I wasn’t going to write another article about Howrey. But then I read chairman Robert Ruyak’s explanations for his firm’s collapse, together with columnist Peggy Noonan’s review of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s new book. The two men have more in common than the first two letters of their last names. Both are at the center of dramatically unfortunate episodes that occurred on their respective watches. Both look for villains and miss the bigger picture.
Former Reagan speechwriter and conservative columnist Noonan opens her review with this: “I found myself flinging his book against the wall in hopes I would break its stupid little spine…You’d expect [Rumsfeld] to be reflective, to be self-questioning, and questioning of others, and to grapple with the ruin…He heard all the conversations. He was in on the decisions. You’d expect him to explain the overall, overarching strategic thinking that guided them. Since those decisions are in the process of turning out badly,…you’d expect him to critique and correct certain mindsets so that [others] will learn.” He doesn’t.
Those words also describe Ruyak’s unsatisfying explanations for Howrey’s failure:
1. European offices:
“The real problem we ran into in Europe was conflicts of interest…It’s a different analysis in Europe. But we had to apply the U.S. standards across Europe. That made it difficult to grow because we had to forgo a lot of cases…”
Analysis of potential conflicts issues should have anchored any business plan that began with London (2001) and continued with high-powered lateral acquisitions in Brussels (2002), Amsterdam (2003), Paris (2005), Munich (2007), and Madrid (2008). By July 2008, Howrey was Managing Intellectual Property‘s “Top U.S. Firm in Europe” with more than 100 lawyers there and plans for more.
More importantly, firms survive conflicts-related departures. But here, 26 European lawyers (12 partners, 14 associates) in October 2010 supposedly set off a chain reaction that crushed an otherwise healthy, 550-attorney firm that, only a decade earlier, had no European presence.
2. Document discovery vendors.
“We created a whole portion of the firm to handle [document discovery] efficiently – using staff attorneys and sometimes temporary people, computer systems and facilities.” Along came some companies that were “offering to do this work less expensively at a lower price.”
But in May 2009, Ruyak had attributed part of Howrey’s Am Law 100-leading revenue surge to avoiding “areas that suffered significant downturns,” singling out for praise the firm’s five-year-old document review and electronic discovery center that added $47 million to the top line. So successful was the Falls Church operation that he was considering a second one on the West Coast. (The American Lawyer, May 2009, p.118)
Yet somehow, 75 staff attorneys and 100 temps accounting for 8% of Howrey’s $570 million gross in 2008 became a key contributor to the firm’s demise two years later.
3. Contingent and alternative fees
“Unlike corporations that operate on an accrual basis, it’s hard to adjust from a cash base on your business to an accrual base where you are deferring significant amounts of revenue into future time periods. Once you make that adjustment, I think it works. But the adjustment period is difficult.”
In other words, partners couldn’t tolerate the deferred gratification associated with contingency fee matters. But they loved the upside. In 2008, Howrey’s average partner profits jumped almost 30% — to $1.3 million. When PPP dropped to $850,000 in 2009, Ruyak said 2008 had been an aberration resulting from $35 million in contingency receipts. (The American Lawyer, May 2010, p. 101)
Perhaps inadvertently, he revealed the real culprit: a revolution of rising expectations among the already rich. Ruyak put it this way: “Partners at major law firms have very little tolerance for change.”
If he’s referring to firms that have lost cohesion and a shared purpose beyond a myopic focus on current profits exceeding the last year’s, he’s right. But that culture exists for a reason. Aggressive lateral growth produces partners who don’t know each other. Firm allegiances become tenuous; the institutions themselves become fragile.
Ruyak’s self-serving explanations avoid accepting personal responsibility, but that’s not their greatest fault. The bigger problem is that other law firm leaders will find false comfort in his litany; it encourages the view that Howrey’s challenges were unique. As I said before, they weren’t.