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?

DEADLY SERIOUS

For some reader out there, this may be the most important article I’ve written — and there’s no room for levity. Yet another biglaw attorney ended his own life.

On July 15, a Chicago subway train struck and killed a Reed Smith partner. Late last week, the Cook County medical examiner confirmed that the 57-year-old father of two intentionally placed himself in harm’s way. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202463774221&rss=newswire)

It’s difficult to determine what leads anyone to take such an irrevocable step. The lines that tether each of us to this earth are thin and fragile. But the relative frequency with which lawyers in large firms have become the subject of such recent reports is disconcerting.

In April 2009, a 59-year-old Yale Law School graduate who headed Kilpatrick Stockton’s Supreme Court and appellate advocacy group took his own life. http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/a_death_in_the_office/

A month later, two more attorney suicides made the news — an associate and a partner in two different large firms. http://abajournal.com/news/disappointments_preceded_suicides_by_lawyers_at_three_major_law_firms In

January 2010, a 45-year-old partner in Baker & Hostetler’s Houston office apparently shot himself on a Galveston beach. http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/01/tragedy.html

Are these events more frequent? Or just more frequently reported? I fear it’s the former.

We’ve all encountered unhappy attorneys, but during my first 25 years in a big firm, I’d never heard of a lawyer anywhere who’d taken his or her own life. When I attended such a funeral for a young partner in 2005, eulogies confirmed that he’d battled internal demons since childhood.

That insight offered comfort. Survivors can move forward more easily when viewing themselves as dramatically different from the deceased. It requires a skill that lawyers hone: distinguishing otherwise relevant precedent.

Then came the unavoidable wave that began in early 2009.

Only those closest to the victim can even begin to describe the special circumstances surrounding his or her plight. The causes of such fatalities are as unique as the individuals involved. The choice to continue living becomes a frighteningly close call for some. Severe depression, other mental illness, and unrelenting physical pain can wreak incomprehensible havoc. None makes suicide a correct decision for the afflicted — just understandable. But if any such factors contributed to the recent spate of biglaw victims, the public reports didn’t disclose them.

Maybe government lawyers, attorneys in small- or mid-size firms, or those in other positions are committing suicide, too, but receiving less media attention. For example, when a 64-year-old Connecticut solo real estate practitioner hanged himself in November 2009, press coverage was minimal. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202435932676) But  such an argument loses its appeal when you consider that attorneys in the 250 largest firms comprise fewer than 15% of those practicing.

Does the interaction between the dominant large firm business model and the economic downturn provide a partial explanation? After all, most of the recently reported attorney suicides involved accomplished biglaw partners in their 40s and 50s.

No single set of shoulders bears the blame, and only the respective firms know whether or to what extent their actions might have contributed specifically to these final acts. I make no accusations in that regard.

But as a general matter, firms adhering religiously to an MBA-mentality of misguided metrics — billings, billable hours, and associate-partner leverage — as fundamental criteria for lawyer evaluation have become less collegial and more unforgiving. Even in good times, justifying your own economic existence anew during every review cycle can be unsettling or worse. For some, the feared loss of income or status can be powerfully unpleasant.

Assuming that they might have contributed even minimally to these tragedies, the pressures of the dominant biglaw model aren’t disappearing any time soon. So what’s my point? Simply this: The regime doesn’t have to victimize the most vulnerable.

Everyone — especially lawyers — should periodically assess whether the fit of a chosen job is right. Even if it’s not, the work may still be an acceptable way to make a living. No job is perfect; that’s why they call it work. But for some, the psychological toll can mount in dangerous ways. In such cases, only individual action can arrest a downward slide.

That might mean counseling, viewing your employment differently, finding a new legal job, or leaving the profession altogether. One thing is certain: For the chronically distressed, inaction can become a lethal decision.

In my Convocation Address to the Northwestern University Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences graduating class of 2010 last month, the line that interrupted my remarks with the longest and loudest applause from the 10,000 students and parents in attendance was also the most important:

“Seeking help when you need it is never a sign of weakness; it’s proof of strength.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DP3Uhiol6Vs)

I promise a lighter article next time.

