DEWEY: 10 LESSONS LOST

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National news organizations began working on stories about the verdicts in the Dewey & LeBoeuf case long before the jury’s deliberations ended.

“What are the lessons?” several reporters asked me.

My initial inclination was to state the obvious: Until the jury renders its decision, who can say? But that would be an unfortunately limited way of viewing the tragedy that befell a once noble law firm. In fact, the trial obscured the most important lessons to be learned from the collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Lesson #1: You Are What You Eat

During the twelve months prior to the firms’ October 2007 merger, Dewey Ballantine hired 30 lateral partners; LeBoeuf Lamb hired 19. The combined firm continued that trend as Dewey & LeBoeuf became one of the top 10 firms in lateral recruiting. By 2011, 50 percent of the firm’s partners were post-2005 laterals into Dewey & LeBoeuf or its predecessors.

A partnership of relative strangers is not well-positioned to withstand adversity.

Lesson #2: Mind the Gap

To accomplish aggressive lateral hiring often means overpaying for talent and offering multi-year compensation promises. By 2012, Dewey & LeBoeuf’s ratio of highest-to-lowest paid equity partners was 20-to-1.

A lopsided, eat-what-you-kill partnership of haves and have-nots has difficulty adhering to a common mission.

Lesson #3: Not All Partners Are Partners

One corollary to a vast income gap within the equity ranks is the resulting partnership-within-a-partnership. As those at the top focus on the short-term interests of a select few, the long-run health of the institution suffers.

A partnership within a partnership can be a dangerous management structure.

Lesson #4: The Perils of Confirmation Bias

Firm leaders and their fellow partners are vulnerable to the same psychological tendencies that afflict us all. When former Dewey chairman Steven H. Davis held fast to his perennial view that better times were just around the corner, fellow partners wanted to believe him.

Magical thinking is not a business strategy.

Lesson #5: Short-termism Can Be Lethal

Short-term thinking dominates our society, even for people who view themselves as long-term strategists. At Dewey, the need to maximize current year partner profits and distribute cash to some partners overwhelmed any long-term vision that Davis sought to pursue.

In the not-so-long run, a firm can die.

Lesson #6: Behavior Follows Incentive Structures

Most firms hire lateral partners because they will add clients and billings. To prove their worth, laterals build client silos to prevent others from developing relationships with “their clients.” Similarly, there’s no incentive for partners in “eat-what-you-kill” firms to mentor young attorneys or facilitate the smooth intergenerational transition of client relationships.

Over time, the whole can become far less than the sum of its parts.

Lesson #7: Disaster Is Closer Than You Think

When the central feature of a firm’s culture is ever-increasing partner profits, even small dips become magnified. Incomes that are staggering to ordinary workers become insufficient to keep restless partners from finding a new place to work.

Death spirals accelerate.

Lesson #8: Underlings Beware

On cross-examination, some of the prosecution’s witnesses testified that at the time they made various accounting adjustments to Dewey’s books, they didn’t think they’d done anything wrong. But now they are parties to plea agreements that could produce prison time.

Deciding that something isn’t wrong is not always the same as determining that it’s right.

Lesson #9: Greed Governs

Who among the Dewey partners received the $150 million in bond proceeds from the firm’s 2010 bond offering? I posed that question a year ago and we still don’t know the answer. During the first five months of 2012 — as the firm was in its death throes — a small group of 25 partners received $21 million while the firm drew down its bank credit lines. Who masterminded that strategy?

In a November 2012 filing with the Dewey bankruptcy court, Steven Davis explained why Dewey collapsed: “While ‘greed’ is a theme…, the litigation that eventually ensues will address the question of whose greed.” (Docket #654) He was referring to some of his former partners who ignored the role that fortuity had played in creating their personal wealth.

Hubris is a powerfully destructive force.

Lesson #10: Superficial Differences Don’t Change Outcomes

For the three years that Dewey has been in the news, many big law firm leaders have been performing the task at which attorneys excel: distinguishing adverse precedent. In great detail, they explain all of the ways that their firms are nothing like Dewey. But they fail to consider the more significant ways in which their firms are similar.

A walk past the graveyard is easier when you whistle. Louder is better. Extremely loud and running is best.

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