Since the beginning of the Great Recession, some observers have predicted the demise of the Biglaw leverage model. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202428174244) Are they correct? After all, recent associate classes are dramatically smaller than in prior years. Unless equity partner ranks shrink proportionately, the argument goes, something has to give and that something will be the very business model itself. The days of using four or more associates to sustain a single equity partner must be numbered, right?
In fact, the model endures, but with structural innovations. What has been transient leverage — continuous non-equity attorney attrition coupled with annual replenishment from law schools — is giving way to something more permanent and, perhaps, more sinister for the future of the profession. Law firm management consultant Jerome Kowalski recently called it the “Associate Caste System.” (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202472939044&PostRecession_Law_Firms_A_New_Caste_System_Emerges)
New hires earning $160,000 a year are the “showcase pieces,” but they are a much smaller group than they once were. Below them at the same firms is a vast underbelly of lawyers. Some are full-time but have taken themselves off partner tracks and make less than their nominal classmates. At the bottom are contract attorneys whose jobs won’t last beyond their current projects. They work per diem with no benefits. Kowalski describes them as comparable to “those guys who hang around in front of a Home Depot waiting for some contractor to show up with a truck.”
The rise of legal outsourcing could add yet another attorney subclass contributor to Biglaw profits, provided firms can persuade clients to accept fees greater than what the people doing the outsourced work earn. That’s nothing new. For a long time, clients have regarded overpriced associates as a necessary cost incurred to retain a big-name attorney.
Does this add up to the demise of the lucrative leverage model that has kept average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 well above $1 million annually for many years?
For all practical purposes, it means the opposite. Although big firms are hiring 30 or 35 new associates rather than the 100 or more of a few years ago, most of them will still be unpleasantly surprised when they don’t capture the equity partner brass ring after pursuing it for a decade or more. That component of the model remains intact. Meanwhile, the rest of the leverage action has moved to the growing ranks of underbelly people. For as long as they get paid less than their billing rates, they contribute to equity partner wealth.
In fact, many Biglaw managers prefer this new system. They save on recruiting (say, 35 instead of 150 new associates each year), summer programs, associate training, and other expenses associated with talent development. Meanwhile, the underclass of attorneys who know their places will resign themselves to their limited prospects: a source of permanent leverage.
This continues an ugly trend: Many big firms have been candidly closing long-term career windows for their youngest lawyers. For example, Morgan Lewis already had a non-partner track for those who opted onto it. But when the firm recently announced a return to lock-step associate compensation, it included this kicker: another permanent non-partner track for young lawyers who pursue partnership but don’t make it. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/11/morganlewispay.html)
Rather than up-or-out, it’s becoming stick around and make the equity partners some money. In earlier times, wise firm leaders either promoted such individuals to well-deserved equity partnerships or terminated them as counterproductive blockage that undermined morale and deprived more promising younger lawyers of developmental opportunities. Either way, positioning the next generation to inherit clients served long-term institutional interests. But that’s less important when equity partners jealously guard their clients to preserve personal economic positions and “long-term” doesn’t extend beyond current profits or the coming year’s equity partner compensation decisions.
Here’s my question: How will any aspect of this new world promote the profession’s unique and defining values or improve Biglaw’s dismal career satisfaction rates? Here’s an even better one: Does anyone care?