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.”

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