THE GOLDMAN MODEL FOR BIG LAW?

Goldman Sachs has been in the news a lot lately. Taken together, several articles suggest parallels to big law. Anyone wondering where many large law firm leaders want to take their institutions — and how they might get there — should look closely at Goldman. As law firms have embraced metrics that maximize short-term partner profits, they’ve moved steadily in Goldman’s direction. If America follows Australia and the UK in permitting non-attorneys to invest in law firms, a tipping point could arrive.

Others ponder this possibility. Professor Mitt Regan, Co-Director of the Georgetown Center for the Study of the Legal Profession, has been thinking, writing, and speaking thoughtfully about non-lawyer investment in law firms for a long time. Understandably, most academic observers focus on the outside — how smaller firms’ access to capital could affect competition, the interaction with attorneys’ ethical obligations, and the like.

Those are important issues, but I’m more interested on the inside. Presumably, the process would involve current equity partners selling ownership interests to investors. Many of those in big law who already take a short-term economic view of their institutions would leap at the opportunity for a one-time payday that discounted future cash flows to today’s dollar. In fact, a big lump sum will tempt every equity partner who worries about next year’s annual review.

Then what? Perhaps Goldman has devised an adaptable mechanism. When it went public in 1999, Goldman Sachs retained a partnership system within a larger corporate structure. As the Times notes, “Goldman’s partners are its highest paid executives and it biggest stars….”

Consider the similarities to big law:

— Management

Traders displaced traditional investment bankers and chairman Lloyd Blankfein surrounded himself with “like-minded executives — ‘Lloyd loyalists,'” according to the Times. Transactional attorneys have similarly risen to lead many big law firms; dissent is not always a cherished value.

— Resulting culture changes

Seeking to represent all sides of a deal, Goldman became adept at managing conflicts rather than avoiding them, a former insider told the Times. Large law firms have developed standard retention letters that maximize their representational flexibility to take on more lucrative matters that might arise.

— Metrics

Goldman’s leverage ratio is stunning: 475 partners out of more than 35,000 employees. As a group, large firms have pulled up ladders, widened the top-to-bottom range within equity partnerships, and doubled attorney-to-equity partner leverage ratios between 1985 and 2010.

— Partner Wealth

Goldman’s partners are famously rich. Many big firm equity partners now enjoy seven-figure incomes previously reserved for media celebrities, professional athletes, and investment bankers.

All of this raises an important question: How well is the model working — and for whom? Maintaining the stability of such a regime presents challenges. Goldman partners maximize their continuing influence as minority shareholders by acting in unison on shareholder votes. But the cast of characters constantly changes. According to the Times, “Every two years, roughly 70 executives leave the club, by choice or because they are no longer pulling their weight. The average tenure is about seven years…Within five years of the IPO, almost 60 percent of the original partners were gone…”

In the end, the environment is problematic for many, as one former Goldman partner told the Times:

“It’s a very Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest firm.”

It could also be big law’s future. Then again, some firms may already be there.

Here’s a concluding thought: perhaps Goldman Sachs will become a big law outside investor that buys its way into the legal profession. That shouldn’t bother anyone. After all, Lloyd Blankfein graduated from Harvard Law School.

WHO REMEMBERS FINLEY KUMBLE?

“I just don’t see the need to cram two firms with around a thousand lawyers [each] together. It made no sense,” one Akin partner reportedly told the National Law Journal shortly after the collapse of Akin-Orrick merger talks.

The number of law firm mergers in 2010 is down from recent years, but look at the headliners: Sonnenschein – Denton; Hogan & Hartson – Lovells; Reed Smith – Thompson & Knight; Orrick and anyone. An earlier consolidation wave produced K&L Gates, DLA Piper, Bingham McCutcheon and others.

How much of this activity proceeds from the simplistic premise that bigger is always better?

When I was a young partner in my large firm, Finley Kumble became a disaster that struck fear in the hearts of big firm expansionists. During the early 1980s, Finley rocked the legal world as it signed up high-profile figures and raided other firms’ superstars, some of whom earned the then-staggering sum of $1 million annually. From only 8 lawyers in 1968, Finley became the nation’s second largest firm by 1985.

It promoted itself as a national powerhouse run on principles of meritocracy. The more business a lawyer generated, the more money he or she took home. Money was the glue that held the partnership together. Does that sound familiar?

But Finley grew too fast, assuming debt for office expansions and promising outsized paychecks to big name lateral hires. As revenue dollars dwindled, the firm disintegrated. With more than 650 attorneys at the time of its dissolution in 1987, it was still one of the nation’s largest firms.

