IT’S NOT JUST ME

They acknowledge it’s a tough sell.

The co-chairman of a large, well-respected law firm has teamed with the former senior vice president and general counsel of General Electric to write an article that appeared in the May issue of The American Lawyer. The title says it all: “Noblesse Oblige: Firms must teach the younger generation what it means to be a true professional.”  (http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/plp/pdf/Noblesse_Oblige.pdf)

Here’s the first paragraph.

“Law firms have been moving from loosely managed associations of professionals to disciplined business organizations for more than a generation. This shift has caused an erosion of professional values (lawyers’ traditional commitment to enhancing society) and has increased the focus on economic return (firms’ relentless quest for escalating profits per partner).”

So how did that happen? Why doesn’t the younger generation already know what it means to be a true professional? Who have been their role models?

Better not to ask. Like me, the authors are members of the baby boomer generation that, as a group, bears responsiblity for a culture that some of us hope younger attorneys can change. In other words, do as we now say, not as too many of us did and still do.

Their suggestions start with the toughest job of all: persuading firm partners to move away from “inward-looking economics (more hours, more leverage, more profits, regardless of value)….”

For example, consider the concept of “productivity” — a bill of goods that self-styled legal consultants have sold to willing biglaw buyers for the past two decades. Increasing productivity has become a nice way of saying: “Get your billable hours  up.” In the Great Recession, it has translated into layoffs so that survivors worked harder.

The authors’ approach would revolutionize most firms’ fundamental cultures. The resulting benefits would flow to partners, associates, the unrepresented, and the community.

But it all begins with a willingness to jettison the business school mentality of misguided metrics that has made profits per partner biglaw’s pervasive measuring stick — in substantial part because it has made most biglaw equity partners wealthy beyond their wildest law school dreams.

How will equity partners respond to the news that they’ll have to earn less now for the promise of longer-term non-economic gains to the profession and, I dare say, to their own improved psychological well-being?

Sophocles wrote in Antigone, “No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.”

Shakespeare’s formulations — subsequently condensed to “don’t kill the messenger” — were likewise on point: “Though it be honest, it is never good to bring bad news” (Antony and Cleopatra) and “Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news Hath but a losing office.”  (Henry IV, Part 2.)

And when it comes to a willingness to hear unpleasant news about average equity partner profits, those of us familiar with the profession know too well the pervasive presence of biglaw’s equivalents to Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts:

“Off with their heads!”

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