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.

WHY THE BILLABLE HOUR ENDURES

Last month, I wrote a New York Times op-ed discussing the billable hour regime and its unfortunate consequences for the legal profession. The piece generated a lot of response, most of which supported my themes. Readers generally agreed that the system rewards unproductive behavior, invites abuse, and pits attorneys’ financial self-interest against their clients’ goals.

Defending the billable hour

Even so, the Times published a responsive letter to the editor from the general counsel of Veolia Transportation — “the largest private sector operator of multiple modes of transit in North America,” according to its website – who defended hourly billing. He noted that alternatives to the billable hour “have not caught on because they do not allow the client the same opportunity to see the work as it is being done, evaluate its worth, and challenge when appropriate the relationship of time, task and cost.”

Theoretically, he has a point. In fact, the billable hour system arose from a desire for greater transparency. Before it gained widespread use, clients typically received a bill that included a single line: “For services rendered.” When today’s senior partners entered the profession, firms kept track of their time but didn’t impose mandatory minimum billable hour requirements. In fact, a 1958 ABA pamphlet recommended that attorneys maintain better time records and strive to bill clients 1,300 hours a year.

Unfortunately, transparency gave way to short-term profit-maximizing behavior that distorted the billable hour into an internal law firm measure of “productivity.” Quantity of time billed became more important than the quality or effectiveness of effort expended. Today’s required annual minimum hours typically run close to 2,000 — and most associates understand that enhancing their prospects for advancement requires many more.

Transparency yields to abuse

In theory, Veolia’s general counsel is correct about the billable hour’s transparency. But in practice, few clients are well-positioned to challenge “the relationship of time, task and cost.” For a complex case, what motions should be filed and how much time should their preparation take? How many witness depositions are needed? And of what length? What’s the right level of staffing to maximize the chances for success?

Some in-house counsel possess the sophistication to provide meaningful answers to these and other questions that underlie any effort to assess the relationship of hourly fees to “time, task and cost.” But most don’t. They trust their lawyers to do the right thing under an incentive structure that pushes those lawyers in the opposite direction.

Bankruptcy as a poster child

Embarrassing reports of billing deceit are rare. But the real problem isn’t such well-publicized abuses. Rather, it’s the cultural impact of the incentive structure. In most large law firms, one practice area is particularly revealing: big bankruptcy cases.

Large numbers of bodies billed at enormous hourly rates get thrown into such matters. All of the activity shows up in detailed time records accompanying massive fee petitions that courts routinely approve. Like the U.S. Trustee’s office that also reviews such filings, courts lack the resources to provide meaningful scrutiny of “time, task and cost.”

Petitions seeking hourly rates of $700 for associates and $1,000 for partners routinely go unchallenged, as do the listed activities that consume these attorneys’ time. Last year, when the U.S. Trustee proposed that firms disclose whether they charge higher hourly rates for the same attorneys performing non-bankruptcy work, the profession united in opposition.

The moral

The billable hour regime endures because, like the general counsel of Veolia, clients think they have it under control. But that requires a leap of faith as outside lawyers resolve the ongoing dilemma of a system that pits fiduciary responsibility to a client against the attorneys’ financial self-interest. With law firms obsessing over current year profits and partners seeking to maximize personal books of business to preserve their own positions in an eat-what-you-kill world of frenetic lateral partner movement, that dilemma becomes profound.

As for the billable hour’s impact on other aspects of the profession’s culture, another Times letter to the editor offered this: “Appearing before St. Peter, a young law firm associate asked why he was being taken at age 29. Taken aback, St. Peter said the associate’s billable hours made the associate appear to be 95.”

A MODERN TRAGEDY IN FIVE ACTS

The American Lawyer‘s November cover story tells the sad tale of Jonathan Bristol. His client, Ken Starr, was a high-profile financial adviser to celebrities. (Starr is no relation to his namesake, the former Whitewater special prosecutor and current president of Baylor University.) In 2009, one of Starr’s clients, Uma Thurman, began asking tough questions for which he had no answers. Last year, he pleaded guilty to investment adviser fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering.

Starr’s scheme doesn’t interest me; his lawyer does. Bristol’s saga reflects the 30-year evolution of an attorney and his profession. Indeed, because many of Bristol’s experiences look so familiar, some lawyers will find his story unsettling. At least, they should.

ACT ONE

His path into the law was typical — Amherst College (magna cum laude), followed by the University of Virginia Law School. Undergraduates throughout the country still identify with ambitions that Bristol probably held when he was their age — do well at a top college; get into a first-rate law school; enjoy a rewarding career. What could go wrong?

ACT TWO

After graduating in 1981, he went to a boutique Manhattan firm, Dreyer & Traub, where he practiced real estate finance law. Many would say that, today, such a job looks even more appealing as a big law alternative than it was then: smaller, more collegial, better sense of community.

ALM reporter Ross Todd writes, “as a junior partner in Dreyer & Traub’s waning days, Bristol needed to find clients and bill hours.” That was true in the mid-1990s and it’s worse today. Most big firm senior partners say they want aggressive attorney-entrepreneurs, but they ignore the perilous downside. Bristol found clients all right, but eventually he, they, and his firm became defendants themselves. I don’t know why Dreyer & Traub collapsed, but along with a lot of other small firms, it’s gone. So are some bigger ones.

ACT THREE

After leaving Dreyer & Taub in the spring of 1995, Bristol went through a succession of firms before landing at Brown, Raysman, Millstein, Felder & Steiner. In December 2006, Brown Raysman joined Thelen, Reid & Priest in the largest merger of that year. Some blame that transaction for Thelen’s dissolution less than two years later. Since then, lots of mergers have failed; more will follow.

ACT FOUR

In November 2008, Winston & Strawn picked up Bristol and 18 other former Thelen lawyers. Although his annual compensation for 2009 and 2010 was set at $1.35 million, in mid-2009 he agreed to reduce his guaranteed amount to $500,000. His metrics — billables, billable hours, and leverage ratio — must have been in deep trouble. That’s how most big firms measure value.

Bristol’s world continued to collapse as his biggest client, Starr, got behind on his legal bills. The amount — $750,000 — may not seem large for a firm with gross revenues of more than $700 million in 2010. But for a partner already wilting under the heat of the short-term metrics spotlight, it provided tippping-point pressure. Bristol allowed Starr to transfer stolen funds through his personal attorney escrow accounts.

ACT FIVE

In a request to delay sentencing, Bristol’s lawyer wrote that his client’s childhood left considerable emotional scarring: “For much of his adult life, Mr. Bristol has been in therapy to treat depression and anxiety.” If he suffered from those afflictions in college, he couldn’t have chosen a less suitable career.

From all of this, endless lessons emerge: know yourself; know your partners; scrutinize lateral hires; don’t assume anything about an attorney just because he or she comes from a great school or well-respected firm; being entrepreneurial is a two-edged sword; think beyond short-term metrics; character counts; and so forth.

