SOME DOCTORS THINK THEY’RE GOD; SOME LAWYERS THINK THEY’RE DOCTORS

The medical analogy seemed familiar:

“When somebody comes to the emergency room and is on the operating table hemorrhaging, you don’t ask if [he] can pay the surgeon. You save the patient.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/02/business/02commission.html)

Lehman Brothers’ prominent bankruptcy lawyer was echoing the position of his client, former chairman Richard Fuld, a trader who rose from mail clerk to CEO. In his congressional testimony a few weeks ago, Fuld’s dominant theme was that others caused his company’s collapse. As untoward events overwhelmed the entire financial system, Lehman didn’t receive the favored treatment that saved AIG, facilitated JP Morgan Chase’s acquisition of Bear Stearns, allowed Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to become classified as bank holding companies, and eventually enacted a $700 billion TARP program to buttress things.

The argument that the federal government should have stepped in to help seemed like an odd position for any ardent Wall Street capitalist, but he had a point. Back in September 2008, I wondered whether Treasury Secretary Paulson’s enthusiasm to allow the market’s creative destruction waned just a bit as Goldman Sachs, the firm Paulson had led before joining the Bush Administration, seemed to careen along the same catastrophic path as Lehman’s.

Still, omitted from Fuld’s analysis was his own mindset. In a single sentence at the end of his prepared remarks, he acknowledged “some poorly timed business decisions and investments, but we addressed those mistakes…” (http://www.fcic.gov/hearings/pdfs/2010-0901-Fuld.pdf ). He gave little attention to his own attitudes that created the institutional culture described in the Lehman Bankruptcy Examiner’s Report (authored by former U.S. attorney Anton Valukas):

“In 2006, Lehman made the deliberate decision to embark upon an aggressive growth strategy, to take on significantly greater risk, and to substantially increase leverage on its capital. In 2007, as the sub‐prime residential mortgage business progressed from problem to crisis, Lehman was slow to recognize the developing storm and its spillover effect upon commercial real estate and other business lines. Rather than pull back, Lehman made the conscious decision to “double down,” hoping to profit from a counter‐cyclical strategy. As it did so, Lehman significantly and repeatedly exceeded its own internal risk limits and controls.”

Presumably, the Lehman lawyer’s “saving the patient” point was that taxpayer-funded loans to the company in September 2008 would have allowed time for more orderly asset sales and, perhaps, avoided bankruptcy altogether.

Maybe he and Fuld are right, but the Fed’s lawyer saw things differently:

“If the Federal Reserve had lent money to Lehman, this hearing and all other hearings would only have been about how we wasted taxpayers’ money.”

I was less interested in who’s right than in the medical analogy, which seemed familiar. Then I remembered that, in a different context, the same lawyer said this in May:

“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.”  (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/business/02workout.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hpw)

Back then, this attorney was commenting on requests from Kenneth Feinberg (court-appointed monitor in the Lehman bankruptcy) and Brady Williamson (examiner in the GM bankruptcy) for discounts in his Biglaw legal fees that reportedly ranged from $500/hour for first-year associates to more than $1,000/hour for some senior partners.

His concluding line — “this is not a public, charitable event” — was interesting. Bristling at the scutiny that Biglaw’s hourly rates had generated, he must have known that his firm had already billed $16 million in GM bankruptcy fees. Wasn’t “public” taxpayer money involved in GM’s dissolution?

The problem — universal throughout Biglaw — is this senior lawyer’s attitude of entitlement. (According to Am Law‘s 2010 list, his firm’s average equity partner profits exceeded $2.3 million in 2009.) The irony is the frequency with which partners make that complaint about younger lawyers: “They act like they’re entitled…they aren’t willing to work hard, like I did…they think they’re special.” I’ll bet such critics never thought that these traits merely qualified the upstarts to inherit their Biglaw thrones.

At the end of the day, I don’t know whether federal loans would have saved Lehman, but I’m sure of this: I hope I’m never on a operating table while a Biglaw attorney possessing such hubris holds the scalpel or the tourniquet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s