The encampments are gone, but Occupy Wall Street leaves behind a slogan that should make any history student shudder and some big law leaders squirm:
“We’re the 99-percenters.”
It’s not a leftist fringe rant. During a recent Commonwealth Club of California appearance, presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer said that, if becoming President turned on the answer to a single question, he’d pose this one to every candidate:
“What are you going to do about the growing disparity of wealth in the United States of America?”
Once-great civilizations collapsed under such weight. A similar internal phenomenon is quietly weakening some mighty law firms.
“Don’t redistribute wealth — that’s class warfare” has become a popular rhetorical rallying cry. (See, for example, the Wall Street Journal‘s lead editorials on December 2 and 7.) But a stealth class war has already produced massive economic redistribution — from the 99-percenters to the one-percenters.
Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz writes in Vanity Fair that the top one percent control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth — up from 33 percent 25 years ago. In a recent interview, Jeffrey Winters of Northwestern University notes: “[In America], wealth is two times as concentrated as imperial Rome, which was a slave and farmer society. That’s how huge the gap is.”
Both Winters and Stiglitz suggest that today’s oligarchs use wealth to preserve power. One effective tactic is to encourage the pursuit of dreams that, for most 99-percenters, are largely illusory. My favorite New Yorker cartoon is a bar scene with a scruffy man in a T-shirt telling a well-dressed fellow patron: “As a potential lottery winner, I totally support tax cuts for the wealthy.”
For today’s young attorneys, one largely illusory dream has become the brass ring of a big firm equity partnership atop the leveraged pyramid.
Big law winners
So far, wealthy lawyers have avoided public outrage. But between 1979 and 2005, the top one percent of attorneys doubled their share of America’s income — from 0.61 to 1.22 percent. For the Am Law 50, average equity partner profits soared from $300,000 in 1985 ($630,000 in today’s dollars) to $1.5 million in 2010.
Even so, the really big gap — in society and within large law firms — is inside the ranks of the privileged, and it has been growing. By one estimate, the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans captured half of all gains going to the top one percent. Similarly, management consultant Kristin Stark of Hildebrandt Baker Robbins observes that before the recession, the top-to-bottom ratio within equity partnerships “was typically five-to-one in many firms. Very often today, we’re seeing that spread at 10-to-1, even 12-to-1.”
Meritocracies are vital and valuable, but for nations as well as for institutions, extreme income inequality reveals something about the culture that produces it. A recent study found that only three nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — Chile, Mexico and Turkey — have greater income inequality than America. Perhaps it’s coincidental, but all OECD countries with less inequality — including Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Germany, Austria, and Britain — likewise surpass the U.S. in almost every quality of life measure.
In big law, exploding inequality is one symptom of a profound ailment: The myopic focus on short-term compensation metrics that reward bad behavior — hoarding clients, demanding more billables, raising leverage ratios. As the prevailing model creates stunning wealth for a few, it encourages attitudes that poison working environments and diminish the profession.
Unlike imperial Rome, today’s large firms won’t fall prey to Huns and Vandals. Rather, modern casualties include mentoring, training, collegiality, community, loyalty, and building institutional connections between clients and young lawyers. Those characteristics once defined the very concept of professional partnership. Today’s business of law makes precious little room for them. Clients who think that these relatively new trends aren’t compromising the quality and cost of their legal services are kidding themselves.
A meaningful Occupy Big Law movement would require that: 1) clients (and courts approving attorneys’ fees petitions) finally say, “Enough!” and 2) would-be protesters stop viewing themselves as future equity partner lottery winners. Meanwhile, senior partners need not worry about disaffected lawyers and staff taking to the streets.
After all, there’s no way to bill that time.