf’s former leaders, especially its final four-man office of the chairman. L. Charles Landgraf (Rice University, B.A., 1975;  New York University, J.D. 1978) had been a long-time partner at LeBoeuf Lamb when it merged with Dewey Ballantine in October 2007.

In the 1990s, when LeBoeuf Lamb needed someone to bolster its London presence, Landgraf went. When the firm established a Moscow office, he helped. When duty called to the Washington, D.C. office that he was heading in 2012, Charley landed in Dewey & LeBoeuf’s four-man office of the chairman. It quickly became a thankless job.

A partner’s predicament

According to a Wall Street Journal interview, Landgraf helped out after the firm had failed to meet profit targets for several years. Unable to pay everything owed to guaranteed compensation partners, he and Jeffrey Kessler “spearheaded” a plan (according to Martin Bienenstock in that interview). It would have paid off partners who had taken IOUs from the firm by dedicating six percent of partnership earnings from 2014 to 2020.

Always candid, Landgraf said recently that the plan was necessary because “the firm had a lot of built-up tension about the fact that we had a compensation schedule last year that exceeded the actual earnings, and that had been true for a couple of years.” “Built-up tension” is a delicate description of the plight facing a firm that organizes itself around so-called stars whose loyalty extends no deeper than their guaranteed incomes.

Go along to get along?

My hunch is that the plan to deal with this problem wasn’t Landgraf’s idea. He wasn’t among those listed in the “Senior Management” section of the firm’s 2010 private placement memorandum. Nor was he mentioned in April 2012 when Dewey & LeBoeuf identified for Thomson Reuters seven key players essential to the firm’s survival.

He may fit the profile of many big law partners who have spent years — even decades — in the same firm and retain a deep loyalty to something that has actually disappeared from their institutions, namely, a true partnership and all that it entails. Perhaps they defer too willingly to others who are supposed to be smarter, more knowledgeable and/or have superior judgment. But when things get rough, they step up and do what they can to salvage the situation.

Undue deference revealed

From that perspective, Landgraf’s interview for The Wall Street Journal on Saturday, May 12, 2012 was revealing. A day earlier, Dewey & LeBoeuf’s resident bankruptcy expert Martin Bienenstock had announced that he was leaving the firm. By the time the interview appeared, he was already on Proskauer Rose’s attorney roster.

But during The Wall Street Journal interviewLandgraf — who was then the only remaining member of the original Gang of Four comprising the office of the chairman — let his former partner do all of the talking for a firm that was no longer Bienenstock’s. In printed form, the interview transcript fills seven pages. Landgraf’s words barely consume a half-page.

Bienenstock credited Landgraf and Kessler for the plan that committed future partner earnings to pay guaranteed partner IOUs from prior years. Landgraf said that the lateral contracts were “something we’re looking at. Whether all the contracts were the subject of full discussion or simply known as a technique that was used…is still being reviewed.”

His next line suggested that others at the firm may have been a bit too persuasive in selling him a bad idea: “But the technique of using guarantees of all forms, especially in the recruitment of laterals and retention of key business users, is pretty widespread throughout the industry.”

For limited periods involving laterals? Maybe. For four- or six-year deals involving legacy partners? I don’t think so. For 100 members of a 300-partner firm? Not for something that should call itself a partnership.

Two days after that interview appeared, Landgraf was gone, too. As hundreds of remaining Dewey & LeBoeuf lawyers and staff around the world wondered what might come next, one gets the sense that he was trying to be a good partner to the end.

I don’t know if a final caution applies to Landgraf, but it’s an appropriate note on which to conclude this series: a team player serves neither himself nor his institution when he defers to others as they move the team in the wrong direction. It’s time to empower dissenting voices with Aric Press’s “Partner Protection Plan.”

DEWEY’S RICHARD SHUTRAN — RUNNING THE NUMBERS

This is the fourth of a five-part series profiling Dewey & LeBoeuf’s former leaders. Richard Shutran (Trinity College, B.A., 1974; New York University, J.D., 1978) joined Dewey Ballantine in 1986 and rose to co-chair of the firm’s Corporate Department and Chairman of its Global Finance Practice Group. He left his position on Dewey’s Executive Committee in 2010, but in 2012 became a member of the four-man office of the chairman tasked to save the firm.

The Dewey & LeBoeuf website described Shutran’s transactional practice as “counseling…with respect to leveraged finance and project finance matters, mergers and acquisitions, and restructurings and reorganizations….” That makes him a numbers guy, someone especially well-suited to the challenges facing his firm when it asked him to return to leadership as one of the Gang of Four.

The 2010 bond issuance

Dewey’s 2010 private placement memorandum included Shutran’s biography in its “Senior Management” section. At the time, Bloomberg news reported on the $125 million bond offering for which Shutran said that the bonds’ interest rates were more favorable than the firm’s bank loans. That was true.

As partners were checking out two years later, the Daily Journal reported that Dewey was renegotiating those bank loans: “Richard Shutran, co-chair of Dewey’s corporate department, described the negotiations as standard.” At that point, perhaps they were.

Another “bond” issuance

Meanwhile, the firm was pursuing what fellow Gang of Four member Martin Bienenstock described as “a plan to deal with the shortage of payments to some partners.” In particular, those with guaranteed compensation deals had taken IOUs during earlier years when profits had fallen short of targets. The “plan” was to dedicate six percent of the firm’s income for six or seven years to pay them off, starting in 2014.

In addition to ongoing bank debt, the first wave of 2010 bond payments came due in 2013 and would continue through 2023. Now another debt repayment plan — to a special class of so-called partners — would take another chunk of future partnership earnings from 2014 to 2020.

Funny numbers

At about the same time, Shutran moved to the center of another controversy – also not of his making – relating to his firm’s financial health. He assured a Bloomberg reporter that the departure of Dewey’s elite insurance group “had no impact on our firm’s profitability. That group was break-even at best.” But he also said the firm had earned about $250 million in profits for 2011. The American Lawyer didn’t think that number jibed with what Dewey had provided for the magazine’s annual rankings.

On March 21, 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported The American Lawyer’s retroactive revisions to Dewey & LeBeouf revenue and profits numbers for 2010 and 2011 — by a lot. For example, Dewey’s 2011 average partner profits dropped from $1.8 million to $1.04 million. Shutran suggested methodological differences were to blame:

“‘They’re just not comparable numbers,’ Mr. Shutran said. ‘That’s something people like to pick on.’ Robin Sparkman, the editor-in-chief of the American Lawyer, said Dewey & LeBoeuf’s numbers were given to them by the firm’s management.”

About that bank loan

On April 11, 2012, Dewey identified seven key players essential to the firm’s survival. Shutran wasn’t among them, but he responded to questions about whether the wave of partner defections had triggered bank loan covenants: “It has not had any effect under (the) agreements,” he said. There’s no reason to doubt him.

But the real problem by then wasn’t the bank loans. It was the accumulated amounts owed for annual distributions to partners in excess of the firm’s net income. As Bruce MacEwen’s analysis suggests, whether it’s called mortgaging the future or something worse, the result is the same.

Something went terribly awry at Dewey & LeBoeuf, but here’s the scary part: among big law firms, some of the things that created Dewey’s predicament aren’t unique.

DEWEY’S JEFFREY KESSLER: STARS IN THEIR EYES

This is the third in a series profiling Dewey & LeBoeuf’s former leaders. Apparently, Jeffrey Kessler (Columbia University, B.A., 1975; Columbia Law School, J.D., 1977) has become a prisoner of his celebrity clients’ mentality. A prominent sports lawyer, he analogizes big-name attorneys to top athletes: “The value for the stars has gone up, while the value of service partners has gone down.”

Kessler was a long-time partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges before joining Dewey Ballantine in 2003. After the firm’s 2007 merger with LeBoeuf Lamb, he became chairman of the Global Litigation Department, co-chairman of the Sports Litigation Practice Group and a member of the Executive and Leadership Committees. Long before he became a member of the Gang of Four in Dewey & LeBoeuf’s office of the chairman, he was a powerhouse in the firm.

Blinded by their own light

Some attorneys have difficulty resisting the urge to absorb the ambitions and ethos of their clients. Many corporate transactional attorneys have long been investment banker and venture capital wannabees, at least when it comes to the money they’d like to make.

Of course, not all corporate practitioners are myopic thinkers. Kessler proves that narrow vision isn’t limited to transactional attorneys. But the rise of such attitudes to the top of many large law firms has occurred simultaneously with the profession’s devolution to models aimed at maximizing short-term profits and growth.