But maybe the most important message is a universal one that few will heed. Perhaps inadvertently, one of Bristol’s former partners at Dreyer & Traub, Edward Harris, Jr., summarized it in The American Lawyer article:

“If you’ve got your eyes on the prize, sometimes you might ignore caution signs or something along the way.”

While enjoying the holiday season with family and friends, consider this addendum: Think about whether the prize you eye is the right one.

THE OTHER BIG 10 SCANDAL

Penn State dominates the headlines, but another Big 10 scandal symbolizes what ails legal education and much of the profession. The two situations aren’t morally equivalent, but it’s too bad there isn’t an attention-getting JoePa at the University of Illinois.

On August 26, the university’s ethics office received a tip about a problem with the U of I College of Law’s LSAT and GPA stats. The resulting ABA investigation continues, but the U of I’s November 7 report identifies a rogue villain.

I think it’s more complicated.

The rogue

Shortly after Paul Pless graduated in 2003, his alma mater hired him (at a salary of $38,500/year) as assistant director for admissions and financial aid. (For years, putting unemployed new grads on the temporary payroll for paltry wages has bolstered schools’ U.S. News rankings. Starting next year, they’ll have to disclose it.) Pless stayed on and, by December 2004, was earning $72,000/year as an assistant dean.

Metrics mania

One of the final report’s first section headings is key:

“Institutional Emphasis on USNWR [U.S. News & World Report] Ranking.”

Not until its 2005 annual report did the school — not Pless — explicitly adopt two new goals: increasing the incoming class’s median LSAT from 163 to 165 and its GPA from 3.42 to 3.5. When the median LSAT came in at 166, then-Dean Heidi Hurd sang Pless’s praises:

“Had we been able to report this increase last year, holding all else equal, we would have moved from 26th to 20th in the U.S. News rankings.”

Except the school hadn’t held “all else equal” to get its historic LSAT boost. The median GPA had plummeted to 3.32 and its overall ranking dropped to 27th. In May 2006, a new strategic plan noted that the admissions emphasis on LSATs had left it “with a GPA profile worse than any other top-50 school.” The new goal: raising the incoming class median LSAT/GPA to 168/3.7 by 2011.

In July, Hurd sought a big pay raise for Pless because, she said, he was “in the hiring sights of every dean in America who wants to improve student rankings.” His salary jumped to $98,000. Up to this point, investigators concluded, there had been relatively minor flaws in the data submitted to the ABA and U.S. News.

The heat is on

Two interim deans served from September 2007 through January 2009. But investigators found that a handful of 2008 discrepancies between actual and reported data for the incoming class of 2011 marked the beginning of a “sustained pattern…that increased in practice and scope through the class of 2014.”

In February 2009, Bruce Smith became dean and had to resolve an open question: should the incoming class of 2012′s median LSAT/GPA target be 165/3.8 or 166/3.7? There had been ongoing internal debate over which combination would maximize the school’s overall U.S. News ranking. Smith described his response to the board of visitors:

“I told Paul [Pless] to push the envelope, think outside the box, take some risk, do things differently…Strive for a 166 [LSAT]/3.8 [GPA]….”

The report exonerates Smith from wrongdoing. But footnote 3 observes that his management style “is goal-oriented and intense, and occasionally intimidating, and that it is not inconceivable that certain employees subordinate to him would be uncomfortable bringing bad news to him.”

For the next two years, Pless didn’t.

“I haven’t let a Dean down yet, and I don’t plan on starting with you Boss,” he’d assured Smith in April 2009.

Median LSATs and GPAs showed continuing improvement; Pless’s salary jumped to $130,000 on the strength of Smith’s glowing review. Indeed, Pless’s exploding compensation at a public university in tough financial straits reveals the power of rankings and deans.

On August 22, 2011, Pless touted the class of 2014′s median LSAT (168) and GPA (3.81). By then, the actual numbers were 163 and 3.7.

Who is to blame? The U of I report says Pless and no one else because he made the data entries. I say read it carefully, draw your own conclusions, and ponder the larger picture. The power of U.S. News rankings and other equally misguided metrics comes from people who rely upon them as definitive measures of the things that matter.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars…”

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.

FAMILY FRIENDLY?

Lawyers know that definitions dictate outcomes. That’s why the Yale Law Women’s latest list of the “Top Ten Family Friendly Firms” includes some surprising names. At least, some surprised me.

It turns out that the YLW’s definition of family friendly is more restrictive than the plain meaning of the words. According to the survey methodology, it’s mostly a function of firms’ attention to particular issues relating primarily to women. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it shouldn’t be confused with what really undermines the family-friendliness of any big firm — its devotion to billable hours and billings as metrics that determine success. That problem isn’t gender-specific.

To compile the annual list, YLW surveyed the Vault Top 100 Law Firms. What would happen if they included all of the NLJ 250 or an even larger group that included small firms? I don’t know, but I’ll bet the list would look a lot different.

Now consider the survey categories and YLW commentary:

– Percentage of female attorneys: “Although YLW found that, on average, 45% of associates at responding law firms are women, women make up only 17% of equity partners and 18% of firm executive management committees. Additionally, on average, women made up just 27% of newly promoted partners in 2010.”

– Access to and use of parental leave: Virtually all firms have them. Big deal.

– Emergency and on-site child care: I understand the advantages, but how much family friendly credit should a firm get for providing a place where young lawyers can leave their babies and pre-schoolers while they work all day?

– Part-time and flex-time work policies: “98% offer a flex-time option, in which attorneys bill full-time hours while regularly working outside the office.” So what? I know senior partners without families who’ve done that for years.

– Usage of part-time and flex-time policies: “On average, 7% of attorneys at these firms were working part-time in 2010.” Will they become equity partners? “Of the 7% of attorneys working part-time, only 11% were partners, a number that may also include partners approaching retirement. Only 5% of the partners promoted in 2010 had worked part-time in the past, on average, and only 4% were working part-time when they were promoted.”

– Billable hours and compensation practices: “[I]t remains to be seen whether it is truly possible to work part-time at all. Our statistics indicate that while part-time attorneys appear to be fairly compensated, many may work more hours than originally planned. Most firms (93%) provide additional compensation if part-time attorneys work more than the planned number of hours or make part-time attorneys eligible for bonuses (96%). However, part-time attorneys received bonuses at higher rates than full-time attorneys (25% compared to 23% on average), suggesting that many part-time schedules may ultimately morph into full-time hours over the course of a year.”

– Alternative career programs: What’s that? Outplacement support?

All of this gets weighted according to another survey of Yale Law School alumni who ranked the relative importance of the surveyed policies and practices.

Continuing efforts to achieve greater big law transparency are laudable. But one problem with lists and rankings is that they take on a life of their own, wholly apart from methodological limitations and the caveats accompanying the results. (See, e.g., U.S. News rankings). Here, the YLW cautioned that it “remains concerned about the low rates of retention for women, the dearth of women in leadership positions, the gender gap in those who take advantage of family friendly policies, and the possibility that part-time work can derail an otherwise successful career.”

