GOLDMAN SACHS — AN INITIAL OBSERVATION

Media coverage since the SEC initiated its controversial enforcement action against Goldman on April 16 has reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with one of my kids’ twenty-something friends.

Immediately after college, he took an entry level position at Goldman. At the time, he properly regarded his offer as the ultimate reward for a distinguished record coupled with extraordinary personal charm. He didn’t know whether GS was the beginning of an investment banking career, but he hadn’t ruled it out. The pay was good and his student loan repayment program beckoned. (Sound familiar to any recent law school grads out there?)

At first, his enthusiasm was infectious:

“I’m getting pretty interesting assignments, including travel to attend presentations with more senior people. I’m working long hours, but the money is good. It’s nice to repay my loans and save a little money.”

Two years later, he was still working 16-hour days and his BlackBerry felt like a very long leash — or a choke-collar — that he could never remove.

“Here’s the real problem,” he told me. “When I look up at the successful people above me, I can’t find anyone whose life I’d want. The pressure, stress, and long hours never end. That’s a problem.”

I told him he had his eye on the right ball: look up the food chain and decide whether anyone leads the life you envision for yourself. When he completed repaying his student loans a year later, he quit to pursue a completely different line of work. He’s making less money, but his life is better.

Maybe his story doesn’t matter because he never belonged in investment banking in the first place. Then again, maybe his story — and his observations — are not unique to Goldman or investment banking or even biglaw. Like many talented young people who would have benefitted their organizations in the long-run, short-run reality drove them away.

Who will get this message to the top of such institutions? A recent NY Times article reveals the challenge, especially to any firm that is wildly successful in its financial mission of maximizing short-term profits:

“Even insiders acknowledge that Mr. [Lloyd] Blankfein [Goldman’s CEO], a former trader, has remade Goldman Sachs. He has built a giant powered by formidable trading operations rather than by bankers who give advice to corporate clients and help them raise money. In the past, Goldman was often run by two senior executives; one from trading and one from banking. Under Mr. Blankfein, the traders have consolidated their power.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/20/business/20blankfein.html?pagewanted=1)

Is it a problem? Here’s the rest of the NY Times quotation that caught my eye:

“Mr. Blankfein has surrounded himself with like-minded executives — ‘Lloyd loyalists,’ as they are known — plucked from the trading ranks….”

Are such lieutenants less likely to tell the emperor the truth about  his new clothes when he needs to hear it? It’s a question that many biglaw firm leaders might ponder as they strive to maximize profits per partner at the expense of other values that are less easily quantified. Maybe a biglaw episode of Undercover Boss would help.

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