Kessler was a vocal proponent of the Dewey & LeBoeuf star system that produced staggering spreads between people like him — reportedly earning $5.5 million a year — and the service partners, some of whom made about five percent of that. It was the “barbell” system: top partners on one side; everybody else on the other.

In such a regime, there’s no shared sacrifice. What kind of partnership issues IOUs to star partners when the firm doesn’t make its target profits? Something that isn’t a partnership at all.

Lost in their own press releases

Kessler regularly finds himself in the presence of celebrity athletes. That can be a challenging environment. But once you start believing your own press releases, the result can be the plan that he and fellow Dewey & LeBoeuf partner Charles Landgraf “spearheaded” (according to fellow Gang of Four member Martin Bienenstock).

To deal with outstanding IOUs to Dewey partners whose guaranteed compensation couldn’t be paid when the firm underperformed for the year, Kessler helped to mortgage its future: for “a six- or seven-year period, starting in 2014, [a]bout six percent of the firm’s income would be put away to pay for this….”

It’s a remarkable notion. Partners didn’t get all of their previously guaranteed earnings because the firm didn’t do well enough to pay it. But rather than rethink the entire house of cards, it morphed into a scheme whereby future partnership earnings — for six or seven years — would satisfy the shortfall. Never mind that there was no way to know who would be among the firm’s partners in those future years. The money had to be promised away because the stars had to be paid.

Sense of entitlement

Kessler gives voice to the pervasive big law firm attitude that without stars there is no firm. It’s certainly true that every firm has to attract business and that some lawyers are more adept at that task than others. But Kessler’s approach produced yawning income gaps at Dewey. Similar attitudes have contributed to exploding inequality afflicting many equity partnerships. For insight into the resulting destabilization, read the recent article by Edwin Reeser and Patrick McKenna. “Spread Too Thin.”

But does Kessler really think that he and a handful of his fellow former Dewey partners are the first-ever generation of attorney stars? Twenty-five years ago when average partner profits for the Am Law 100 were $325,000 a year, did his mentors at Weil Gotshal earn twenty times more than some of their partners — or anything close in absolute dollars to what Kessler thinks he’s worth today? Does he believe that there are no stars at firms such as Skadden Arps, Simpson Thacher or other firms that have retained top-to-bottom spreads of 5-to-1 or less?

Beyond his prominence in the profession, Kessler is shaping tomorrow’s legal minds as a Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia. For anyone who cares about the future, that’s worth pondering.

DEWEY’S MARTIN BIENENSTOCK: PARTNERSHIP, PROFESSIONALISM AND WHAT TO TELL THE KIDS

This is the second in a series profiling Dewey & LeBoeuf’s former leaders. Martin Bienenstock (University of Pennsylvania, B.S., Wharton School, 1974; University of Michigan, J.D., 1977) was heralded as “one of the most innovative, creative restructuring attorneys in the country” when the Dewey & LeBoeuf spin machine put him at the center of an April 21, 2012 article in The New York TimesHe seemed to be the perfect candidate to save his firm.

One item that probably impressed NY Times’ readers was his presence on the Harvard Law School faculty. That credential showed up on the firm’s Private Placement Memorandum for its 2010 bond offering, too. According to the school’s website, he taught the Corporate Reorganization course during the spring term 2012.
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Apart from imparting substantive knowledge, he — like any educator — is also a role model for students. In that respect, what have future attorneys been learning from Bienenstock?

What does partnership mean?

Every law student learns the basic concepts: partners owe each other fiduciary duties; they share risk, gains and losses; they’re accountable to all other partners. But theoretical partnership principles played out much differently in Bienenstock’s firm after he joined Dewey & LeBoeuf and its Executive Committee in November 2007.

–  Multi-year compensation guarantees went to some partners, including Bienenstock, but their pay didn’t depend on performance. Some partners say they were unaware of the scope and magnitude of such deals until an October 2011 partner meeting.

–  Partner income spreads reportedly grew to more than twenty-to-one. In “Spread Too Thin,” Patrick McKenna and Edwin Reeser describe the destabilizing effects of that ubiquitous big law trend.

–  A 2010 bond issuance obligated future partners to payments of at least $125 million, starting in 2013 and continuing to 2023.

–  Top partners, including Bienenstock, thought they were making great sacrifices when the firm missed its income targets in 2011: they “capped” themselves at $2.5 million and took firm IOU’s to make up annual shortfalls from their guaranteed amounts. Continuing strategies that mortgaged the future, Dewey & LeBoeuf planned to dedicate six percent of its income from 2014 to 2020 to repay those IOUs.

–  Questions have surfaced about the accuracy and sufficiency of the firm’s financial disclosures to fellow partners and third parties.

What does professionalism mean?

After Steven H. Davis left his management position, the Dewey & LeBoeuf spin machine put Bienenstock center stage as the go-to person who could work a miracle. Maybe it would be a “prepack” – a prepackaged bankruptcy that would allow the firm to shed some debts and become more attractive to a merger partner.

Maybe it would be a traditional merger.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

One thing Bienenstock made clear throughout: “There are no plans to file bankruptcy. And anyone who says differently doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Ten days later, he and members of his bankruptcy group were on their way to Proskauer Rose.

Parsing Bienenstock’s statement about a bankruptcy filing is akin to dissecting President Clinton’s response to questions about his sexual encounters with a White House intern: “It depends on what the meaning of is, is.”

What does leadership mean?

Did Beinenstock have an actual plan for the firm’s survival or did chaos better serve the economic interests of a few top partners? Was he personally committed for the long haul or arranging his own exit? Was anyone really in charge?

Those questions went unanswered as speculation and uncertainty swamped the firm: One-third of the firm’s partners gone by the end of April? A memo invites others to build their own lifeboats, but attorneys and staff should keep working diligently for clients? Use personal credit cards for client copying charges? No mailroom? No IT? Why do senior partners keep asking for empty packing boxes?

Leadership is needed most in times of crisis. As Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Office of the Chairman went from four to three to two to one to none, leadership was nowhere to be found.

Accepting responsibility

When asked who or what was to blame for Dewey’s demise, Bienenstock demurred: “[N]o one saw the new world coming.”

Except plenty of other people did.

Were any of the summer or permanent associates whom Dewey stiffed Bienenstock’s former students at Harvard? If so, their real life experiences of the past three months taught them more about partnership, professionalism and leadership in some big firms than Bienenstock or anyone else could have communicated in years of classes. The question now is whether Bienenstock will be on Harvard’s faculty list next year.

DEWEY’S MORTON PIERCE: ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY

This is the first in a series profiling Dewey & LeBoeuf’s former leaders. Morton Pierce (Yale University, B.A., 1970; University of Pennsylvania, J.D., 1974) is an appropriate place to begin because on May 3, 2012, he told The Wall Street Journal that he hadn’t been actively involved in Dewey’s management for years and had stepped down from the firm’s Executive Committee in 2010.

Pierce is widely acclaimed as one of the country’s top mergers and acquisitions attorneys. He was chairman of Dewey Ballantine when its attempt to merge with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe failed in 2007.

A partnership within a partnership

Pierce was a principal architect of Dewey Ballantine’s merger with LeBoeuf Lamb. Based on Bruce MacEwen’s analysis of the financial data, Dewey got the better end of that deal. As for Pierce himself, The Wall Street Journal reports that he “had negotiated a pay package that guaranteed him $6 million a year for six years, according to a person with direct knowledge of the arrangement.” The subject of my next post, Martin Bienenstock, said that there were many such deals to lock up talent for at least four years after the merger.

Early in 2010 — the year Pierce says he left the firm’s Executive Committee — Dewey mortgaged its future with a $125 million bond offering (repayment due from 2013 to 2023). In 2011, the sixty-two-year-old Pierce negotiated a new deal for himself. The Journal continues: “[H]e secured a new, eight-year contract that would pay him $8 million for several years and wind down to $6 million in later years, that person said.”

Dewey’s next gambit: IOUs to the oxymoronic group — guaranteed compensation partners — when the firm didn’t earn enough current income to pay them in full. Committing future profits to make up for prior periods of missed earnings is, at best, a dubious strategy. At worst, it transforms a partnership into something that looks like a Ponzi scheme. It’s difficult to envision an attorney recommending the idea to a client.

A firm leader?