The honored firms will gloss over that warning, issue press releases, and delude themselves into believing that they are something they’re not. Someone truly interested in whether a place is family friendly should find out where it ranks on the “Misery Index.” Partners won’t tell you, but that metric would reveal a firm’s true commitment to the long-term health and welfare of its attorneys and their families.

If you really love someone, you should set them free — even if it’s only every other weekend.

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.

Are You Worth $5 Million?

The Wall Street Journal’s front page reported that litigator Jamie Wareham “will make about $5 million a year, a significant raise from his pay at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, where he has been one of the highest paid partners.”

This phenomenon – superstar lateral hiring – is nothing new, but in recent years it has become more common. For those who remember the 1980s, it’s vaguely reminiscent of the period when ill-fated Finley Kumble turned that strategy into a losing business model.

Of course, Finley failed for many reasons that may distinguish it from current trends. Still, those running that firm into extinction as they signed up marquee players who couldn’t carry their own economic weight probably wished they’d asked this question:

How can you determine whether a lawyer is worth $5 million?

Reserved for another day are the broader implications, including the challenges that significant lateral desertions and insertions at the top present to the very concept of firm partnership. This article focuses solely on underlying financial considerations associated with the superstar lateral hire.

Presumably, bringing in a big-name player makes economic sense for a firm operating under the prevailing business model, which means that at least one of the following conditions are met:

First, the proposed lateral has an independent book of business suitable for delivery to the new firm. That would be simple, but for the clients themselves. Even if they hired and regularly use a particular partner, they probably also like his or her package of assembled talent. Consequently, the lateral must bring along a team of capable junior lawyers. Alternatively, the new firm may have excess attorney inventory that it can deploy, but that requires the lateral to persuade clients to use new lawyers who can quickly and efficiently climb their learning curves.

Second, even absent a short-term economic justification, a firm could rationally conclude that anticipated events make the talent investment worthwhile for its future strategic positioning. Recent examples include firms that loaded up on bankruptcy attorneys when the economy was still strong. The crash of 2008 made them look like geniuses. More speculative are the “if you hire them, clients will come” bets that managers sometimes make. Former government employees, along with high-profile attorneys who lack a portable client following but are on everyone’s short-list of best lawyers, fall into this category.

For the first category, short-term value is simple arithmetic. According to the latest Am Law 100 report, Wareham’s old firm, Paul Hastings, had a 41% profit margin in 2009. If the “substantially less” than $5 million he’ll make at DLA Piper was — say, $4 million – he would have needed revenues of $10 million to earn his keep there, assuming no other equity partners claimed any part of that gross. At a total blended attorney rate for all attorneys on his client matters of $500/hour, that translates into 20,000 billable hours.

But at DLA Piper and its reportedly lower profit margin (26%), Wareham will have to produce almost $20 million to support a $5 million share of firm profits. At a blended hourly rate of $500, that means more than 40,000 hours. (If he is selling clients on a move with him on the promise of lower hourly rates, the billables requirement at DLA Piper would become even higher.)

If one of the 20 or so attorneys on Wareham’s team is another equity partner earning, say, $1 million, then the minimum break-even billables bogey moves proportionately higher. (Assuming a 26% profit ratio, it takes about $4 million gross — 8,000 hours at a blended rate of $500/hour — to net $1 million.)

Insofar as the lateral acquisition’s value relates to the second category – future payoff — big name players get a grace period. But at some point, the economic imperatives of the first category will surface. When that happens, they’ll feel the revenue and related billable hours heat even more than everyone else — except, of course, the attorneys working for them.

Such is the economically successful lateral hire outcome. Failure on a sufficiently large scale produces Finley Kumble.

LAW SCHOOL DECEPTION

Last Sunday, the NY Times asked: Are law schools deceiving prospective students into incurring huge debt for degrees that aren’t worth it?

Of course they are. The U.S. News is an aider and abettor. As the market for new lawyers shrinks, a key statistic in compiling the publication’s infamous rankings is “graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation.” Any job qualifies — from joining Cravath to waiting tables. According to the Times, the most recent average for all law schools is 93%. If gaming the system to produce that number doesn’t cause students to ignore the U.S. News’ rankings altogether, nothing will.

My friend, Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law Professor Bill Henderson, told the Times that looking at law schools’ self-reported employment numbers made him feel “dirty.” I assume he’s concerned that prospective students rely on that data in deciding whether and where to attend law school. I agree with him.

But an equally telling kick in the head is buried in the lengthy Times article: Most graduates who achieve their initial objectives — starting positions in big firms paying $160,000 salaries — quickly lose the feeling that they’re winners. Certainly, they must be better off than the individuals chronicled in the article. What could be worse than student debt equal to a home mortgage, albeit without the home?

Try a legal job with grueling hours, boring work, and little prospect of a long-term career. Times reporter David Segal summarized the cliche’: “Law school is a pie-eating contest where first prize is more pie.”

These distressing outcomes for students and associates aren’t inevitable. In fact, they’re relatively new phenomena with a common denominator: Business school-type metrics that make short-term pursuit of the bottom line sterile, objective, and laudable. Numbers prove who’s best and they don’t lie.

Law school administrators manipulate employment data because they have ceded their reasoned judgment to mindless ranking criteria. (“[M]illions of dollars [are] riding on students’ decisions about where to go to law school, and that creates real institutional pressures,” says one dean who believes that pandering to U.S. News rankings isn’t gaming the system; it’s making a school better.)

Likewise, today’s dominant large firm culture results from forces that produced the surge in average equity partner income for the Am Law 50 – from $300,000 in 1985 to $1.5 million in 2009. Leveraged pyramids might work for a few at the top; for everyone else — not so much.

The glut of law school applicants, as well as graduates seeking big firm jobs to repay their loans, leaves law school administrators and firm managers with no economic incentive to change their ways. The profession needs visionaries who are willing to resist perpetuating the world in which debt-laden graduates are becoming the 21st century equivalent of indentured servants.

Henderson calls for law school transparency in the form of quality employment statistics. I endorse his request and offer a parallel suggestion: Through their universities’ undergraduate prelaw programs, law schools should warn prospective students about the path ahead before their legal journeys begin.

Some students enter law school expecting to become Atticus Finch or the lead attorneys on Law & Order. Others pursue large firm equity partnerships as a way to riches. Few realize that career dissatisfaction plagues most of the so-called winners who land what they once thought were the big firm jobs of their dreams.

A legal degree can lead to many different careers. The urgency of loan repayment schedules creates a practical reality that pushes most students in big law’s direction. If past is prologue, the vast majority of them will not be happy there. They should know the truth — the whole truth — before they make their first law school tuition payments. Minimizing unwelcome surprises will create a more satisfied profession.