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.

VACATION? WHAT’S THAT?

While dining out recently, my wife and I noticed a young couple at a nearby table. Their respective BlackBerrys mesmerized them; they rarely looked up or at each other. Even the arrival of entrees barely interrupted technological trances. During the hour-and-a-half we were there, they spoke only a handful of sentences.

According to a recent front page NY Times article, there’s a scientific explanation for such unsociable behavior. Unfortunately, the report filled two interior pages of the paper, which meant that it wasn’t likely to sustain the attention of those most needing its insights. Yes, I’m looking at you, my fellow lawyers, but you’re not the only culprits.

Young adults face a special challenge. If BlackBerrys and text-messaging feel familiar to you millennials, could it be related to the fact that you had Gameboys as kids?

Here’s a summary of “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price”:

1. Technology has reduced the need for direct human interaction. That produces important efficiencies, but it also inflicts collateral damage. For example, what was once considered family time has become parallel play on handheld devices. That’s what was happening with the couple seated near us at the restaurant. At another nearby table, a teenager and his younger sibling likewise lost themselves in their gadgets while preoccupied parents did likewise.

2. Multi-tasking is a myth for all but 3% of the population. The vast majority of us can do only one thing at a time reasonably well. Don’t blame me; that’s how the human mind operates.

3. When you try to multi-task, you become less efficient at juggling problems.

4. Multi-taskers are more sensitive to incoming information and, therefore, more easily distracted. But brains attempt to adapt. That can create problems, especially when the urge to remain plugged in assumes the attributes of an addiction. “The scary part,” notes Stanford professor of communications Clifford Nass, “is they can’t shut off their multi-tasking tendencies when they’re not multi-tasking.” Once the mind becomes attention deficit disordered (ADD), it gets bored more easily.

5. According to a recent poll, 30 percent of those under age 45 thought that cellphones, smart phones, and personal computers made it harder for them to focus.

All of this adds up to more stress — especially for lawyers and other professionals. So why do it? When economic historians revisit the stunning productivity gains of the 1990s and early 2000s, one big chunk will turn out to have been illusory. Specifically, technology facilitated the conversion of leisure time into working hours.

The legal profession epitomizes the phenomenon. In biglaw, productivity has become synonymous with billable hours, period. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what legal consultant Hildebrandt Baker Robbins said in its 2010 Client Advisory to our profession:

“The high point of law firm productivity was in the late 1990’s, when average annual billable hours for associates in many firms were hitting 2,300 to 2,500.”

In other words, the billable hours imperative destroyed the wall separating work from everything else. Especially in large firms charging ever-increasing rates, clients understandably expected their attorneys to be on-call — 24/7.  As client-billed time became a key metric for evaluating talent, senior partners demanded bigger  sacrifices all the way down the food chain. (“Keep your hours up,” they urged — and still do.)

Laptops, cellphones, and BlackBerrys have been aiders and abettors. After all, who can credibly claim to have been unavailable for any longer than it takes to visit the bathroom?

So the next time you tell yourself that you’re taking time off, spend a moment contemplating what that really means. Meanwhile, if you’re seeking my insights over the upcoming long holiday weekend, perhaps you’ll consider one of my books.

They’ll have to suffice because this blog will be idle until July 9. I’m taking an old-fashioned vacation: no computer; no BlackBerry; no cellphone. (Well, okay, I’ll take my cellphone so other family members can reach me in case of emergency; no one else has the number.) Sounds just like your vacations, right?

WEIRD TILTS AT THE RANKINGS WINDMILL

[UPDATE: On January 1, 2011, Northwestern's former dean, David Van Zandt, became president of The New School in New York.]

Virtually all law school deans — with the notable exception of Northwestern’s David Van Zandt — have urged prospective law students to ignore U.S. News rankings because they’re methodologically flawed, susceptible to manipulation, and counterproductive to sound student decision-making. None of that seems to bother students, most of whom regard them as authoritative.