Pierce’s effort to distance himself from management is interesting. He’s featured prominently as part of the firm’s “Executive Office” in the 2010 Private Placement Memorandum for its bonds. Two years later, an April 11 2012 article identified Pierce as “one of seven key lawyers” who determined Dewey’s fate.

Until the day he left in May 2012, the firm’s website still introduced his biographical page as follows:  “Morton Pierce is a Vice Chair of Dewey & LeBoeuf and co-chair of the Mergers and Acquisitions Practice Group. He is also a member of the firm’s global Executive Committee.”

Not my job

From a self-proclaimed distance, Pierce described Dewey’s leaders in the third person. When asked about an April 2012 meeting at which senior partners supposedly recommitted themselves to the firm and its survival, Pierce’s only comment was: “There was a meeting and I was there.”

Three weeks later, he told the Journal, “I think the executive committee did the best job that they could under the circumstances.” That article continued, “Mr. Pierce didn’t assign blame for the firm’s current situation.”

Pierce told the NY Times, “I am sorry about what happened”  – as if some external event or rogue actor was responsible.

The nature of leadership

Even so, Pierce kept his sense of gallows humor while packing up for White & Case. Describing how he’d like to merge all of the wonderful firms that had expressed interest in taking him as Dewey imploded, he told The Wall Street Journal on May 3: “Although looking at the Dewey & LeBoeuf merger, maybe mergers aren’t such a good idea.”

I suspect that most of the 2,000 Dewey lawyers and staffers who once worked at the firm don’t think Pierce has much of a future in comedy. He didn’t mention his other non-joke: that his resignation letter reportedly claimed that the firm owed him $61 million.

If the Dewey spin machine and website description were accurate, Pierce remained at the center of power until the moment he resigned from the firm. If, as he claims, he wasn’t involved in management after 2010, that’s worse. The notion that someone of Pierce’s professional stature would remain on the sidelines as his firm pursued misguided strategies and then would watch it spin into oblivion is stunning.

Senior partners in big firms often complain about young lawyers’ unwillingness to take responsibility for mistakes and their consequences. Perhaps some of the profession’s so-called leaders could set a better example.

DEWEY: PROFILES IN SOMETHING

Some key players in the Dewey & LeBoeuf debacle are also among the profession’s leaders; that makes them role models. Some teach at law schools; that means they’re shaping tomorrow’s attorneys, too. But how do they look and sound without the Dewey spin machine?

Some readers might worry that spotlighting them erodes civility. But civility goes to the nature of discourse; it can never mean turning a blind eye to terrible things that a few powerful people do to innocent victims. Sadly, the personalities and trends that unraveled Dewey aren’t unique to it.

As to former chairman Steven H. Davis, David Lat’s analysis at Above the Law and Peter Lattman’s report at the NY Times  are sufficient; there’s no reason to pile on. Rather, I’ll look at the “Gang of Four” plus one: the men comprising the four-man office of the chairman who replaced Davis as the firm came unglued, and Morton Pierce. Here’s a preview.

Morton Pierce was chairman of Dewey Ballantine when merger discussions with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe failed and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & McRae entered the picture. After spearheading the deal with Davis, Pierce locked in a multi-year $6 million annual contract that he reportedly enhanced in the fall of 2011. In his May 3 resignation later, he reportedly claimed that the firm owed him $61 million.

As he spoke with The Wall Street Journal while packing boxes for White & Case, Pierce said that he hadn’t been actively involved in firm management since 2010. But the Dewey & LeBoeuf website said otherwise: “Morton Pierce is a Vice Chair of Dewey & LeBoeuf and co-chair of the Mergers and Acquisitions Practice Group. He is also a member of the firm’s global Executive Committee.” [UPDATE: Two days after this May 15 post, Pierce's page on the Dewey & LeBoeuf website finally disappeared. Such are the perils of losing an IT department too early in the unraveling process.] My post on Pierce will be titled “Accepting Responsibility.”

Martin Bienenstock, one of the Gang of Four, was an early big name hire for the newly formed Dewey & LeBoeuf. In November 2007, he left Weil, Gotshal & Manges after 30 years there. He got a guaranteed compensation deal and sat on the Executive Committee as his new firm careened toward disaster. As Dewey & LeBoeuf’s end neared, he maintained a consistent position throughout: “There are no plans to file bankruptcy. And anyone who says differently doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

No one asked if he had a realistic plan for the firm’s survival. Ten days later, he and members of his bankruptcy group were on the way to Proskauer Rose. The title of my upcoming post on Pierce could work for Bienenstock, too. But because he teaches at Harvard Law School, I’m going to call it “Partnership, Professionalism, and What To Tell the Kids.”

Jeffrey Kessler, another of the Gang of Four, was also a lateral hire from Weil, Gotshal & Manges. He joined Dewey Ballantine in 2003. As a member of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Executive Committee, he became a vocal proponent of the firm’s star system that gave top producers multi-year, multimillion-dollar contracts — one of which was his.

A sports law expert, Kessler analogized big-name attorneys to top athletes: “The value for the stars has gone up, while the value of service partners has gone down.” The title of my post on Kessler will be “Stars In Their Eyes.”

Richard Shutran, the third of the Gang of Four, was a Dewey Ballantine partner before the 2007 merger. He became co-chair of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Corporate Department and Chairman of its Global Finance Practice Group. At the time of the firm’s $125 million bond offering in 2010, he told Bloomberg News that the bonds’ interest rates were more favorable than those from the firm’s bank. In March 2012, he said Dewey was in routine negotiations with lenders over its credit line. He also dismissed The American Lawyer’s retroactive revision of Dewey’s 2010 and 2011 financial performance numbers as much ado about nothing. My post on Shutran will be “Running the Numbers.”

L. Charles Landgraf, the last of the four, began his career at LeBoeuf Lamb 34 years ago. I don’t know him (or any of  the others), but my hunch is that Charley (as people call him) is a decent guy. My post on him will be called “The Plight of the Loyal Company Man.”

In future installments, we’ll take a closer look at each of them. Sometimes it won’t be pretty, but neither is what some of them personify about the profession’s evolution.

SPINNING DEWEY’S HEROES

Dewey & LeBoeuf’s latest designated savior is Martin J. Bienenstock. The NY Times says that he faces “perhaps the most challenging assignment of his career: the restructuring of his own law firm.”

According to the Times, his challenges include bank negotiations to restructure Dewey’s outstanding loans, consideration of reorganization options, and avoiding liquidation. Given the complex array of fiduciary duties accompanying such a job description — as a partner to his fellow partners while also acting as counsel to the partnership as a whole without favoring any individual partner or group of partners — it’s a daunting task.

Last month’s star was Steven H. Davis, whose assurances during an interview for Fortune magazine produced an article titled “Dewey & LeBoeuf: Partner exodus is no big deal.” Right — Dewey started the year with 300 partners; 30 were gone by the time of Davis’s interview; 40 more have left since then. Among his least prescient remarks: “If the direction we’re taking the firm in was somehow disapproved of, then the reality is that there ought to be a change in management. But I don’t sense that.”

The more things change…

Less than a week later, a five-man executive committee replaced Davis. One member of the new “office of the chairman” is Bienenstock. It’s ironic because he exemplifies Dewey’s business strategies that may have worked well in his case, but less so in others’, namely, lateral hiring and compensation guarantees. Prior to joining Dewey & Leboeuf in November 2007 (a month after the merger creating it), he’d spent 30 years at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. While he sat on Dewey’s management committee that Davis chaired, his new firm became one of the top-10 in 2011 lateral partner hiring.

According to The Lawyer, Bienenstock was reportedly among those who recently agreed to cap personal earnings at $2.5 million. That’s a start, but the article also said that some partners’ deferred income took the form of promissory notes due in 2014. It’s interesting that a firm already on a $125 million hook for something that law firms rarely do — offering bonds that begin to come due in April 2013 — would add even more short-term debt to its balance sheet. Add it to the list of unexpected complications that accompany partnership compensation guarantees.

The real Dewey heroes

This rotating focus on a handful of lawyers at the top obfuscates the importance of everyone else. Rainmakers come and go — and their seven-figure incomes survive. Bienenstock is an example. So are the many former Dewey management committee members who have already left, including John Altorelli, whose parting words showed little compassion for his former partners, associates, paralegals and staff. Even top partners who managed firms that went bust seem to land on their feet. After Howrey failed, its former vice chairman, Henry Bunsow, got a reported multi-million guaranteed compensation deal at Dewey in January 2011. Welcome to the lateral partner bubble.