Meanwhile, can we all agree to ignore U.S. News rankings and rely on our own judgments instead of its stupid criteria? Likewise, can big law managers move away from their myopic focus on the current year’s equity partner profits as a definitive culture-determining metric? I didn’t think so.

ACCELERATING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION

Recently, law firm management consultant Hildebrandt Baker Robbins’ Kristin Stark offered her solution to problems that she sees with many large firm compensation systems:

“Firms need to be talking to their partners about their performance every year — and throughout the year. Ongoing coaching of partners on their performance and helping them make improvements has become a powerful tool for driving partner and firm performance in successful firms. High-performing partners want to work in an environment where co-owners are engaged and actively contributing to firm growth. Without this, a firm’s top performers are at risk.” (http://www.law.com/jsp/law/article.jsp?id=1202472843670&Partner_Compensation_The_Downturns_New_Touchy_Subject)

Stark buried the lead, but her key point appears to be that a firm’s principal mission should be to keep its rainmakers happy. Otherwise, they’re “at risk” — meaning that they’ll leave to make more money elsewhere.

Wait a minute. A few lines earlier, Stark described the growing gap in high-to-low partner compensation: “Before the recession, [it] was typically five-to-one in many firms. Very often today, we’re seeing that spread at 10-to-1, even 12-to-1.”

“You can imagine that creates a lot of problems,” she continued. “It drives further tension between partners over compensation and creates an environment of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in law firms.”

What should firms that have become beholden to a few rainmakers and their often oversized egos do? Whatever it takes to keep them? Won’t that exacerbate the resentment of those whom Stark calls the “have-nots”? What are the limits of tolerably bad behavior by the “haves”? Big billers always get a pass for hoarding clients. How about verbally abusing subordinates? Or worse?

Meanwhile, she suggests, firms should coach other lawyers on the importance of “improving performance.” That’s code for billing more hours and bringing in more business. Forget about mentoring the next generation, encouraging collegiality, enhancing attorney career satisfaction, or focusing on other professional values for which the dominant large law firm model lacks a metrics link to bottom-line equity partner profits.

It also means reconciling the “have-nots” to their proper places in the firm:

“In this market firms have to constantly reevaluate the expectations of a partner, communicate with partners about what is required of them, and incorporate partner goals and expectations into the compensation process,” Stark said.

In other words, everyone should understand the need to work harder so that the highest paid equity partners widen their already enormous compensation advantages over all others.

All of this is an interesting commentary on a group of extraordinarily talented men and women — a firm’s longstanding (but non-rainmaker) equity partners who, apparently, somehow lost the intelligence and personality traits that caused them to excel in the first place. As students, their brains and hard work took most of them to the best colleges and law schools. As associates, their ambitions carried them past peers into equity partnerships. Presumably, they served clients who valued their work.

When did they lose it? Admittedly, a few never deserved promotion, but internal firm political stars aligned in a way that allowed them to bypass quality control criteria. Success made others fat, happy, and lazy; still others burned out. But most equity partners achieved their status because they had a lot going for them — and still do. If they continue to enjoy the practice of law, that alone pushes them as it always has.

Not so, says Stark. They need coaching to keep their expectations in check. They must pander to top billers whose eternal answer to the question “How much is enough?” will always be “More.” They should live with the anxiety accompanying ongoing performance evaluations throughout the year. Never mind that, in Biglaw as in life, individual careers experience peaks and valleys; rarely is any overall upward trajectory a straight line.

Fear isn’t a productive ingredient in the recipe for motivating talent. But try telling that to some large firm managing partners and their outside consultants. On second thought, don’t bother. They already know everything.

ARE THE U.S. NEWS RANKINGS BIGLAW’S BLACK SWAN?

An earlier post considered Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestseller, The Black Swan. (http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/biglaw-and-the-black-swan/ ). Taleb describes the folly of relying on supposedly proven models of the past to anticipate the smooth continuation of existing trends. Such myopic thinking ignores the wholly unexpected Black Swans that actually shape history. The essence of the Black Swan is its serendipity, coupled with its power. It can be good or bad, but it’s always transformative. September 11 was a Black Swan, as were Microsoft and Facebook.

If you accept Taleb’s theory, I think Am Law introduced Biglaw to a Black Swan in 1985 with its profits per equity partner rankings. They encouraged internal behavior that, over time, dramatically changed most large firms’ cultures. Today, accepting conventional wisdom means following managers (few of whom are leaders — a crucial distinction for Taleb) who focus on supposedly proven metrics: billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios. Free markets dictate decisions; important things that don’t impact the current year’s bottom-line drop out of key calculations; equity partner profits trees grow to the sky.

But wait! The U.S. News evaluations seem to ignore this crucial Am Law metric. They utilize client and attorney surveys assessing lawyer quality, not firms’ bottom-line profits. In seeking to attain or retain the highest available practice group rating (Tier 1), will firms teach to this new test that the criteria appear to use?

Not so fast. Even as U.S. News released the rankings, big firms began setting the goalposts for the new competition. Because U.S. News departed from its typical numerical approach in favor of tiers for practice groups, Sidley Austin and K&L Gates each claimed the overall #1 position based on their total Tier 1 rankings.

If I’m right, the new rankings will simply accelerate an embedded trend toward lateral recruiting at the highest levels. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/09/lateral-uptick.html) Big firms will compete even more ferociously for top partners to fill particular U.S. News practice group holes — and they’ll jettison incumbents to make room. How will high-powered partners decide where to plant themselves? They’ll take their books of business and follow the money. The definitive Am Law metric — average equity partner profits — will remain inviolate. Too many Biglaw partnerships will continue their devolution into collections of attorneys whose principal bond is financial.

So there’s no Black Swan here — just another log on the bonfire that is already consuming much of the profession.

But these developments favor the emergence of a Black Swan that I identified in my earlier post. Australia now has publicly traded law firms. Attorneys in Great Britain have begun preparing to follow that lead when the Legal Services Act becomes effective next year. (http://www.law.com/jsp/law/international/LawArticleIntl.jsp?id=1202463691626)

Biglaw’s ongoing transformation to a species of Big Business could culminate in non-lawyer shareholders and boards. What will stop them? Equity partners who have been hired to buttress a firm’s claim to Tier 1 status in the U.S. News rankings? As relative newcomers, their allegiance to their new firms will be more tenuous. The idea of preserving whatever remains of a unique professional culture will seem antiquated, particularly with the big bucks for their shares of an initial public offering (IPO) dangling before them.

It sure looks to me like the same country that introduced the first black swan to the New World is now exporting something far more ominous for the legal profession.

BIGLAW AND THE BLACK SWAN

After reading my novel, The Partnership, an insightful observer wrote that its themes “sound like a biglaw version of The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Drawing out the comparisons between your book and Taleb could fill many blog posts.”

This is the first.

