LIFE IMITATES ART

Sunday’s lead article in the Business section of the May 2 NY Times brought to mind a passage in my forthcoming novel, The Partnership. It’s a legal thriller set against a power struggle at a fictional firm that has embraced biglaw’s twenty-year transformation from a profession to a bottom-line business.

First, the passage from my book, which will be available later this month:

“The crash of 2008 stalled a great run for most large firm equity partners. A year earlier, Michelman & Samson’s average partner profits had grown to almost $3 million. The reasons were obvious: the ratio of all attorneys to equity partners — a number that managers called leverage — doubled from three to six in only ten years. The firm tripled in size to more than two thousand attorneys in a dozen offices around the world. Average hours climbed as yearly billing rate increases far outstripped inflation. Trees, it seemed, really did grow to the sky.

“Michelman & Samson’s balanced portfolio of client work had historically provided protection against the vagaries of the business cycle…For some reason that mystified the firm’s Executive Committee, diversification wasn’t working as well this time. The lucrative corporate venture capital practice had led the firm’s fortunes upward, and it experienced the leading edge of the coming collapse. The transactional pipeline dried up first…The restructuring group picked up some of the slack, but not enough to maintain the historic profits of earlier times. Even worse, the uproar over executive compensation threatened to spill over into bankruptcy courts….”

Which brings me to the Sunday Times article. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/business/02workout.html?) Throughout the current Great Recession, some lucrative pockets of biglaw have fared pretty well. For example, overall average equity partner profits of the Am Law 100 (released last Thursday) actually rose slightly in 2009 — even though gross revenue, headcount, and revenue per lawyer fell.

Is the leverage-billable hours model that produces such results sustainable? I don’t know, but it faces a new assault. Kenneth Feinberg, the Washington lawyer who serves as the “pay czar” for banks receiving tax dollars, received another assignment last June. The court in the Lehman bankruptcy appointed him to monitor attorneys’ fees in the case.

“Unemployment is over 9 percent, and to be paying first-year associates $500 an hour angers the public,” the Times quotes him. “People read about all of this and say that lawyers and the legal system are one more example of Wall Street out of control.”

The 77-year-old dean of the bankruptcy bar, Harvey Miller, responded with a spirited defense of the $164 million that his firm reportedly has incurred as Lehman’s lead counsel since its 2008 bankruptcy filing:

“If you had cancer and you were going into an operation, while you were lying on the table, would you look at the surgeon and say, ‘I’d like a 10 percent discount…This is not a public, charitable event.'”

Miller sat on his firm’s management committee for 25 years. Where should I begin an analysis of what his remarks reveal about my once noble profession? 

Here’s one place: American Lawyer reported last week that the average equity partner profits of Miller’s firm — Weil Gotshal — increased to more than $2.3 million in 2009; their percentage of equity partners declined.

Here’s another: how many doctors make more than $1,000 an hour?

Here’s yet another: the Times noted that Miller’s firm also received $16 million in connection with the General Motors bankruptcy. Weren’t “public” taxpayer dollars involved in that one?

More thoughtful biglaw law attorneys declined to take the bait and refused comment to the Times.

Harvey won’t enjoy my novel.

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