Lost in the headlines about the stars are the worker bees with limited options and real fears. An Above the Law post from a seasoned Dewey paralegal captures the angst:

“I know these facts do not necessarily make for sexy headlines but I do ask that you report on the following. While some laugh and play their lyre as the city of Rome burns, it will be well over one thousand staff members who will also be gainfully unemployed.”

Add the nearly one thousand Dewey lawyers who have been watching quietly at the unfolding public relations nightmare since Davis’s bizarre interview. As Dewey’s publicity machine pumps out celebrity saviors of the moment, each has drawn more unwanted attention to the firm’s plight than the last. Martin Bienenstock’s appearance in the Times along with the proffered “pre-packaged bankruptcy” option is the latest example.

If Dewey survives the current crisis, Bienenstock’s suddenly magical touch won’t be the reason. Rather, it will survive because an entire law firm —  partners, associates and staff — kept noses to the grindstone. The real heroes didn’t go looking for more media coverage of a troubled situation.

Perhaps Dewey’s leaders thought that better press could solve the firm’s crisis. But that approach reverses the relationship between public relations and crisis management, which is simple: manage a crisis properly and the resulting story will write itself.

Here’s the obvious corollary: manage the firm properly and there is no crisis to manage.

EXPLAINING ABA INTRANSIGENCE

Who are these people?

Recently, the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar rejected an important recommendation of its Special Standards Review Committee. The proposed rule would have required law school-specific disclosure of salary information. No dice, said the Council.

It raises a question that no one seems willing to ask: Who are these Council people, anyway?

Perhaps the Council’s composition is relevant to understanding why it vetoed its own committee’s effort to promote greater candor. In approving a host of other transparency initiatives that have been far too long in coming, the Council stopped short of requiring what might be the most important disclosure of all:

If a student manages to get a job upon graduation, what are the chances that it will pay well enough to cover educational loans, rent, food, and the bare necessities of life?

I don’t know how individual members voted, but their affiliations are interesting. The current chair is dean of the New England School of Law, which has a perennial place in the U.S. News & World Report unranked nether regions. (Regular readers know my disdain for the U.S. News rankings that have transformed deans into contortionists as they pander to its flawed methodology. But as an overall indicator of general quality groups rather than specific ordinal placement, they confirm what most people believe to be true anyway.)

Consider the other academics on the Council. The Chair-elect is also a dean — Washington University School of Law (23rd on the U.S. News list). The Council’s Secretary was dean at the University of Montana School of Law (#145 ). Others deans and former deans on the Council hail from Hamline University Law School (unranked), North Carolina Central University School of Law (unranked), University of Kansas School of Law (#89), University of Miami School of Law (#69), Boston University School of Law (#26). Another member is an associate dean —  University of Minnesota Law School (#19). The remaining academic Council members teach at Drexel University (#119) and Georgetown (#13).

Several other Council members who are not full-time professors have teaching affiliations with, for example, Cleveland-Marshall Law School (#135), University of Utah (#47), and Arizona State University (#26, tied with BU and Indiana University).

Each institution has its share of outstanding faculty and graduates; that’s not the point. But if these or most other schools had to disclose their recent graduates’ detailed salary information, would it make any of them look better to prospective students? Not likely.

The “appearance of impropriety” is an important ethical concept in the legal profession. Any dean or former dean on the Council who voted in favor of salary disclosure should say so. Those who don’t should live with the guilt by association that will accompany adverse inferences drawn from their silence.

Here’s the current Chairman’s spin on the situation: “There should be no doubt that the section is fully committed to clarity and accuracy of law school placement data. Current and prospective students will now have more timely access to detailed information that will help them make important decisions.”

Unless, of course, the information that students seek relates to the incomes they’ll earn after forking over $100,000-plus in tuition and incurring debt that they can’t discharge in bankruptcy.

Also from the ABA statement:

“The Council specifically declined to require the collection and publication of salary data because fewer than 45% of law graduates contacted by their law schools report their salaries. The Council felt strongly that the current collection of such data is unreliable and produces distorted information.”

If a forty-five percent response rate is sufficiently low to throw out data as unreliable because it produces distorted information, what does that say about U.S. News‘ survey used to calculate almost one-seventh of every law school’s 2013 ranking? The response rate for its “assessment by lawyers/judges” component was twelve percent.

I know, I know: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (Emerson, R.W.,”Self-Reliance,” First Essays, 1841)

THE ULTIMATE LATERAL HIRE

Among 2011′s “Lateral Partner All-Stars,” Tony Angel’s symbolic importance seems unrivaled. As I write, I don’t know who will make The American Lawyer‘s annual February list. But when Angel became DLA Piper’s leader, his new firm became the definitive poster child for big law’s transformation. Celebrate at your peril.

Whither goest thou?

DLA Piper resulted from the combination of several large firms comprised of once-independent enterprises: DLA’s three U.K. components were Dibb Lupton Broomhead, Alsop Stevens, and Wilkinson Kimbers; Piper Rudnick’s predecessors included Baltimore-based Piper & Marbury, Chicago-based Rudnick & Wolfe, and San Diego-based Gray, Cary, Ware & Freidenrich.

According to its website, DLA Piper grew from 2700 lawyers in January 2005 to 4200 today. The attorneys it added during that period would comprise one of the 20 largest firms in the world — eclipsing Kirkland & Ellis, Weil Gotshal & Manges, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

But is it really a law firm? K&L Gates chairman Peter Kalis makes the telling point that, as a verein, it may be more like a confederation of different firms that share a common name, but not profit pools. Still, adding 1500 attorneys in six years makes any observer wonder about DLA Piper’s global partner conferences. The 2010 meeting took place in Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. There’s a metaphor in there someplace.

Ascertaining shared values and visions

According to Am Law Daily, the whirlwind courtship between Angel and DLA Piper began with a May 2011 breakfast meeting that included Frank Burch and others on the leadership team. The idea of naming him global co-chair gained momentum as Angel lined up partner support from the firm’s 76 offices. On November 7, he got the top spot. How?

“He’s got great values and he believes in what we’re trying to do and he shares our view of what’s going on in the world,” said Burch, who now shares DLA Piper’s global chair with Tony Angel. “So, we didn’t hesitate for a second and worry about the fact that the guy was not in the firm.”

Didn’t hesitate for a second? Didn’t worry about the fact that the guy was not in the firm? Why not? When Burch said that Angel has “great values,” “believes in what we’re trying to do,” and “shares our view,” what did he mean?

DLA Piper’s press release offered a hint:

“Tony will work with the senior leadership on the refinement and execution of DLA Piper’s global strategy with a principal focus on improving financial performance and developing capability in key markets.”

Translation: Get bigger and make surviving equity partners richer.

Consultant Peter Zeughauser said that Angel is a hot property: “It’s hard to get a guy that talented. There just aren’t that many people out there who have done what he has done.”

Zeughauser was referring to Angel’s management of Linklaters from 1998 to 2007. When he left, it had a global presence and average partner profits of $2.4 million. Although DLA Piper’s 2010 average partner profits exceeded $1 million in 2010, Angel’s job is to take them even higher.

Ignored in the financial shorthand are questions no one asks:

– Most big firms prospered wildly during big law’s go-go years. Does the person at the top deserve all the credit? The partners who bring in clients, orchestrate deals, and win trials don’t think so.

– Conversely, according to Am Law‘s Global 100, by 2010 Linklater’s 2010 average profits per partner slipped to $1.8 million. Does anyone think that happened because Angel left three years earlier? Not likely.

– What gets sacrificed in the myopic quest for growth and short-term profits? That’s becoming clearer: things that aren’t easily quantified, including a sense of community and a culture that mentors home-grown talent from which a firm’s future leaders can emerge.

Rather than consider the heresy implicit in such questions, the spin zone focuses on what legal headhunter Jack Zaremski called a “brave move” that “might very well pay off.”

Pay off, indeed. In the latest Am Law Mid-level Associates Survey, DLA Piper ranked 99th out of 126 firms. In reviewing their shared values and vision, did Angel and his new DLA Piper partners discuss the rewards that might come with addressing the firm’s attorney morale problems?

Probably not. After all, Linklaters ranked 108th.

UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

Today’s “Unfortunate Comment Award” winner is ABA President William (“Bill”) Robinson III, who thinks he has found those responsible for the glut of unemployed, debt-ridden young lawyers: the lawyers themselves.

