KEEP FEEDING PROFITS THE BEAST. WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

Most Biglaw equity partners are weathering the persistent economic storm quite well. But who’s paying the price?

As the economy cratered in 2009, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 actually edged up slightly — to $1.26 million. As the summer of 2010 ended, law firm management consultant Hildebrandt Baker Robbins reported that profits remained healthy in a stagnant market.  (http://www.hbrconsulting.com/PMIQ2-2010) (Its Peer Monitor Economic Index (PMI) purports to capture the “drivers of law firm profitability, including rates, demand, productivity and expenses.” How’s that for a nifty, all-inclusive metric?)

Recently, Citi released six-month data for 2010 showing increases in average equity partner profits compared to 2009, notwithstanding flat revenue and reduced demand. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/09/citimidyear.html)

How are the equity partners doing it? Look at the PMI components: revenue, expenses, and productivity.

1.  During the first half of 2010, billing rates trended  up  by 4%. According to Citi, that increase could reflect senior partners with higher billing rates doing work that younger lawyers once performed. Such hoarding is the way some partners respond to lean economic times. No one escapes the pressure to maintain hours.

2.  Reduced expenses is a nice way of saying that attorneys and staff lost their jobs. Black Thursday in mid-February 2009 was bad enough; Biglaw laid off thousands of associates that week. But Hildebrandt noted that headcount reductions actually peaked months later — in the fourth quarter of 2009. This “relentless focus on cost cutting has managed to sustain profitability.”

The chairman of Citi’s Law Firm Group added, “Given these results, we see the first six months of 2010 as lackluster from a volume perspective but made palatable due to belt-tightening.” Whose belts?

3.  Increased productivity is MBA-speak for squeezing more billable hours from attorneys. Hildebrandt expressed concern that the quarter’s 1.7% productivity increase marked a slowdown compared to the 2.3% gains of the two prior quarters. The prime directive remains: Get those hours up.

Now what?

Hilbedrandt’s report: “We may be reaching an inflection point where major fundamental changes in legal service delivery are needed to prosper in the years ahead. New approaches to firm structures, client management, pricing strategies and talent development need to be closely examined. The challenge to firms will be in their willingness to innovate, experiment and change longstanding firm traditions in order to find new avenues of growth and profitability.”

What does that mean? Last week, Hildebrandt’s Lisa Smith offered a five-year scenario in which increased efficiency, outsourcing, and use of staff attorneys could combine to reduce the number of current non-partner attorneys in the Am Law 200 from 65,000 to 47,500 — a 27% drop. (http://www.hbrconsulting.com/blog/archive/2010/09/23/chipping-away-at-the-traditional-model.aspx ) It’s unclear if her assumed efficiency gains included expected law firm consolidations, but mergers of any businesses usually eliminate jobs.

Meanwhile, non-economic metrics — the ones that the predominant Biglaw business model ignores — add another dimension. Associate satisfaction continues to plummet. If someone asked, many partners would express discontent as well. Particularly unhappy would be those feeling vulnerable to the metrics that make decisions automatic in too many big firms: billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios.

Think equity partners are safe? Think again. As Citi’s Law Firm Group chairman noted, “Most firms reduced equity partner headcount in the first half of 2010, so it’s clear that this is a focal point. We believe it will continue to be a priority throughout 2010.”

All of this brings to mind Martin Niemoller’s famous remark about Nazi Germany during the 1930s: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist…” His litany continued through trade unionists and Jews before concluding,

“When they came for me, no one was left to speak for me.”

Here’s where the analogy fails: More than 85% of attorneys practice outside Biglaw. That’s a lot of survivors.

One thought on “KEEP FEEDING PROFITS THE BEAST. WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

  1. One of my pet peeves is the use of code words to cover up the true meaning of what is meant, and the word “productivity” is just such a word in the way that law firms use it. And not just in BigLaw; it is ubiquitous throughout the profession. Even in my smaller firm, I am instructed to keep up my “personal productivity.” Every time I hear that term, I want to gag. I am very productive in a number of ways: meeting with clients; sitting on boards of directors; hob-knobbing with local politicos; sponsoring and appearing at fundraisers and community events; representing my firm at recruiting events; engaging in administrative activities for my firm; etc. I spend at least 12 hours per day on client work plus these activities. Certainly I gain some sense of personal satisfaction from these non-billable activities but I would not do them, or at least not the vast majority of them, unless I was working at my firm. And yet, when I am admonished for my failure to keep up my “personal productivity,” of course all that is mentioned is the billable hours. Let’s just dispense with the smoke screen, please, and be honest about it: when law firms talk about “productivity,” they mean “billable hours.” And let’s also face another reality: for the majority of firms (at least in my experience), billable hours and revenue — not your skill as a lawyer, your successes for your clients, your service to your firm or community — are the key determinants in whether you will be kept around or let go.

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