BIG LAW’S 2012 PERFORMANCE — NUMBERS AND NUANCE

Two recent reports sound a warning that most big law firm leaders should heed. One is the Georgetown Center for the Study of the Legal Profession/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report on the State of the Legal Profession. The other is Citi Private Bank’s Annual Law Firm Survey.

Lessons from Dewey & LeBoeuf

The Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Report is noteworthy because, at long last, thoughtful analysts are giving Dewey & LeBoeuf’s collapse the larger context that it deserves. For the most past, today’s managing partners have persuaded themselves that Dewey’s failure resulted from a unique confluence of management missteps that they themselves could never make. But most current leaders are making them.

In particular, Dewey wasn’t an outlier; it was among the elite of the Am Law 100. The firm embodied a culmination of prevailing big law firm trends that can—and will—produce future disasters. As the Georgetown/Peer Monitor Report explains, those trends include raising the bar for promoting home-grown talent into equity partnerships while overpaying for lateral equity partner hires, increasing internal compensation spreads to create a subgroup of real players within equity partnerships, and ignoring the importance of morale and institutional loyalty to long-term stability.

Crunching the numbers

Meanwhile, Citi Private Bank’s annual full-year survey of big firms produced this upbeat headline: “Firms Posted a 4.3 Percent Rise in 2012 Profits.” But important underlying details are more troubling.

Although revenue and profits were up by 3.6 and 4.3 percent, respectively, overall demand at the 179 firms in the Citi sample grew by just 0.2 percent in 2012, expenses increased by 3.1 percent, and headcount grew more than demand. It’s a decidedly mixed bag of financial results.

In fact, Citi’s Dan DiPietro and Gretta Rusanow fear that the 2012 fourth quarter revenue surge saving many big firms “may not be sustainable.” For example, “survivorship bias” contributed to the final 2012 numbers. That is, Citi’s analysis removed Dewey & LeBoeuf’s revenue, demand, and equity partner figures from the 2011 base year because the firm disappeared in 2012. But most of Dewey’s revenue went to surviving firms, thereby artificially inflating the overall 2012 numbers. To some extent, it’s like comparing 2012’s apples to 2011’s oranges. Including Dewey’s 2011 numbers would have resulted in negative demand growth in 2012.

Citi also discussed the impact of accelerated year-end collections. They’re an annual event at most firms, but the expiring Bush-era tax cuts gave partners unique incentives to push clients for payment in December 2012. The report also mentioned a related possibility: firms may not have prepaid 2013 expenses.

A more insidious prospect goes unmentioned: some firms may have deferred expenses that were due and owing in December 2012. If the 2013 first quarter Citi report is surprisingly weak, look for a spike in expenses as a factor. Freedom to ignore generally accepted accounting principles in financial reporting gives law firms financial flexibility that can become dangerous.

Or maybe the numbers don’t matter

Transcending all of these possibilities is, perhaps, the simplest. Averages are often deceptive. For example, in a firm where the internal top-to-bottom equity partner income spread is ten-to-one or higher, average partner profits may reveal that some partners are players and most aren’t. But as an economic metric describing a typical partner in the firm, it’s useless.

Just as average profits can mask enormous differences within an equity partnership, so, too, overall average profits for the industry can hide the gap between successful firms and those struggling to survive. That means 2013 could be another year in which some Am Law 200 law firms will fail (or become absorbed in last-resort mergers).

Fragile winners

But even firms that regard themselves as financial winners in 2012 should beware. Many would do well to heed the Georgetown/Thomson Reuters caution about the loss of traditional partnership values that undermined Dewey & LeBouef. Considered from a different perspective, numbers that appear to demonstrate success can actually reveal lurking failure.

After all, as recently as the May 2011 list of the Am Law 100, Dewey was #23 in 2010 average equity partner profits ($1.8 million), #22 in gross revenue per lawyer ($910,000), and #19 on the Am Law profitability index with a profit margin of 36 percent. In February 2012, the firm made Am Law’s annual “most lateral hires” list for 2011, but no public report disclosed the firm’s staggering (but by no means unique) top-to-bottom equity partner income gap.

As a wise friend reminds me periodically, things are rarely as good as they seem — or as bad as they seem. He’s definitely right about the good part.

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