“It’s inconceivable to me that someone with a college education, or a graduate-level education, would not know before deciding to go to law school that the economy has declined over the last several years and that the job market out there is not as opportune as it might have been five, six, seven, eight years ago,” he told Reuters during a January 4 interview.

Which year we talkin’ ’bout, Willis?

Recent graduates made the decision to attend law school in the mid-2000s, when the economy was booming. Even most students now in their third year decided to apply by spring 2008 — before the crash — when they registered for the LSAT. Some of those current 3-Ls were undergraduates in the first-ever offering of a course on the legal profession that I still teach at Northwestern. What were they thinking? I’ll tell you.

I’ve written that colleges and law schools still make little effort to bridge a pervasive expectations-reality gap. Anyone investigating law schools in early 2008 saw slick promotional materials that reinforced the pervasive media image of a glamorous legal career.

Jobs? No problem. Prospective students read that for all recent graduates of all law schools, the overall average employment rate was 93 percent. They had no reason to assume that schools self-reported misleading statistics to the ABA, NALP, and the all-powerful U.S. News ranking machine.

But unlike most of their law school-bound peers, my students scrutinized the flawed U.S. News approach. Among other things, they discovered that employment rates based on the ABA’s annual law school questionnaire were cruel jokes. That questionnaire allowed deans to report graduates as employed, even if they were flipping burgers or working for faculty members as temporary research assistants.

Law school websites followed that lead because the U.S. News rankings methodology penalized greater transparency and candor. In his Reuters interview, Robinson suggested that problematic employment statistics afflicted “no more than four” out of 200 accredited institutions, but he’s just plain wrong. Like their prospective students, most deans still obsess over U.S. News rankings as essential elements of their business models.

The beat goes on

With the ABA’s assistance, such law school deception continues today. Only last month — December 2011 — did the Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar finally approve changes in collecting and publishing law graduate placement data: Full- or part-time jobs? Bar passage required? Law school-funded? Some might consider that information relevant to a prospective law student trying to make an informed decision. Until this year, the ABA didn’t. The U.S. News rankings guru, Robert Morse, deferred to the ABA.

The ABA is accelerating the new reporting process so that “the placement data for the class of 2011 will be published during the summer of 2012, not the summer of 2013.” That’s right, even now, a pre-law student looking at ABA-sanctioned employment information won’t find the whole ugly truth. (Notable exceptions include the University of Chicago and Yale.) Consequently, any law school still looks like a decent investment of time and money, but as Professor William Henderson and Rachel Zahorsky note in the January 2012 issue of the ABA Journal, it often isn’t.

Students haven’t been blind to the economy. But bragging about 90+ percent employment rates didn’t (and doesn’t) deter prospective lawyers. Quite the contrary. Law school has long been the last bastion of the liberal arts major who can’t decide what’s next. The promise of a near-certain job in tough times makes that default solution more appealing.

Even the relatively few undergraduates (including the undergraduates in my class) paying close attention to big firm layoffs in 2009 were hopeful. They thought that by the time they came out of law school, the economy and the market for attorneys would improve. So did many smart, informed people. Youthful optimism isn’t a sin.

Which takes me to ABA President Robinson’s most telling comment in the Reuters interview: “We’re not talking about kids who are making these decisions.”

Perhaps we’re not talking about his 20-something offspring, but they’re somebody’s kids. The ABA and most law school deans owed them a better shake than they’ve received.

It’s ironic and unfortunate: one of the most visible spokesmen in a noble profession blames the victims.

TROUBLE IN TEXAS

Last month, University of Texas President Bill Powers asked his law school dean, Larry Sager, to resign early — months ahead of his originally planned departure at the end of the academic year. According to the Texas Tribune, Sager’s relationship with the faculty “had become so strained that he was no longer able to serve effectively.” One source of discord was faculty compensation.

The story became more interesting with news that the law school’s foundation – a private non-profit group run by alums and distinguished attorneys — had given Sager a $500,000 “forgivable loan” in 2009. It got juicier when Powers said, “I don’t remember ever being told about the loan to Dean Sager, and that’s the sort of thing I would remember.”

He said — he said

Sager counters with his “clear memory” that Powers knew about the loan, but then distances himself from the foundation’s action: “Whatever else is true about the loan, the decision was made by the president of the foundation, the executive committee of the foundation and the trustees of the foundation as a whole. I would not and could not have dictated this outcome.”

So who determines compensation at the University of Texas School of Law?

The Texas Tribune notes that one of the foundation’s top donor-trustees, Steve Susman (an outstanding attorney) explained the foundation’s laudable purpose:

“If the law school is going to remain just a state law school supported by state money, I think it’s going to drop to being a very mediocre law school. The reason this law school has always been a great law school is because it has always gone to its alumni and said, ‘We need you in it.’”

But that defense is irrelevant to the current controversy. Many colleges and universities have alumni organizations that raise money. Sometimes they solicit for particular causes or programs. No problem. But the UT foundation’s funds apparently became part of a dean’s compensation package and the university’s president claims not to know how or why.

Who’s in charge?

In a lengthy letter to the faculty (downloadable at the Texas Tribune article link), Sager explains that, after becoming dean in 2006, he tried to raise UT’s stature by luring talent from other schools while resisting raids on UT’s. Without naming the foundation, he says that “loan arrangements have come from monies that have been raised and expressly endowed for academic excellence.” He also notes that he “raised the bulk of these funds – which total more than $10 million — for exactly the purpose of recruiting and retaining faculty.”

From there, things get curioser and curioser. Sager’s letter describes university-wide austerity budgets that constrained law school salaries. Meanwhile, according to the school’s response to an Open Records Request, the $500,000 Sager received in May 2009 was by far the biggest of 22 loans made between May 15, 2006 and September 15, 2011. His letter doesn’t mention it.

President Powers says he didn’t know anything about Sager’s loan. Sager says that Powers knew and the loan was recognition for a job well-done, but his reward was a “foundation decision.”

It’s a Texas-sized mess. From the Texas Tribune:

“The day after Sager’s resignation, UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa issued a statement calling for a review of how funds flow to the Law School from the Foundation, how these decisions are made,’ in order to ‘enhance processes, procedures and controls for those transactions in the future.’ Cigarroa said the review’s findings would help establish ‘clear and transparent guidelines’ for all UT institutions and affiliated foundations.”

Before rejoicing at this hint of leadership from above, read on:

“A spokesman for the UT System said that while the chancellor has no direct authority over faculty compensation at the law school, he wants to make sure everything is being done in an appropriate fashion.” Atop the UT System sits a Board of Regents, which the governor appoints and the state senate confirms.

All of this leads to two questions: First, who decides whether things are “being done in an appropriate fashion” and, second, who’s responsible for changing things that aren’t?

After Penn State, university trustees and regents everywhere should be pondering those questions. The answers are important — and they’re in the mirror.

THE ARROGANCE OF OVERCONFIDENCE

Most of us hate admitting our mistakes, especially errors in judgment. Lawyers make lots of judgments, which is why they should pay special attention to two recent and seemingly unrelated NY Times articles.

In the October 23 NYT Magazine, psychologist and economics Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes an early encounter with his own character flaw that led him to research its universality. Assigned to observe a team-buidling exercise, he was so sure of his predictions about the participants’ future prospects that he disregarded incontrovertible data proving him wrong — again, and again, and again.

In subsequent experiments, he discovered that he wasn’t alone. A similar arrogance of overconfidence explains why, for example, individual investors insist on picking their own stocks year after year, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence that their portfolios are worse for it.

In the same Sunday edition of the Times, philosopher Robert P. Crease discusses the two different measurement systems. One relates to traditional notions: how much something weighs or how far a person runs. Representatives from 55 nations met recently to finalize state-of-the-art definitions for basic units of such measurements — the meter, the second, the kilogram, and so forth.

The second system is less susceptible to quantification. Crease notes: “Aristotle…called the truly moral person a ‘measure,’ because our encounters with such a person show us our shortcomings.” Ignoring this second type in favor of numerical assessments gets us into trouble, individually and as a society. Examples include equating intelligence to a single number, such as I.Q. or brain size, or evaluating students (and their teachers) solely by reference to standardized test scores.

Lessons for lawyers — and everyone else

Now consider the intersection of these two phenomena — the arrogance of overconfidence and the reliance on numbers alone to measure value. For example, in recent years, a single metric — partner profits — has come to dominate every internal law firm conversation about attorney worth. Billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios have become the criteria by which most big law leaders judge themselves, fellow partners, their associates, and competitors. They teach to the same test — the one that produces annual Am Law rankings.

