Recently, the Wall Street Journal broke the story, but it’s not new. Five years ago, The American Lawyer‘s then editor-in-chief Aric Press posed this question after hearing about presentations that Citi Private Law Firm Group was making to big firm managers (I’m paraphrasing):
Were law firms providing his magazine with financial information different from what they told their bankers at Citigroup?
In 2006, Press thought not: “The American Lawyer’s report of profits per partner is essentially the same as Citi’s for 47 percent of the firms to which [Citi] has access. For another 22 percent, the difference is 10 percent or less.”
In other words, 69 percent consistency (i.e., within 10 percent) between Am Law and Citi data — and that’s before reconciling their different definitions of equity partner.
On August 22, 2011, the Journal headline read “Law Firms’ Profits Called Inflated” — a supposedly new scandal: “[A]ccording to the person briefed on Citi’s [latest] analysis, in addition to about 22% of the top 50 firms overstating their 2010 profits per partner by more than 20%, an additional 16% inflated their numbers by 10% to 20%. An additional 15% of the firms had profits-per-partner figures that were inflated by 5% to 10%….”
In other words, 62 percent consistency (within 10 percent), again before appropriate reconciliations.
For Citi’s latest sample size of 50, that’s a swing of three law firms.
Of course, no firm should inflate its Am Law PPP, but a few always have. In his 2006 article, Press wondered why. I think it’s because some metrics assume an unsavory life of their own. In that way, Am Law PPP functions similarly to U.S. News law school rankings. Even when the underlying numbers are accurate, relying on the metric to make important decisions can lead to unfortunate behavior.
Pandering to idiotic U.S. News criteria results in dubious practices that discredit the overall result: recruiting previously rejected applicants who went to other schools, but whose LSATs don’t count if they arrive as tuition-paying 2L transfer students; using post-graduation employment rates that don’t distinguish between full- and part-time positions, or jobs requiring a legal degree and those that don’t; awarding first-year scholarships to students with high GPAs and LSATs, only to crush them with mandatory grading curves that impose forfeiture for years two and three.
A similar devotion to misguided metrics dominates many firms. In the 2008 Am Law 100 issue, Press observed: “[P]rofits-per-partner [is] the metric that has turned law firm managers into contortionists…” Maximizing PPP means equity partners squeezing more billables out of everybody, raising rates, and “pulling up the ladder behind them.”
Reliance on misguided metrics isn’t unique to the legal profession. What starts as teaching to a test sometimes culminates in cheating to get higher scores — with middle school instructors at the center of alleged wrongdoing. But catching attorneys in this particular lie is more difficult than finding common erasures for a classroom of standardized test-takers. Like law schools that self-report their information to the ABA (and U.S. News), private law firms submit whatever they want to The American Lawyer. Recipients can’t verify what they get.
However, Citigroup is a lender to law firms and “independently reviews many law firms’ financial performance,” according to the Journal. The WSJ had a story only because Citi entertained an audience of big law chairmen and managing partners with discrepancies between actual law firm profits and what the firms reported for public consumption. I wonder if the bank tried to reconcile its own clients’ apparent discrepancies before highlighting what the WSJ now depicts as a pervasive scandal.
Legal consultant Jerome Kowalski urges firms to stop reporting PPP, as Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP announced it would last year. That’s unlikely, but meanwhile, the real travesty is that the liars go unidentified. Inflating profits for Am Law is a hubristic finger in the eyes of a firm’s client.
Maybe clients have no right to care what their lawyers make, as Adam Smith, Esq. argues in a recent blog post. But the unavoidable fact is that many do. From their perspective, the truth would have been bad enough. A few firms goosing their seven-figure PPP averages even higher make all firms look worse, not better.