“SEND THE ELEVATOR BACK DOWN…”

Kevin Spacey regards late actor Jack Lemmon as a key influence in his life. He often quotes Lemmon’s famous remark:

“If you’re lucky enough to have done well, then it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.”

I thought about those comments as I read this year’s Am Law 100 listings and then took another look at last year’s. Rather than sending the elevator back down, most biglaw leaders seem to be pulling the ladder up.

A year ago, the editors of American Lawyer observed that since 1999, the number of non-equity partners in Am Law 100 firms increased threefold. But  the equity ranks rose by only one-third. For context, that was a decade when demand for all legal services surged and large firms in particular experienced explosive growth in revenues, headcount, and profitability.

In other words, there was more room everywhere — except at the top, apparently.

The May 2010 issue of American Lawyer noted that as gross revenues for the Am Law 100 fell, average equity partner profits for the group actually increased to over $1.26 million. How did that happen?

Answer: A multi-pronged attack.

First, firms increased productivity — which is another way of saying that some associates lost their jobs so the survivors could bill more hours. Remember Black Thursday in mid-February 2009 — a second St. Valentine’s Day massacre?

Second, they reduced staff, slashed summer programs, deferred or withdrew previous offers to new hires, and cut other expenses.

Finally and less publicly, some firms quietly moved equity partners to income status while putting the brakes on new entrants to the equity ranks. As a result, the number of non-equity partners rose again in 2009. That bulge in the biglaw python now comprises almost 40% of all Am Law 100 law firm partners.

Where will they go?

Maybe someday the biglaw benefactors bankrolling the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) will allow that organization systematically to gather tracking data that will tell us, just as it does for associates. You might think that all of the free market proselytizers in large firms would embrace more transparency on a topic of such central importance to law students trying to make career decisions.

Think again. NALP tried, but the organization ceased collection efforts in December 2009 because firms balked at providing it. In April, a prominent group of judges, professors, and attorneys wrote a letter criticizing NALP’s capitulation. In response, its executive director offered assurances that the board would consider the issue on April 26.

Now what?

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