The arrogance of overconfidence exacerbates these tendencies. It’s one thing to press onward, as Kahneman concludes most of us do, in the face data proving that we’re moving in the wrong direction. Imagine how bad things can get when a measurement technique appears to validate what are really errors.

I’m not an anarchist. (I offer my advanced degree in economics as modest support.) But the relatively recent notion that there is only one set of law firm measures for defining success — revenues, short-term profits, leverage — has become a plague on our profession. Of course, we’re not alone. According to the Times, during the academic year 2005-2006, one-quarter of the advanced degrees awarded in the United States were MBAs. Business school-type metrics are ubiquitous and, regrettably, often viewed as outcome determinative.

But lawyers know better than to get lost in them, or once upon a time they did. The metrics that most big firm leaders now worship were irrelevant to them as students two or three decades ago. Like today’s undergraduates, they were pursuing a noble calling. Few went to law school seeking a job where their principal missions would be maximizing client billings and this year’s partner profits.

Will the profession’s leaders in the next generation make room for the other kind of measure — the one Aristotle had in mind — that informs the quality of a person’s life, not merely it’s quantitative output? Might they consider the possibility that focusing on short-term metrics imposes long-run costs that aren’t easily measured numerically but are far more profound?

Reviewing the damage that their predecessors’ failures in that regard have inflicted — as measured imprecisely by unsettling levels of career dissatisfaction, substance abuse, depression, and worse — should motivate them to try.

Meanwhile, they’ll have to contend with wealthy senior partners telling them to keep their hours up — a directive that those partners themselves never heard. Good luck to all of us.

LAW SCHOOL NON-LEADERSHIP

Disenchanted alumni have filed two more class actions against their law schools. In addition to Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Thomas M. Cooley Law School and New York Law School are now defending their former students’ fraud claims. NYLS said the claims were without merit and would defend against them in court. Cooley, the largest law school in the country, is pursuing a more aggressive strategy that earns it this closer look.

Cooley was founded in 1972 by now-retired Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas E. Brennan. In 1996, dissatisfied with the subjectivity of U.S. News rankings methodology that, coincidentally, placed Cooley in its unranked lower tiers, Brennan began publishing his own recompilation of the ABA’s data. The latest edition appears on the school’s website. In it, Cooley’s overall ranking is #2. Harvard is #1; Yale is #10; Stanford is #30; and the University of Chicago is #41. (Exploring the different subjective judgments that underlie Brennan’s alternative system must await another day.)

Cooley’s 2010 graduate employment rate was 78.8% – 181st out of 193 accredited law schools on Justice Brennan’s latest list. The question that has morphed into litigation is what that rate means.

Kurzon Strauss LLP represents the plaintiffs in both of the latest suits. According to the Wall Street JournalCooley recently sued that firm “for propagating purportedly defamatory ads on the websites Cragislist and Facebook about the school. The postings were part of the law firm’s investigation into how law schools report employment statistics, according to firm partner Jesse Strauss.” Cooley also filed a separate defamation suit against four anonymous bloggers.

But escalation can amplify unwanted publicity; publicity creates the potential for visible missteps. Based on the Journal‘s report, I think Cooley made one:

“Jim Thelen, Cooley’s general counsel, said that if any of the plaintiffs or their attorneys has issue with how law schools report employment numbers, then they ought to take it up with the American Bar Association, which helps set criteria for collecting data, or even the Department of Education — but not with individual law schools. ‘These are nothing other than attempts to bring public attention to this issue,’ Mr. Thelen said.”

Actually, this is a double misstep, proving that sometimes the best comment is none at all. First, using the answers that Cooley and every other school provide to the ABA’s annual law school questionnaire may be today’s catchy sound bite, but it’s tomorrow’s dubious long-term strategy. The ABA doesn’t cash students’ tuition checks; their law schools do. Telling the world that unemployed graduates should take their concerns about the quality of post-graduation employment data elsewhere should send an unsettling message to any pre-law student who is listening.

Second, many litigants seek publicity; calling them out isn’t a defense — or particularly attractive. Attorneys tend to forget that lay audiences quickly develop a “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” reaction to lawyers’ public relations efforts. In fact, a non-lawyer who hears Thelen’s remarks could well wonder, “Well, why are they trying to bring public attention to the issue? Is there a problem?”

The underlying concern — assessing the quality of graduate employment rate data  – isn’t unique to Cooley. Deans who understand the serious flaws in the ABA-required reporting methodology should have exposed them long ago, just as the NY Times finally did earlier this year. That most awaited the ABA’s recent directive on this topic evidences a pervasive failure of leadership. The ABA’s annual questionnaire has never prevented any school from doing more to inform prospective students, such as telling them who among their reportedly employed graduates have full-time jobs or positions requiring a legal degree.

Then again, lawyers and former judges run law schools. Sure, disgruntled students who incur enormous educational debt to get their degrees may claim to have been misled. But the defenses will always be many and the odds against certifying consumer fraud claims will forever be daunting. Beat the class and the case usually goes away.

On the other hand, if Dr. King was right that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” some law schools may discover that their public comments ring hollow and their short-term victories are pyrrhic.

A NEW METRIC: THE MISERY INDEX

Let’s call it what it is.

Large law firms and their management consultants have redefined a word — productivity — to contradict its true meaning. Recent reports from Hildebrandt and Citi measure it as everyone does: average billable hours per attorney.

No one questions this perversion because the prevailing business model’s primary goal is maximizing partner profits. Billables times hourly rates produce gross revenues. More is better and the misnomer — productivity — persists.

The Business Dictionary defines productivity as the “relative measure of the efficiency of a person [or] system…in converting inputs into useful outputs.” But the relevant output for an attorney shouldn’t be total hours spent on tasks; it’s useful work product that meets client needs. Total elapsed time without regard to the quality of the result reveals nothing about a worker’s value. More hours often mean the opposite of true productivity.

Common sense says that effort on the fourteenth hour of a day can’t be as valuable as that exerted during hour six. Fatigue compromises effectiveness. That’s why the Department of Transportation imposes rest periods after interstate truckers’ prolonged stints behind the wheel. Logically, absurdly high billables should result in compensation penalties, but prevailing big law economics dictate otherwise.

Here’s a partial cure. Rather than mislabel attorney billables as measures of productivity, an index should permit excessive hours to convey their true meaning: attorney misery. The Misery Index would be a natural corollary to NALP’s survey of minimum billable hour requirements. Attorneys now accept as given the 2,000 hour threshold that most firms maintain, even though current big law leaders faced no mandatory minimum levels when they were associates. As Yale Law School describes in a useful memo, 2,000 is a lot. But even if the 2,000-hour bell can’t be unrung, the Misery Index could reveal a firm’s culture.

To construct this metric for a given firm, start with attorneys billing fewer than 2,000 hours annually (including pro bono and genuine firm-related activities such as recruiting, training, mentoring, client development, and management); those lawyers wouldn’t count toward their firm’s Misery Index. However, at each 100-hour increment above 2,000, the percentage of attorneys reaching each higher numerical category would be added. To reflect the increasing lifestyle costs of marginal billables, attorneys with the most hours would count at every 100-hour interval preceding their own. Separate indices should exist for associates (AMI) and partners (PMI).

The Misery Index would reveal distinctions that firmwide averages blur. For example, Firm A has an Associate Misery Index of 125, calculated as follows:

50% of associates bill fewer than 2,000 hours = 0 AMI points

50% > 2,000 = 50  AMI points

40% > 2,100 = 40

25% > 2,200 = 25

10% > 2,300 = 10

None > 2,400

AMI: 125

Firm B’s AMI of 315 describes a much different place:

10% of associates bill fewer than 2,000 hours = 0 AMI points

90% > 2,000 = 90 points

75% > 2,100 = 75

60% > 2,200 = 60

45% > 2,300 = 45

30% > 2,400 = 30

15% > 2,500 = 15

None > 2,600

AMI: 315

A Misery Index would aid decision-making, especially for new graduates. Some would prefer firms with a high one; most wouldn’t. A Misery Index above 300 might prompt questions about the physical health of a firm’s attorneys; a Misery Index of zero — no one working more than 2,000 hours — might prompt questions about the health of the firm itself. Big disparities between partners (PMI) and associates (AMI) would be revealing, too.