Taleb’s title derives from the discovery of what everyone knew didn’t exist. In the Old World, universally reported human experience pointed unambiguously to a single conclusion: All swans were white. Then came the discovery of Australia and its black swans.

The lesson: Widely accepted truths often turn out to be false. Relying on models of the past to anticipate the future can be a fool’s errand, especially if it ignores the wholly unexpected Black Swans that actually shape history. Who imagined that Bill Gates’ boyhood fascination with computers would lead to Microsoft, or that Mark Zuckerberg’s college dorm room at Harvard would be the birthplace of a revolutionary social networking phenomenon?

Black Swans can be good or bad — but they are always transformative. Most of us fail to consider them because we tend to theorize about the future in specific and limited ways from prior experience. For example, Taleb notes, the French built the Maginot Line to defend against German attack following the Great War, only to watch Hitler zip around it during a greater one, World War II.

“What did people learn from the 9/11 episode?” he continues. “Did they learn that some events, owing to their dynamics, stand largely outside the realm of the predictable? No. Did they learn the built-in defect of conventional wisdom? No. What did they figure out? They learned precise rules for avoiding proislamic terrorists and tall buildings.”

The Black Swan came out in 2007 and was a best-seller before the Great Recession — an event that others began calling a Black Swan, although Taleb said it didn’t qualify. Rather, that downturn replays previous Black Swan events — including the 1982 bank failures, 1987 market crash, and 1998 collapse of Long-Term Capital Management — from which intelligent people persistently failed to learn. So-called financial experts with MBAs had lost fortunes betting that such Black Swans were so improbable that they could be ignored. According to Taleb, these empty suits persevered and suckered others into accepting their discredited models, only to have them fail yet again.

So how could this relate to Biglaw? After all, it has enjoyed a 30-year run as straightforward metrics — billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios — enabled large firms to produce staggering wealth for their owners. Even as many positions disappeared and revenues remained flat or declined at some firms, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 continued to rise.

The dominant Biglaw model is working, right?

Only until a Black Swan appears. It would be presumptuous to predict its form or timing. Indeed, the Black Swan’s essence is its serendipity, coupled with its power. It strikes when overconfidence creates complacency and vigilance takes a vacation.

So for Biglaw, accepting conventional wisdom means following managers (few of whom are leaders — a crucial distinction) who focus on  supposedly proven metrics that have made them rich. They let free markets dictate decisions; they ignore things that don’t impact this year’s bottom-line; they watch their equity partner profits trees grow to the sky.

Where in all of this might Biglaw’s Black Swans lurk?

The candidates are too numerous for thoughtful consideration in a single article. Some examples: increasing attorney dissatisfaction at all levels; client resistance to hourly billing regimes; the displacement of a professional ethos with business-school metrics aimed at short-term profit-maximization; prospective lawyers’ growing awareness of Biglaw’s darker side.

But many of us already know about these difficulties, which makes them less likely Black Swan candidates. Then again, the Black Swan need not come as a surprise to everyone. For too long, most Biglaw managers have been oblivious to the profession’s growing challenges; too many behave as if they still are. As Taleb notes, a well-fed turkey that becomes fatter as Thanksgiving approaches is amazed to encounter the ultimate Black Swan event — its slaughter. But the butcher always knew what was coming.

I’ll add one more to the list:

Australia has pioneered a new regulatory regime that allows outsiders — non-lawyers — to invest in private law firms. Some are now publicly traded. http://www.abanet.org/legaled/committees/Standards%20Review%20documents/AnthonyDavis.pdf

Lawyers in Great Britain have begun preparing to follow that lead when the Legal Services Act becomes effective next year.  http://www.law.com/jsp/law/international/LawArticleIntl.jsp?id=1202463691626

Could Biglaw’s ongoing transformation to a species of Big Business culminate in non-lawyer shareholders and boards? It’s a frightening prospect – but not so scary that equity partners are likely to forego the enormous short-term windfalls they’d reap from initial public offerings (IPOs) of their firms’ stock. Most view themselves as disproportionately responsible for their own success and will be content to let the next generations fend for themselves in a bleak professional landscape.

Could the same country that introduced the first black swan to the world be exporting something far more momentous?

ALONG CAME LAW FIRM MANAGEMENT CONSULTANTS

In the final analysis, Biglaw leaders have only themselves to blame, but they didn’t stumble into the world of misguided metrics on their own. They paid outside experts to guide the way — and they’re still doing it.

Thirty years ago, few undergraduates went to law school because they thought that a legal career would make them rich. For example, most students at Harvard with that ambition were on the other side of the Charles getting MBAs; the river formed a kind of natural barrier. The law was something special — a noble profession — or so most of us believed.

Particularly in large firms, nobility has yielded to business school-type metrics that focus on short-term profits-per-partner. The resulting impact on the internal fabric of such firms is depicted in my legal thriller, The Partnership (http://www.amazon.com/Partnership-Novel-Steven-J-Harper/dp/0984369104/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273000077&sr=1-1) But other collateral damage includes the decline of mentoring that produced great lawyers in my baby boomer generation. (See my article, “Where Have All The Mentors Gone?” - http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/07/harpermentors.html).

Among the reactions to my mentoring observations was this:

“I am particularly intrigued by your reference to the role modern legal consulting firms have played in the demise of law as a profession. This is worthy of a blog post in and of itself and I look forward to it.”

I discussed this subject in an earlier post, but it’s worth another look.

Hildebrandt Baker Robbins is the successor to Hildebrandt, Inc., one of the early pioneers in what became a cottage industry: law firm management consulting. The company’s 2010 Client Advisory includes this line:

“In our view, one of the serious misuses of metrics in the past few years has been the overreliance on profits per equity partner as the defining index of a firm’s value and quality.”  (http://www.hildebrandt.com/2010ClientAdvisory)

Really? Who encouraged the use of this ubiquitous metric on which Hildebrandt has now soured? As Dana Carvey’s church lady character might say, “Could it be….Hildebrandt?”

Of course, it wasn’t alone. When The American Lawyer published its first ranking of the Am Law 50  (now  grown to 100) in 1985, what was once off limits in polite company – how much money a person made — became an open and notorious measuring stick of law firm performance: average profits per partner. Greed became respectable as inherently competitive firm leaders began teaching to the Am Law test so they could gain or retain position in its annual listing.