I introduced Van Zandt’s outlier position in an earlier post. (http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/the-us-news-rankings-are-out/). More can be said about how his business school mentality hurts the school and its students, but not today. Right now, I’m more interested in two recent articles on U.S. News rankings.

First, Mercer University recently named its new dean. That’s not a particularly newsworthy item, especially for an undistinguished school. But the National Law Journal thought otherwise. Presumably, its May 27 headline explained why:

“‘U.S. News’ antagonist lands deanship at Mercer University.” http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202458884379&US_News_antagonist_lands_deanship_at_Mercer_University&hbxlogin=1

So that’s what made Gary Simson’s new job noteworthy? He was a U.S. News antagonist? But that describes every law school dean in the country — except Van Zandt.

Simson had been dean of the Case Western Reserve Law School for  18 months when, in summer 2008, he urged law schools to boycott the U.S. News rankings because deans pandered to them. (http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202423187148)

Dean Van Zandt quickly proved the point. A few months after Simson’s call to arms, the ABA Journal exposed Northwestern’s aggressive recruitment of prospective second-year students whom that school had rejected a year earlier. (http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/transfers_bolster_elite_schools/)  As transfers, their LSATs wouldn’t count in the U.S. News rankings, but their tuition dollars would go directly to the school’s bottom line.

Nobody asked students in the original 238-person class what they thought of that win-win solution for the business school mentality of misguided metrics. Their class grew by almost 20% in 2006-2007. Ironically, Northwestern’s U.S. News ranking has fallen for each of the last three years — from 9th to 11th.

Unfortunately, Dean Simson was already a wounded warrior when he took up the rankings crusade. He’d generated criticism from faculty, alumni, and donors for a variety of reasons, including Case’s low state bar passage rates (75% for Case first-time takers in February 2008 compared to 95% for Cleveland State’s). In October 2008 — just before another round of bar passage results was released — the university’s president announced that Simson  “had agreed to resign.”  (http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2008/10/case_western_reserve_law_schoo.html) So much for the boycott messenger and his message.

Yet now, two years later, Simson’s antagonism toward U.S. News rankings has become his claim to fame. Could skepticism about the rankings be attracting new followers and redeeming old ones?

That leads to the second article, also in the NLJ.  The Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) has urged law schools to stop providing U.S. News with incoming students’ LSAT scores. SALT asserts that the pressure on admissions deans to get students with top scores compromises efforts to achieve campus diversity. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202458731270)

It’s a noble gesture, but little more. Starving U.S. News of LSAT scores means only that the magazine will have to get such information from the ABA and the Law School Admission Council, both of which report LSATs at individual schools.

Still, recent noise about the dangers of using flawed rankings criteria as decisive metrics is encouraging. The volume should increase in October when U.S. News releases its newest compilation: rankings of the best law firms.

On that one, U.S.  News may have awakened a slumbering giant. In February, the ABA House of Delegates adopted a resolution to investigate the proposed law firm rankings and, while they’re at it, take a close look at law school ranking methods, too.

Perhaps someday wise leaders of our profession will grasp the destructive impact of the rankings game — from law schools to big firms (based on their average-equity-profits-per-partner metric) — and it will all end. But I doubt it.

After all, metrics make life’s decisions so much easier, don’t they? Indeed, they eliminate the need to think at all!

2,000 HOURS

Why is Yale an outlier? Last year, only 35% of its graduates started their careers in large firms. An equal number accepted judicial clerkships; many will eventually join biglaw for a while. Still, Yale has a longstanding pattern of trailing peer institutions that, until this year, routinely placed more than half of their graduating classes directly into big firms.

One explanation is Yale’s public service tradition. Recently, I stumbled onto another: the school encourages candor about associate life in biglaw.

For many reasons — including the quest for perceived status, the urgency of educational loan repayment schedules, and the promise of future riches — most graduates seek initial employment in big firms with stated minimum annual billable hour requirements. Unfortunately, students view such numbers as abstractions.

They don’t pause to consider what it means to say that 2,000 hours has replaced 1,800 as a critical evaluation metric. (A 1958 ABA pamphlet suggested 1,300 as an appropriate yearly goal. Seriously. That would qualify as part-time, non-partner track employment today.)