Data collection is problematic. NALP won’t ask for the information and most firms won’t supply it — unless clients demand it. (In an earlier article, I explained why they should.) Alternatively, individual attorneys could provide the information anonymously, similar to The American Lawyer’s annual mid-level associate surveys.

Complementing the Misery Index would be firm-specific Attrition Rates by class year from starting associate to first year equity partner. NALP’s last report — before the 2008 financial crisis — showed big law’s five-year associate attrition rates skyrocketing to more than eighty percent, but significant differences existed among firms.

The Misery Index and Attrition Rates would be interesting additions to Am Law‘s “A-List” criteria that many big firms heed. Imagine an equity partner meeting that included this agenda item: “Reducing Our Misery Index and Attrition Rates.” It would certainly be a departure from scenes and themes in my best-selling legal thriller, The Partnership.

Big law is filled with free market disciples who urge better information as a panacea, as well as metrics to communicate it. Here’s their chance.

HOWREY’S LESSONS — PART II

I wasn’t going to write another article about Howrey. But then I read chairman Robert Ruyak’s explanations for his firm’s collapse, together with columnist Peggy Noonan’s review of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s new book. The two men have more in common than the first two letters of their last names. Both are at the center of dramatically unfortunate episodes that occurred on their respective watches. Both look for villains and miss the bigger picture.

Former Reagan speechwriter and conservative columnist Noonan opens her review with this: “I found myself flinging his book against the wall in hopes I would break its stupid little spine…You’d expect [Rumsfeld] to be reflective, to be self-questioning, and questioning of others, and to grapple with the ruin…He heard all the conversations. He was in on the decisions. You’d expect him to explain the overall, overarching strategic thinking that guided them. Since those decisions are in the process of turning out badly,…you’d expect him to critique and correct certain mindsets so that [others] will learn.” He doesn’t.

Those words also describe Ruyak’s unsatisfying explanations for Howrey’s failure:

1.  European offices:

“The real problem we ran into in Europe was conflicts of interest…It’s a different analysis in Europe. But we had to apply the U.S. standards across Europe. That made it difficult to grow because we had to forgo a lot of cases…”

Analysis of potential conflicts issues should have anchored any business plan that began with London (2001) and continued with high-powered lateral acquisitions in Brussels (2002), Amsterdam (2003), Paris (2005), Munich (2007), and Madrid (2008). By July 2008, Howrey was Managing Intellectual Property‘s “Top U.S. Firm in Europe” with more than 100 lawyers there and plans for more.

More importantly, firms survive conflicts-related departures. But here, 26 European lawyers (12 partners, 14 associates) in October 2010 supposedly set off a chain reaction that crushed an otherwise healthy, 550-attorney firm that, only a decade earlier, had no European presence.

2.  Document discovery vendors.

“We created a whole portion of the firm to handle [document discovery] efficiently – using staff attorneys and sometimes temporary people, computer systems and facilities.” Along came some companies that were “offering to do this work less expensively at a lower price.”

But in May 2009, Ruyak had attributed part of Howrey’s Am Law 100-leading revenue surge to avoiding “areas that suffered significant downturns,” singling out for praise the firm’s five-year-old document review and electronic discovery center that added $47 million to the top line. So successful was the Falls Church operation that he was considering a second one on the West Coast. (The American Lawyer, May 2009, p.118)

Yet somehow, 75 staff attorneys and 100 temps accounting for 8% of Howrey’s $570 million gross in 2008 became a key contributor to the firm’s demise two years later.

3.  Contingent and alternative fees

“Unlike corporations that operate on an accrual basis, it’s hard to adjust from a cash base on your business to an accrual base where you are deferring significant amounts of revenue into future time periods. Once you make that adjustment, I think it works. But the adjustment period is difficult.”

In other words, partners couldn’t tolerate the deferred gratification associated with contingency fee matters. But they loved the upside. In 2008, Howrey’s average partner profits jumped almost 30% — to $1.3 million. When PPP dropped to $850,000 in 2009, Ruyak said 2008 had been an aberration resulting from $35 million in contingency receipts. (The American Lawyer, May 2010, p. 101)

Perhaps inadvertently, he revealed the real culprit: a revolution of rising expectations among the already rich. Ruyak put it this way: “Partners at major law firms have very little tolerance for change.”

If he’s referring to firms that have lost cohesion and a shared purpose beyond a myopic focus on current profits exceeding the last year’s, he’s right. But that culture exists for a reason. Aggressive lateral growth produces partners who don’t know each other. Firm allegiances become tenuous; the institutions themselves become fragile.

Ruyak’s self-serving explanations avoid accepting personal responsibility, but that’s not their greatest fault. The bigger problem is that other law firm leaders will find false comfort in his litany; it encourages the view that Howrey’s challenges were unique. As I said before, they weren’t.

HOWREY’S LESSONS

If Howrey LLP disappears, most big law leaders will make distinctions; they’ll focus on how their organizations are different from Howrey’s. More interesting are the similarities, especially the universal forces that might render others vulnerable to the highly respected firm’s current plight.

First is the speed with events can overtake seemingly secure institutions — and I’m not referring to the fall of Mubarak in Egypt. On May 19, 2008, the Legal Times hailed Howrey LLP’s chairman Robert Ruyak as one of the profession’s “Visionaries.” He deserved it. During the prior 30 years, his distinguished career enhanced Howrey’s reputation and the business of law in DC. But on February 1, 2011, he and Winston & Strawn’s managing partner Thomas Fitzgerald together urged Howrey partners to act quickly on Winston’s offers to hire about three-quarters of them. The big law world can rapidly take a dramatic and unexpected turn.

Second is the way unprecedented demand for big law services combined with the prevailing business model to create enormous financial paydays that became even larger as firms grew. When Ruyak became chairman in January 2000, Howrey ranked near the middle of the Am Law 100 in average profits per equity partner (PEP — $575,000). It had 325 attorneys (89 equity partners).

Ruyak’s strategy targeted growth in three core practice areas: antitrust, IP, and litigation. As the Legal Times observed, “To achieve that vision, Ruyak knew that the firm had to be bigger, so Howrey went on a merger spree.” It added Houston-based patent firm Arnold, White & Durkee, acquired the antitrust practice of Collier, Shannon, Rill & Scott, and established European offices in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Munich, and Madrid.

By 2006, Howrey had 555 attorneys; its 127 equity partners averaged $1.2 million each. After profits dropped in 2007, they soared by almost 30% in 2008 — the biggest percentage revenue-per-lawyer gain in the Am Law 100. Howrey’s 2008 profits were $1.3 million per equity partner — an all-time high.

Third is the fragility that such financial prosperity created for the fabric of many law firm partnerships. When profits plunged 35% in 2009, Ruyak’s partial explanation was that 2008 had been aberrational. Large contingency receipts accounted for much of that year’s non-recurring spike. The firm was still “figuring out how to do [alternative fee arrangements] well.” (The American Lawyer, May 2010, p. 101)

Unfortunately, the revolution of rising expectations was underway; the short-term bottom-line mentality is an impatient and unforgiving two-edged sword. In 2000, Howrey had a clear identity and average equity partner profits of almost $600,000 — seemingly sufficient to keep partners satisfied and any firm stable. Certainly, that amount far exceeded any current big law equity partner’s wildest financial dreams when entering the profession. A decade later, disappointing projections that the firm might reach only 80-90% of its $940,000 PEP target (or $750,000 to $850,000) fed rumors and a perilous media downdraft.

Heller Ehrman proved that lateral hiring and law firm mergers risk sacrificing firm culture in ways that inflict unexpected damage. I don’t know if that has happened at Howrey, but when cash becomes king, partnership bonds remain only as tight as the glue that next year’s predicted equity partner profits provide, assuming those predictions are believed.

That leads to a final lesson: leadership requires credibility. Only two weeks before the remarkable joint message from Ruyak and Fitzgerald, Howrey spokespersons insisted that all was well: “The amount of costs taken out of the firm at all levels — which includes leases, partners, associates, and the like leaving the firm — have made the firm much more efficient,” vice-chairman Sean Boland said. “It’s done wonders for our cost structure, such that we’re going to see some major advantages in 2011. We’re very encouraged by the cost cutting that we’ve done.”

Likewise, one of its outside consultants said that the firm was “getting back to its strengths… What’s happening at Howrey is largely by design.” Maybe so. But from this distance, the parade of top partner departures and Ruyak’s involvement in Winston’s outstanding offers make the design appear curious, indeed.

