COMMENDABLE COMMENT AWARD

Rare candor at the top deserves recognition.

The September issue of The American Lawyer honors the magazine’s 2011 Lifetime Achievers — an impressive group. The list is alphabetical, which made Richard Beattie first. Now 72, he has enjoyed a long and distinguished career since joining Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett in 1968. Complementing a wildly successful big firm transactional practice, he also served the public in many capacities, including general counsel to the former U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare under Secretary Joseph Califano, Jr. in the 1970s.

In 1991, Beattie was elected to Simpson Thacher’s executive committee. He became chairman in 2004. By any measure, he has certainly earned his latest accolade. Yet another — my “Commendable Comment Award” — results from his response to The American Lawyer‘s question about his biggest regret:

“I regret the number of vacations with my family I missed as a result of working on transactions.”

Succeeding in big law requires talent, hard work, sacrifice, and — dare I say it — luck. Only the most reflective of big law leaders credit fortuity to their rise and even fewer discuss the downside — the personal cost that they and their families bear.

Mr. Beattie’s candor comes with a bit of irony. The same issue of the magazine reports this year’s Midlevel Associate Satisfaction survey. Overall, Simpson Thacher is tied for 56th out of 126 firms in the survey. It’s 36th out of 85 Am Law 100 and Global 100 firms. And remember, overall associate satisfaction for the survey group dropped again this year to an all-time low; being in the middle of the pack is, at best, a mediocre finish.

Going behind the numbers, Simpson scores below average in “family friendliness” — 3.47 out of five (the national average is 3.62). The firm is also below average in its associates’ stated likelihood of staying two years (3.44 compared to 3.58 nationally).

One more notable statistic from this year’s 2011 Am Law 100 listing: Simpson Thacher’s 2010 partner profits increased by more than nine percent over 2009. Its average profits per equity partner were $2.64 million — eighth place.

Being a lawyer has always been demanding. That won’t change. There are times when a situation requires sacrifices that only a particular lawyer (and his or her family) can make in responding to a client’s genuine emergency. But when it comes to big firms, clients in such situations rarely require the services of any particular mid-level associate.

In fact, during thirty years of practice, I never heard a client say, “I need associate X to cancel his or her family vacation to meet with me.” The seasoned senior partner may seem indispensable. Even the best midlevel associate? Never.

Which takes me back to Beattie and his firm. He gets high marks for admitting that work impaired his family life, but as a member of Simpson Thacher’s executive committee for two decades and chairman for the past seven years, he’s also had a unique power to shape his firm’s culture. His accomplishments are worthy of The American Lawyer‘s Lifetime Achievement Award, but he and others who set the profession’s tone have a special obligation to foster working environments in which young lawyers avoid what Beattie now describes as his biggest regret. Indeed, if they can’t, who can?

No leader of any big firm can single-handedly reverse the last two decades of unfortunately myopic and often short-sighted trends. But all should consider adopting “The Misery Index” — an informational tool that free market disciples should embrace. Such a metric might influence institutional behavior for the better, even if only marginally. Those willing to try it could, perhaps, improve the profession in ways they never thought possible back when they were missing all of those family vacations. There’s still time to keep others from missing theirs.

Anyone receiving honors recognizing a lifetime of achievement could leave no better legacy than empowering young proteges to avoid regrets similar to their own. Of course, the problem isn’t unique to Beattie or Simpson Thacher. It’s wrapped into the larger question of defining long-term success — a question that every big law leader should ponder for his or her firm. Regrettably, few will. There’s no way to bill a client for the time.

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