Yale publishes a brochure that breathes life into the numbers. “The Truth About The Billable Hour” outlines hypothetical workdays and should be required reading for any prospective lawyer.(http://www.law.yale.edu/documents/pdf/CDO_Public/cdo-billable_hour.pdf) 

When commuting, lunch, and bathroom breaks get included, the concept of billing 2,000 client hours assumes new meaning. It also provides perspective on legal consultant Hildebrandt Baker Robbins’s observation in its 2010 Client Advisory to our profession:

“The high point of law firm productivity was in the late 1990s, when average annual billable hours for associates in many firms were hitting 2,300 to 2,500.”

Astronomical billable hours are what Hildebrandt and others in its cottage industry told us was “productivity.” So guess what happened after they advised firms to increase it?

According to Hildebrandt in 2010: “The negative growth in productivity, even during the ‘boom’ years preceding the current downturn when demand was growing at a healthy rate, was driven to some extent by associate pushback on the unsustainable billable hour requirements at many firms.”

“Associate pushback” is a euphemism for skyrocketing attrition rates. Before the Great Recession, average associate attrition from the nation’s largest firms in 2007 had risen to 70% of that year’s new hires. (NALP published the data in its 2008 “Update on Associate Attrition.”) No one cares about that crisis level of turnover now because the demand for new graduates has collapsed and those who have jobs aren’t going anywhere soon — at least, voluntarily.

But if recent surveys are accurate, relatively few of the newly employed winners will find career satisfaction in their current firms. So what will happen after they finish repaying their school loans?

Like earlier crises confronting the profession, we’ll probably ignore that one when we get to it, too.

THE US NEWS RANKINGS ARE OUT!

[UPDATE: This post first appeared on April 16, 2010. On January 1, 2011, Northwestern's former dean, David Van Zandt, became president of The New School in New York.]

Earlier this week, I spoke with one of my former Northwestern undergraduate students. Headed for a top law school this fall, he surprised me with this remark:

“A lot of my classmates are waiting to send in their law school deposits until the latest US News rankings come out this week.”

Seriously?

Virtually every law school dean has condemned US News’ annual effort to do for law schools what the Am Law 100 has been doing for big firms. Those of you reading my “PUZZLE PIECES” installments know that annual profits-per-partner rankings haven’t brought out the best in us. It’s all part of a larger contemporary phenomenon: the MBA mentality of misguided metrics.

Unfortunately, students aren’t listening to the unanimous chorus of skeptical law school deans. It’s easier to follow the simplistic approach of a lonely outlier, Northwestern’s David Van Zandt: however wrongheaded, metrics matter.

For a decade, he has refused to join colleagues criticizing US News’ fatally flawed methodology. (See, e.g., Brian Leiter’s analysis) A self-styled maverick, Van Zandt insists that ratings are relevant consumer information.

His position proves too much. Not all misinformation should be allowed to pollute decision-makers’ minds. That’s why fraud and misrepresentation causes of action exist. There’s another problem: pandering to the US News criteria distorts law school administrators’ decisions. Once misguided metrics become governing principles, thoughtful reflection disappears. Teaching to the test is easier than creating imaginative lesson plans.

Lately, metrics seem to be foresaking the maverick. In 2009, Northwestern dropped from 9 to 10 in the US News overall standings; this year, it fell to 11.

Rationalizing the decline, Van Zandt says that his innovative programs haven’t gained traction because of “resistance within a conservative profession.” He argues from aneccdotal evidence that the future will vindicate him. Apart from his inconsistency in crediting a positive rating that suits his purposes but discounting it when things breaks badly, some might accuse him of magical thinking.

Is it time for Van Zandt to back away from his isolated defense of the US News listings? Sure, but it won’t happen. In an April 13 Above the Law post, he urges even more rankings, however dubious their value.

In the end, he’s a misguided metrics kind of guy — at least until Northwestern drops again next year. [UPDATE: It did -- to 12th, but by the time the news hit, Van Zandt had already left to become president of The New School in New York.]