In May 2008, the Legal Times, concluded with a senior partner’s observation that Howrey had become “a very exciting place to work.” I suspect that’s still true. As with most things legal, the definition is everything.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION?

In “Greed Atop the Pyramids,” I observed that the internal spread between the top and the bottom within large firm equity partnerships has grown dramatically in recent years. No one feels sorry for those at the low end, but the compensation for many top partners has reached staggering heights. My title suggested an explanation.

K&L Gates Chairman Peter Kalis — whom I’ve never met — has offered another reason: It’s not greed; it’s geography. His photograph appeared with The Wall Street Journal article on Jamie Wareham, “The $5 Million Dollar Man.” According to the Journal, at K&L Gates “top partners earn up to nine times as much as other partners. Pay spreads widen as firms become more geographically diverse, operating in cities with varying costs of living, said Peter Kalis, chairman of K&L Gates. The firm’s pay spread rose from about 5-to-1 to as much as 9-to-1 in the past decade as it expanded. ‘Houses cost less in Pittsburgh than they do in London,’ Mr. Kalis said.”

Let’s consider that proposition. It’s certainly true that London is more expensive than New York, and New York is more expensive than Pittsburgh. It’s also true that some firms consider cost-of-living differences when setting compensation; some apply formulaic across-the-board geographical adjustments. But the issue involves the top of a widening range, not the relative cost of comparable talent across offices.

Here’s how to test the hypothesis that geography accounts for this relatively new phenomenon: Are all of a firm’s top equity partners located in the city of the firm’s most expensive office? I doubt it. Or try it from the other side: Are any of the biggest paydays going to partners working in less expensive cities? Almost certainly.

I don’t know how much Kalis makes, but he might even be a useful example. His K&L Gates website biography page shows a commendable involvement in a number of Pittsburgh-area civic organizations. In addition to his Pittsburgh office, the page also lists a New York phone number, but his only bar admission is Pennsylvania. He’s certainly not headquartered in the most expensive cities where K&L Gates has offices — Tokyo, Moscow, Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, London, or Paris. My hunch is that, as Chairman and Global Managing Partner, he’s not at the low end of his firm’s equity partner compensation range, either. So why the superficially appealing but ultimately unpersuasive “houses are cheaper in Pittsburgh” line to explain away a pervasive big law trend?

Perhaps it’s because reality is sometimes harsh and unflattering. Citing a former pay consultant for law firms, the Journal article noted, “A majority of big law firms have begun reducing the compensation level of 10% to 30% of their partners each year, partly to free up more money to award top producers.”

I don’t know if that has happened at K&L Gates, but other law firm management consultants have suggested that the need to attract and retain rainmakers in a volatile market has widened the top-to-bottom equity partner range in many firms:

“Before the recession, [the top-to-bottom equity partner compensation ratio] was typically five-to-one in many firms. Very often today, we’re seeing that spread at 10-to-1, even 12-to-1.”

Finally, the Journal article itself provides additional evidence that something other than geography is at work: “A small number of elite firms, such as Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, still hew to narrower compensation bands, ranging from 3-to-1 to 4-to-1, typically paying the most to those with the longest service….”

Cravath has a London office. Simpson Thacher has offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, Palo Alto, Sao Paolo, Tokyo, and Washington, DC. Yet they have avoided the surging top-to-bottom equity partnership pay gaps that Kalis attributes to geography.

To understand what has really happened recently inside big firms — and why — read The Partnership.

There is, indeed, greed atop the pyramids — even in Pittsburgh.

CULTURE SHOCK

On December 30, K&L Gates Chairman Peter Kalis sent an email that recently reached the legal blogosphere. Bluntly, he reminded fellow partners to get their outstanding client bills paid before the firm’s fiscal year-end. Above the Law reproduced it [complete with typos purportedly from the original]:

“Let me be clear about a couple of things. First, partners and administrators at this law firm are expected to run through the tape at midnight on December 31. Many of you came from different cultures. I don’t care about your prior acculturation. We didn’t conscript you into service at this law firm. You came volunatrily [sic]. What we are you are as well.

“And that brings me to my second point. We are a US-based global law firm. US law firms operate on a cash basis of accounting. Our fees must be collected by midnight within the fiscal year in which they are due. You don’t get to opt out of this feasture [sic] because it doesn’t appeal to you. Again, I couldn’t care less whether it appeals to you. It is who we are and therefore it is who you are. Get us paid by tomrrow [sic].” (http://abovethelaw.com/2011/01/the-two-faces-of-kl-gates/)

The message demonstrates three things — from the predictably banal to the inadvertently profound.

First, although the tone is a bit harsh, the substantive content doesn’t surprise any big law partner. Most lawyers aren’t particularly good businessmen. Reminding them that aging invoices require follow-up isn’t evil or wrong; it’s necessary. No attorney enjoys nagging clients about an overdue receivable. Presumably, the December 30 message was just the final step in a sustained year-end drive asking partners to complete a task that they’d otherwise avoid (as I did).

Second, email is perilous. Speedy communication can be great, but it’s fraught with danger. In less than a minute, you can address, type, and send a message to an entire group (and eventually reach many more blog readers). If you don’t take the time to proofread for typos, much less reflect on how others might later analyze your statements, no one will stop you from hitting the send button. Once released, the words assume a life of their own and context disappears. Every trial lawyer who has sought to explain away a client’s unflattering email message understands the problem. Surprisingly, some of those same lawyers fail to apply the lesson to their own writings. Next time, Kalis will probably prepare a script and deliver his thoughts via voicemail.

The third point has nothing to do with substance — that is, chiding partners to get client bills paid. Rather, the message acknowledges an unintended consequence of the prevailing big law business model: It has produced unprecedented lateral partner mobility that, in turn, erodes distinctive firm cultures. Two sentences make the point:

“Many of you came from different cultures. I don’t care about your prior acculturation.”

Six months ago, I praised Kalis for encouraging prospective associates to put interviewing partners on the spot when he urged: “[Recruits] should ask searching questions. How practice has changed over the years and how you deal with the changing demands. And how hard it is to reconcile your life at work with the rest of your life…I don’t believe lawyers should bow to icons. I want them to look me in the eye and ask tough questions.”  (http://thecareerist.typepad.com/thecareerist/2010/06/kl-gates-likes-them-sassy.htmlhttp://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/summer-associates-take-note-inadvertent-revelations/)

Although they probably won’t pose them, recruits now have more tough questions for him and other big law attorneys: As partners lateral into equity partnerships, what does the culture of the receiving firms become? Does it coalesce around the common denominator of maximizing current-year profits? Or is there room for other, non-monetary values that have traditionally defined the profession? If it’s the latter, how does the firm encourage them?

The answers matter because Kalis’s email emphasizes (twice): “What we are you are as well.”

I don’t know about K&L Gates, but what passes for culture in too many big firms is his message’s final exhortation: “Get us paid by tomrrow [sic].”

NUMBERS TELL A STORY

When challenged to tell a story in as few words as possible, Ernest Hemingway replied with six: “For sale: Baby shoes — never worn.”

I’m not Hemingway, but in his spirit of brevity, I offer five phrases — totaling eight words — distilling a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Law Firms Hold Line In Setting Bonuses,” by Vanessa O’Connell and Nathan Koppel. It appeared on the Monday after Christmas, so you might have missed it.

***
HOURS UP: “Average hours billed by associates at the nation’s top 50 law firms by revenue rose by 7% in 2010.”
***
BONUSES FLAT: “At New York-based Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy LLP, where bonuses were only slightly above last year’s payouts, hours billed by associates were up about 6%.” [According to Above the Law, the firm's 2010 bonuses ranged from $7,500 for first-year associates to $35,000 for those in the class of 2003. That's a big drop from 2006, when first-year associates received "special year-end bonuses" of $30,000. Student-loan repayment requirements have not experienced a similar decline.]
***
MANAGERS RATIONALIZE: “‘The actual number of [billed] hours is still low compared to what it has historically been,’ [says Milbank's Chairman Mel M. Immergut].”
***
PARTNERS WIN: “Revenue at Milbank Tweed will be up by about 3% on flat expenses, Mr. Immergut says, adding that profit per partner will be up by 8% to 10%, depending on year-end collections.” According to The American Lawyer, Milbank Tweed’s average profits per partner in 2009 were $2.230 million. How much is enough? The answer appears to be “More.”