I’ve never met Steven Pesner, who lit up the legal blogosphere with his now infamous e-mail to Akin Gump’s New York office litigation billers and their secretaries. (http://abovethelaw.com/2010/11/akin-gump-partner-pens-email-fantasy-about-firing-delinquent-time-keepers/) Some say he’s typical of big law partners; others argue hopefully that he is an exception. Someone else can tackle that survey. I’m interested in what the episode reveals about the prevailing large firm business model that put him in a position to disseminate the words that now define him.
First, his fundamental point applies to almost all large firms: Get your time in because the billable hour remains big law’s cornerstone. People working for Pesner undoubtedly log lots of them; they lead to revenue — an essential prerequisite to his internal power. That’s not unique.
Second, the model has many problems, only one of which he targets: Tardy time submission. Some attorneys wait a week — or even a month — before trying to “reconstruct” their billable activities. That allows them to believe that doing their best to remember earlier tasks isn’t lying. Insofar as Pesner sought to deter creative writing at week’s or month’s end, he was protecting clients and his firm. Of course, that doesn’t justify his rhetoric. Nothing can. But his topic reveals one of many flaws infecting the billable hour regime.
Third, economic self-interest looms large. His message went exclusively to all New York litigation personnel — a point commentators have ignored. Pesner’s departmental billings may well frame a larger internal debate: His NY litigation group’s near-term economic standing. He might have been preparing to defend his memo’s recipients against annual intra- and interoffice warfare with corporate, restructuring, and transactional group leaders. Most large firm equity partners eat what they kill, along with what they successfully claim to have killed. In many firms, allocating profits often starts geographically by office practice group before proceeding to rainmakers who then decide the fate of individuals within each group.
Fourth, Pesner’s valid points morphed into a tirade that reveals pervasive equity partner hubris, especially among big law managers: He believes his own press releases.
“9. For those of you who think you are exempt from doing time sheets on a daily basis, I’d suggest that you reevaluate your importance and get ready to prove that (a) you are busier than I am on legal work, (b) you are busier than I am on client development work, (c) you are busier than I am on firm work and (d) [Redacted] and I do not have better things to do with our time than beg you to be responsible.”
The word “I” appears five times. That’s how some senior partners orient their world — around themselves. Few, if any, others compare favorably to their own idealized self-images. Their constant refrain is “today’s young people just don’t want to work as hard as I did.” But as associates, none had the challenge of a BlackBerry keeping them on-call 24/7. In fact, they didn’t even have annual minimum billable hours requirements. Their hypocrisy is stunning.
Finally, he acknowledges the life-or-death power that all senior partners wield over subordinates’ careers:
“10. Candidly, I’d put every future material violator’s name in a hat, randomly pick out a name, and publicly fire the person on the spot—to demonstrate that time sheet compliance is serious business. And incidentally, it is my understanding that the job market is not so good right now in case you did not know.”
The immediate issue was time submissions, but the underlying attitude infects working relationships throughout big law. Pesner was unique in his candor, but not in his views. Few dare to challenge such a partner in a position to make or break careers. Pesner’s threatening finale leaves no doubt in that respect:
“11. Also, please remember that I have a long and excellent memory.
If you have any questions, think long and hard before asking them—this simply is not very complicated.”
Sometimes a few words from one man are worth a thousand pictures of what too many others in his profession have become.