BIG LAW’S SHORT-TERMISM PROBLEM

Recently, the New York Times devoted a special section of “Dealbook” to short-termism. Big law firms made a prominent appearance in an article focusing on leadership transition. Citing statistics at the managing partner level, the Times reports that only three percent of law firm managing partners are under age 50. Twelve percent are over 70. Almost half are between 60 and 70.

The Tip of the Graying Iceberg

The core problem of transition runs deeper than a single demographic data point about the age of those at the top of the big law pyramid. The developing crisis goes far beyond the question of who the next managing partner will be.

At most firms, aging partners at all partnership levels are hanging on to clients and billings. For them, it’s a matter of survival. Except for lock-step firms, equity partners “eat what they kill” — that is, their closely guarded silos of clients and billings determine their annual compensation.

In that culture, hoarding becomes essential to preserving annual compensation that partners come to regard as rightfully theirs — and theirs alone. Stated in language that many senior partners use in criticizing today’s young attorneys, these aging lawyers have developed a wrong-headed sense of entitlement.

The fact that they’re making far more than they dreamed of earning in law school doesn’t matter to them. Neither does the fact that they are compromising the future of their firms. But their short-term gains could become the institution’s long run catastrophe.

See the Problem

Surveys confirm that law firm leaders recognize the resulting problem. Seven years ago, Altman Weil issued the first of its annual “Law Firms in Transition” series. Since then, the survey has documented a fundamental failure of leadership on this issue.

For example, in the 2011 survey, Altman Weil asked firm leaders to name the areas in which they had the greatest concerns about their firms’ preparedness for change: “The top issue, identified by 47% of all firms, was the retirement and succession of Baby Boom lawyers in their law firms.”

In the 2012 survey, 70 percent of managing partners had “moderate” or “high” concern about client transition as senior partners retire. On a scale of one (no concern) to ten (extreme concern), the median score was seven.

In the 2013 survey, only 27 percent of managing partners reported that they had a formal succession planning process in place.

Ignore the Problem

How have these leaders responded to what they have identified for years as the most pressing long-term problem facing their firms? Poorly.

The 2015 survey observes, “In 63% of law firms, partners aged 60 or older control at least one quarter of total firm revenue, but only 31% of law firms have a formal succession planning process.”

There’s a reason that law firm leaders balk at meaningful transition planning. It requires them to accept the fact that they won’t run their firms forever. But contemplating one’s own mortality can be unpleasant.

It also requires them to rethink their missions. Leadership is not about maximizing this year’s partner profits or pursuing growth for the sake of growth to create illusory empires over which a dictator can preside. It requires a willingness to create incentive structures that encourage long-term institutional stability.

Toward that end, lofty aspirations are easier to state than to achieve. But here are a few governing principles:

— Client service should be central to everything a law firm does.

— Partner cooperation should trump partner competition.

— Clients and billings should flow seamlessly to the next generation while allowing aging partners to retain a sense of self-worth as firms encourage them to prepare for their “second acts,” whatever they may be.

— The culture of a firm should encourage partners to sacrifice some short-term financial self-interest in the effort to leave the firm better than they found it — just as their mentors did for most of them.

Become the Problem

The most creative leaders understand that all of this means thinking outside the conventional billable hour box that remains central to the short-term growth and profit-maximizing mindset. In that respect, the contrast between the absence of true leadership and clients’ desires is striking.

Since 2009, Altman Weil has done an annual survey of corporate chief legal officers, too. The survey asks the CLOs: “How serious are law firms about changing their legal service delivery model to provide greater value to clients?”

The responses are on a scale of one (not at all serious) to ten (doing everything they can), Every year since the survey began, the median score has been three. Three out of ten. Stated differently, as far as clients are concerned, their outside lawyers have little interest in responding to demands for change.

Likewise, LexisNexis/Counsel Link’s most recent semi-annual report analyzing six key metrics confirms the impact of short-termism:

— Clients want alternative fee arrangements. AFAs account for only seven percent of all billings.

— Clients want relief from high hourly rates. For the trailing 12-month period ending on June 30, 2015, big firms of more than 750 attorneys had a median partner billing rate of $711 an hour — up 6 percent from the period ending on December 31, 2014. (For firms of 501-750 lawyers the median hourly rate during the same period increased by only $5 an hour.)

The Future Is Here

As big firm leaders drag their feet, clients aren’t waiting for them. They have figured out that the biggest of big law premiums isn’t always worth it. An October 2013 study of $10 billion in client fee invoices by LexisNexis/Counsel Link concluded the “large enough” firms of 201-500 lawyers are eating into the market share of firms with more than 750 lawyers.

From 2010 to 2013, the biggest firms saw their market share drop from 26 percent to 22 percent. Meanwhile, the market share of the “large enough” firms increased from 18 to 22 percent. For high-fee matters totaling $1 million or more, the shift was even more dramatic: “large enough” firms increased their market share from 22 to 41 percent.

Anyone believing that most big law firm leaders are long-term thinkers preparing their firms for a challenging future is ignoring the actual behavior of those leaders. Most of them are focused on getting rich today. That’s not a strategy for success tomorrow.

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