When the 1990-1991 recession rattled a much smaller version of what is now called biglaw, the National Law Journal’s annual survey of the largest 250 firms in 1991 quoted Bradford Hildebrandt, who 16 years earlier had founded the company bearing his name:

“In most firms, current management has never operated within a recession and didn’t know how to deal with it…” (“The NLJ 250: Annual Survey of the Nation’s Largest Law Firms — Overview — The Boom Abates,” The National Law Journal, September 30, 1991 (Vol. 14, No. 4))

So who could save us from ourselves? As they watched profits slide, worried law firm leaders turned to Hildebrandt and other experts who could assist in bringing business school principles and MBA-type metrics to their big firms. By 1996, Mr. Hildebrandt himself had diagnosed the situation and offered his remedy in that year’s NLJ 250 issue:

“The real problem of the 1980s was the lax admissions standards of associates of all firms to partnership. The way to fix that now is to make it harder to become a partner. The associate track is longer and more difficult, and you have a very big movement to two-tiered structured partnership.” (“The NLJ 250 Annual Survey of the Nation’s Largest Law Firms: A Special Supplement — More Lawyers Than Ever In 250 Largest Firms,” The National Law Journal, September 30, 1996 (Vol. 19, No. 5))

With such cheerleaders at their sides, senior partners focused on the three legs supporting the PEP (profits per equity partner) stool: billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios.

Hourly rates marched skyward — even during recessions — increasing an average of 6% to 8% annually from 1998 to 2007. Billable hours targets likewise rose. Yet talented attorneys who would have advanced to equity partner a decade earlier received their walking papers as firms increased leverage ratios, which doubled between 1985 and 2010 for the Am Law 50. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/05/classof1985.html) With a few sharp turns of the costs screw, the game was won.

The results were mixed. For equity partners in the Am Law 100, average profits soared to more than $1 million annually — and rose during the Great Recession. Yet today, attorneys in big firms have become the law’s most dissatisfied workers – even though lawyers as a group were already leading most occupations in that unpleasant race.

The law firm as collection of men and women bound together in common pursuit of a noble profession yielded to an MBA mentality that relied on business school metrics to produce more dollars — the new measure of individual status and firm success. Valued partners who wouldn’t have considered leaving in earlier times began to follow the money — eroding concepts of loyalty and shared mission that created a firm’s identity over generations.

Oh, what a mistake, Hildebrandt now urges — not unlike Harvard’s new business school dean who looks hopefully (but in vain) to the law as an alternative model that might restore integrity to that world. (See my earlier article, “The MBA Mentality Rethnks Itself?” — http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/05/harper1.html)

What does Hildebrandt now propose to replace profits per equity partner as the key measure of overall firm performance? Profits per employee. But it simultaneously suggests that client satisfaction ratings should replace billable hours while employee satisfaction ratings supplant leverage.

Is your head spinning over the interplay among these complicated and confusing new metrics? Hildebrandt has the answer:

“As always, we stand ready to assist our clients in negotiating through these new and uncertain waters.”

How comforting.

MIRED IN METRICS? HAVE SOME MORE!

Once a bad situation spins out of control, is there any way to corral it? When all else fails, try making things worse.

The ABA recently released its report detailing just a few of the ways that U.S. News law school rankings have been counterproductive for prospective lawyers and the profession — from driving up the costs of legal education to driving down the importance of diversity.  (http://www.abanet.org/legaled/nosearch/Council2010/OpenSession2010/F.USNewsFinal%20Report.pdf)

As U.S.News now develops law firm rankings, the report concludes with an ominous warning:

“Once a single rankings system comes to dominate a particular field, it is very difficuly to displace, difficult to change and dangerous to underestimate the importance of its methodology to any school or firm that operates in the field. This, we believe, is the most important lesson from the law school experience for those law firms who may be ranked by U.S. News in the future.”

In other words, rankings sometimes function as any so-called definitive metric: They displace reasoned judgment. Independent thought becomes unnecessary because the methodology behind the metric dictates decision-makers’ actions.

Since 1985, many big firms have become living examples of the phenomenon. That year, The American Lawyer published its first-ever Am Law 50 list of the nation’s largest firms. Most firm leaders now teach to the Am Law test, annually seeking to maximize revenues and average profits per equity partner. The resulting culture of billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios begins to explain why surveys report that large firm lawyers lead the profession in career dissatisfaction.(http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/pulse_of_the_legal_profession/print/) Without a metric for it, attorney well-being – and the factors contributing to it — drop out of the equation.

Courtesy of U.S. News, large firms now stand on the threshhold of more metrics. Will they make working environments of firms that have succcumbed to the profits-per-partner criterion worse?

It depends, but more of yet another bad thing — rankings – could produce something good — forcing individuals to sift through contradictory data, think for themselves, and make a real decision. But that can happen only if U.S. News produces a list of “best law firms” that bears little resemblance to the rank ordering of the Am Law 100 in average equity partner profits. Such contradictory data would confuse newly minted attorneys and force them to develop their own criteria for decision.

The American Lawyer itself provides a useful example of the possibilities. Eight years ago, it began publishing the Am Law “A-List,” which has gained limited traction as a moderating influence on the Am Law average profits-per-equity-partner metric that otherwise dominates decision-making at most big firms. The A-List’s additional considerations bear on the quality of a young lawyer’s life — associate satisfaction, diversity, and pro bono activities. The myopic focus on short-term dollars still dominates decisions in most big firms, but the A-List has joined the conversation.

What methodology will U.S. News employ in evaluating law firms? If it follows the approach of its law school ranking counterparts, many firms will game the system, just as some law schools have. (See my earlier article, “THE U.S. NEWS RANKINGS ARE OUT!” (http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/the-us-news-rankings-are-out/)) But misguided and manipulatable metrics aren’t inevitable.

Talent is essential for any successful firm, large or small. Other qualities – collegiality, mentoring, community, high morale accompanying a shared sense of professional purpose – make a workplace special. Can the U.S. News find ways to measure those qualities?

That’s the challenge. But I fear that students won’t bother focusing on the U.S. News methodology or its flaws. More likely, whatever rankings emerge from the process will provide — as they have for so many deliberating the choice of a law school — an easy final answer.

Ceding such control over life’s direction to others is rarely a good idea. There is no substitute for personal  involvement in deciding the things that matter most. That means asking recruiters tough questions, scrutinizing the lives of a firm’s senior associates and partners, and finding role models who are living a life that a new attorney envisions for her- or himself.

In the end, the current large firm business model and its self-imposed associate/partner leverage ratios will continue to render success – defined as promotion to equity partnership — an elusive dream for most who seek it. For those who become dissatisfied with their jobs, time passes slowly. So everyone joining a big firm — even a person intending to remain only for the years required to repay student loans — has ample incentive to get that first big decision after law school correct.

So why would intelligent young attorneys let U.S. News’ self-proclaimed experts make it with something as silly as a ranking? Probably for the same reasons that they relied on U.S. News to make their law school decisions for them three years earlier.

Someday, maybe there will be a U.S. News formula for choosing a spouse. Then won’t life be simple?

WHERE HAVE ALL THE MENTORS GONE?

Many biglaw leaders should take heed.

In last weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, columnist Peggy Noonan lamented the loss of what she called “adult supervision.”  (http://www.peggynoonan.com/article.php?article=531)

Commemorating the 50th annivesary of To Kill A Mockingbird, she recalls the “wise and grounded Atticus Finch, who understands the world and pursues justice anyway, and who can be relied upon.”

She then rattles off a list of world leaders whom she regards as young – President Obama is 48; British Prime Minister Cameron is 43; Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (no relation) is 51. Noonan says they could benefit from the presence of wise advisers like the venerable Finch.

Of course, there’s an obvious problem with her analysis: Finch himself was about the age of the “young men” she now finds in need of wise older counsel. So she misses an essential point: Wisdom is neither the exclusive province of the old nor the assured destination of advancing age.

But Noonan states an important truth when she views the modern world and observes that “there’s kind of an emerging mentoring gap going on in America right now.” She sees it in “a generalized absence of the wise old politician/lawyer/leader/editor who helps the young along, who teaches them the ropes and ways and traditions of a craft.”

That is undoubtedly true for much of biglaw. Why?

There are exceptions within and among firms, but this development flows directly from the MBA-mentality that now dominates most large law firms. It forces leaders and everyone else to focus on short-term metrics – individual billings, billable hours, associate-partner leverage ratios.

The resulting behavior is predictable. Each individual’s drive to attain and preserve position in accordance with such metrics leaves little room (or time) for the personalized mentoring that turns good young lawyers into better older ones. There’s no metric for measuring the future contribution that mentoring makes to the current year’s average profits-per-equity-partner.

For firms adhering to the pervasive biglaw model, the absence of a mentoring metric makes all the difference. In Hildebrandt Baker Robbins’s 2010 Client Advisory to the legal profession, one of the pioneering consultants responsible for the proliferation of biglaw’s misguided metrics aimed at short-term profit-maximizing concludes, “There is a management adage that ‘what gets measured gets done.’”  (http://www.hildebrandt.com/2010ClientAdvisory)

I would add this corollary: Throughout biglaw in particular and the world generally, that which lacks a metric gets ignored.

Unfortunately, some of those things are important.

BABY BOOMERS STRIKE AGAIN

Getting old is tough. But not nearly as tough as being young these days.

Recently, the National Law Journal reported that an Am Law  top 20 firm adopted a new policy allowing partners two addtional years before they must “begin giving business to younger colleagues.” Instead of 65, they’ll now have to start that process at 67. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202458271311)

Meanwhile, a prominent 63-year-old white-collar defense attorney left his big firm of 16 years to avoid its mandatory retirement age (65). He declined his old firm’s offer of a two-year exemption that would have given him until 67. (http://legaltimes.typepad.com/blt/2010/05/mark-tuohey-leaves-vinson-elkins-for-brown-rudnick-cites-retirement-policy.html)

And the June ABA Journal includes the following admonition from the organization’s president:

“In August 2007, the ABA adopted a policy rejecting mandatory age-based retirement policies. The recommendation urging this advance is worth considering and adoption by all legal employers.”

Yes, she’s a 60-something baby boomer in a big firm, too.

What’s going on? Forget lip-service paid to the old age-discrimination argument against forced departure of equity partners. That sword of Damocles has floated over the profession forever, yet somehow current big firm leaders replaced their predecessors.

So why the big outcry now? The current chorus reflects an unintended consequence of a flawed biglaw business model: resistance to intergenerational transition. But extending check-out time is a bad move for the firm that does it, the younger attorneys working there, and aging baby boomers unwilling to contemplate life after the law.

Aging rainmakers have books of business that make them indispensable to many large  firms. Why? Throughout biglaw, simplistic metrics (billings, billable hours, and leverage) have determined individual partners’ annual compensation with an eye toward maximizing short-term average profits-per-partner that appear in Am Law‘s annual rankings.

It’s become bad long-term news for the firm. In such a culture, partners have every incentive to retain client responsibilities and none to mentor proteges or promote intergenerational transition. As they age, the old-timers hoard their marbles and threaten to take them elsewhere. Does that sound like a prescription for long-term institutional stability?

What about younger lawyers hoping to inherit clients? Many will find themselves in the position of the wealthy parents’ child awaiting a large bequest. By the time it comes, the kid will be in his 50s. Meanwhile, blockage wreaks havoc all the way down the food chain.

How about the aging attorneys themselves? Encouraging them to deny their own mortality isn’t helpful. Sorry, but once you’re over 65, you may be young at heart, but to the rest of the world, your colorists and/or your combovers aren’t persuasive.

Here’s the painful truth: we baby boomers are not that special. Think you’re indispensable? Put your hand in a pail of water, pull it out, and look at the size of the hole you leave. That’s how indispensable you are. Do you remember any of your own mentors fondly? Well, someday that’s what you’ll be to others — if you truly succeed in the ways that matter most.

Those who have followed this blog from the beginning know that its first series of posts, “PUZZLE PIECES — Parts 1 through 12″ (now archived in “CONNECTING THE DOTS”), dramatizes the problem of aging partners who hang on too long.  (http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/category/connecting-the-dots/) Special ciriticism goes to those who have also inculcated their firms with a business school mentality of misguided metrics. Such baby boomers are now positioning themselves to extract one  final pound of flesh on the way to dotage.

Are these aging leaders who retain literal death grips on their billings positive role models for successors? If the firms themselves don’t survive them, it won’t matter, will it?

25 YEARS…

There are no other lawyers in my family. One of my sons has a rock band, Harper Blynn, that just released its new album, The Loneliest Generation. (http://www.myspace.com/harperblynn)

It’s an anthem for young adults, but it also engages my Beatles-era baby boomer mind. The album’s first track – 25 Years – resonates on many levels. Fortuitously, it also marks the end of a time span that began with the first ever Am Law listing of the nation’s largest firms.

In its 1985 inaugural appearance, there were only 51 Am Law firms. (A tie required expanding the first group from its intended 50.) For a while, the annual lists were of passing interest, mostly to the profession’s voyeurs. But eventually, the rankings assumed a status that revolutionized the profession — in a very big way.

Once upon a time, how much money a person made wasn’t the subject of polite conversation. At least in the large law firm world,  Am Law changed all of that. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened.

For many firms, a key metric became definitive: average equity partner profits. Wrapped in illusory objectivity, decisions became easier:

“The numbers don’t lie.”

As firm leaders themselves became armed with MBAs, more business school-type metrics and jargon began to displace meaningful discussion about quality lawyering:

“What are your billable hours?”

“What’s the leverage ratio of non-equity lawyers working on the matter?”

“What client billings comprise the ‘business case’ for promoting an attorney to equity partner?”

And now the rhetoric is simpler as the transformation from profession to bottom-line business has become complete:

“A dollar of revenue is a dollar of revenue, period.”

“I’m just trying to run a business.”

Along the way, attorneys at many firms found the road to equity partnership longer and less certain. But things played out well for the winners, although retaining that status became more challenging, too. In 1990, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 were $565,000. Last year, in the midst of economic recession, they were still over $1.26 million.

How did all of this affect the culture of many firms? There’s no convenient metric for measuring that impact, but try this one:

In surveys identifying those who are the unhappiest and least satisfied workers in any occupation, lawyers — especially those in  big firms — consistently lead the pack. It’s a race no one wants to win.

Which takes me to the chorus of Harper Blynn’s 25 Years:

“You don’t have to go the lonely way –

– That wrecks your heart with sorrow and leaves your mind in disarray –

Don’t pretend that you don’t know -

         — Twenty-five years….and nothin’ to show.”

SECOND AND THIRD THOUGHTS?

Business school deans searching for professional models that will restore ethical legitimacy to MBA programs and principles aren’t the only ones second-guessing their earlier impacts.

At last week’s annual meeting of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association, Hildebrandt Baker Robbins participated in a panel discussion as a representative of the cottage industry it spawned: law firm management consulting. A 2010 Client Advisory on the legal profession’s immediate past and predicted future included this line:

“In our view, one of the serious misues of metrics in the past few years has been the overreliance on profits per equity partner as the defining index of a firm’s value and quality.”

Great. Now you tell us. Or I should say, now you change your mind. Or do you?

As the 1990-1991 recession decimated a much smaller version of what is now called biglaw, the National Law Journal’s annual survey of the largest 250 firms in 1991 quoted Bradford Hildebrandt, who in 1975 founded the company bearing his name:

“In most firms, current management has never operated within a recession and didn’t know how to deal with it…”

So who could save us from ourselves? Hildebrandt Inc. became one of the leading players in bringing business school principles and MBA-type metrics into law firm management.

By 1996, Mr. Hildebrandt himself had analyzed our situation and offered this assessment in that year’s NLJ 250 issue:

“The real problem of the 1980s was the lax admissions standards of associates of all firms to partnership. The way to fix that now is to make it harder to become a partner. The associate track is longer and more difficult, and you have a very big movement to two-tiered structured partnership.”

Did most big firms heed his advice? And how. It was an easy sale based on the promise of higher equity partner profits. That was the definitive metric, wasn’t it?

Now Hildebrandt offers a new metric to replace profits per equity partner as the key measure of overall firm performance: profit per employee.

What’s the new goal?

“Greater efficiency in the delivery of legal services,” the Advisory asserts.

Does the new guiding metric embody a more extreme version of an approach that has dominated most big firms for the past 20 years? Perhaps. But some proposals for individual partner evaluation hint at the need for a mid-course correction. Instead of billable hours, Hildebrandt suggests client satisfaction ratings. Rather than leverage, employee satisfaction ratings would matter.

Confused? Hildebrandt knows just the consulting firm to help implement these complex and seemingly contradictory metrics:

“As always, we stand ready to assist our clients in negotiating through these new and uncertain waters.”

Thanks so much for all of your help.

THE MBA MENTALITY RETHINKS ITSELF?

Yesterday, the Harvard Business School named its new dean.

According to the Wall Street Journal (May 5, 2010, p. B9), Professor Nitin Nohria says “his focus will be on business ethics, a cause he has long championed, particularly during the financial crisis. He has also been a vocal critic of management education and the leaders it produces.”

What does that have to do with the legal topics that usually occupy this space?

As the Great Recession deepened, Nohria and a colleague wrote that management should become a profession, complete with a code of ethics similar to that for lawyers. (“It’s Time To Make Management a True Profession,” Harvard Business Review, October 2008) Nohria wants to move business leaders away from a myopic focus on maximizing shareholder value toward a broader social vision of their roles as institutional custodians and citizens. Looking to the legal profession as a model, he hopes to restore legitmacy lost over the last decade.

Maybe he has Atticus Finch in mind. Sadly, Finch is a fictional character. It’s too late for the most lucrative and influential segment of the profession to help him.

The tide has already taken most of biglaw out to sea in the direction he seeks to reverse. Following their corporate clients’ examples, firm leaders have embraced an MBA-mentality. Increasingly over the past 20 years, large law firm managers themselves have MBAs and have relied on business-school metrics – billable hours, leverage ratios, and profits-per-partner — to dictate decisions that shape the culture of such places.

How that happened and the unfortunate behavior that adherence to such deceptively objective metrics can produce are subjects for another day (and the novel I just published — The Partnership.

For now, the point is this: If Dean Nohria is looking for a new model of something that is a profession, rather than a collection of bottom-line businesses where MBA-type metrics set the tone, he’ll have to look elsewhere.

Does anyone have any candidates?

PUZZLE PIECES – Part 10

[Continuing the imaginary cross-examination of a real senior partner profiled in the April 2010 issue of the ABA Journal(http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/not_done_yet)]

Q: “All right. Let’s look at 2009. In February, your firm cut 19 attorneys from its U.S offices and, a few weeks later, another 10 staffers?”

Partner: “We weren’t alone. Surely, you remember Black Thursday of that month — 800 biglaw attorneys and staff fired in a single day; over 1100 attorneys for the week.”

Q: “In March 2009, you said good-bye to 125 people — 63 attorneys and other time keepers and 62 adminsitrative staff?”

Partner: “With markets crashing, the firm couldn’t keep unproductive people on the payroll.”

Q: “And firms like yours couldn’t let their billable hours drop below 2,000 a  year, could they?”

Partner: “I don’t agree with that.”

Q: “Your firm’s responses for the NALP Directory said its minimum billable hours expectation for associates in 2008 was 1,950 in Philadelphia and 2,000 in New York, right?”

Partner: “So what? That’s not unique. Our press release explained that we’ve tried to match our resources with our projected needs.”

Q: “That press release came in July 2009, when your firm reportedly terminated another 25 associates along with staff and paralegal positions, right?”

Partner: “You’re citing Law.com and Above The Law.” 

Q: “And you’ve been shrinking your summer associate programs – in your Philadelphia headquarters, for example, from 37 in 2008 to 23 in 2009 to 13 in 2010, according to your NALP report?”

Partner: “If you say so.”

Q: “And in New York from 25 in 2009 to 12 this year?”

Partner: “Whatever the report says.”

Q: “Did your firm ever worry that it might be throwing its furniture into the fireplace in an effort to keep the house warm?”

Partner: “We’re keeping the best people. I’m not concerned.”

Q: “And you’re trying to keep the billable time of those survivors above 2,000 hours annually, aren’t you?

Partner: “That’s your characterization and conclusion, not mine.”

Q: “When you joined the firm in the early 1970′s, there’s wasn’t as much discussion about billable hours, which for most big firms in those days averaged around 1,700 a year, right?”

Partner: “It was a less important metric then. Times have changed.”

Q: “And another metric – leverage — now dictates that associates work eight years at your firm before receiving even non-equity partner consideration, right?”

Partner: “That’s what our NALP submission states.”

Q: “And the only thing your NALP submission says about the prospects for advancement to equity partnership thereafter is ‘CBC’ — case-by-case, right?”

Partner: “I don’t think we’re unusual in that respect. There are exceptions, but the pyramid is the prevailing large firm business model today. It endures because it works.”