The ghost of Finley Kumble haunted Biglaw leaders for years. Some saw its end as confirming that even large, diverse firms possessed their own identities. Mixing cultures through aggressive recruitment of name players with portable practices was a mistake. Others concluded that senior attorneys and their egos couldn’t survive as a single cohesive unit if their sole point of intersecting common purpose was greed. Still others saw the failure as an inevitable consequence of unrestrained growth. Finley proved that there was a limit on the size that any healthy large law firm could attain. No one knew the outside boundary with certainty, but crossing it was fatal.

What did today’s Biglaw managers learn from the lessons of Finley Kumble’s demise? Probably very little. After all, lawyers excel at distinguishing away precedent that undermines their preferred positions.

In that respect, modern proponents of growth through merger and high-profile lateral acquisitions can point to many differences between Finley and today’s firms. For example, the use of MBA-type metrics that focus on short-term profits at the expense of non-monetary values is now pervasive throughout Biglaw. In that respect, the earlier potential for cultural clashes has diminished as  current year equity partner profits have become the universal coin of the realm. Likewise, lateral movement at all levels — especially among rainmakers who were Finley Kumble’s signature recruits — has become commonplace. Indeed, the legal world has become more hospitable to Finley’s central mission and modus operandi.

It would be interesting to hear from former Finley attorneys on the question of how today’s large firms differ from what their old firm once was. Perhaps Finley was just ahead of its time. Or perhaps some major players in Biglaw law are about to see their times change. Or maybe the large firm segment of the profession is proceeding toward the same countdown that big accounting firms have already experienced: From Big 8 to Big 6 to Big 5 to Big 4 — and the race is on to be one of those few.

Here’s the key question: Who benefits in the long run from the rise of mega-firms? Management consultants embrace strategic fits producing scale economies that supposedly benefit clients and equity partners. Perhaps they are correct. But who considers whether hidden costs include undermining community, exacerbating attorney dissatisfaction, or imperiling broader professional values?

Personally, I enjoyed the time when I recognized most of my equity partners at the firm’s annual meetings. Who is willing to develop or consider a metric by which to measure that?

KEEP FEEDING PROFITS THE BEAST. WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

Most Biglaw equity partners are weathering the persistent economic storm quite well. But who’s paying the price?

As the economy cratered in 2009, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 actually edged up slightly — to $1.26 million. As the summer of 2010 ended, law firm management consultant Hildebrandt Baker Robbins reported that profits remained healthy in a stagnant market.  (http://www.hbrconsulting.com/PMIQ2-2010) (Its Peer Monitor Economic Index (PMI) purports to capture the “drivers of law firm profitability, including rates, demand, productivity and expenses.” How’s that for a nifty, all-inclusive metric?)

Recently, Citi released six-month data for 2010 showing increases in average equity partner profits compared to 2009, notwithstanding flat revenue and reduced demand. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/09/citimidyear.html)

How are the equity partners doing it? Look at the PMI components: revenue, expenses, and productivity.

1.  During the first half of 2010, billing rates trended  up  by 4%. According to Citi, that increase could reflect senior partners with higher billing rates doing work that younger lawyers once performed. Such hoarding is the way some partners respond to lean economic times. No one escapes the pressure to maintain hours.

2.  Reduced expenses is a nice way of saying that attorneys and staff lost their jobs. Black Thursday in mid-February 2009 was bad enough; Biglaw laid off thousands of associates that week. But Hildebrandt noted that headcount reductions actually peaked months later — in the fourth quarter of 2009. This “relentless focus on cost cutting has managed to sustain profitability.”

The chairman of Citi’s Law Firm Group added, “Given these results, we see the first six months of 2010 as lackluster from a volume perspective but made palatable due to belt-tightening.” Whose belts?

3.  Increased productivity is MBA-speak for squeezing more billable hours from attorneys. Hildebrandt expressed concern that the quarter’s 1.7% productivity increase marked a slowdown compared to the 2.3% gains of the two prior quarters. The prime directive remains: Get those hours up.

Now what?

Hilbedrandt’s report: “We may be reaching an inflection point where major fundamental changes in legal service delivery are needed to prosper in the years ahead. New approaches to firm structures, client management, pricing strategies and talent development need to be closely examined. The challenge to firms will be in their willingness to innovate, experiment and change longstanding firm traditions in order to find new avenues of growth and profitability.”

What does that mean? Last week, Hildebrandt’s Lisa Smith offered a five-year scenario in which increased efficiency, outsourcing, and use of staff attorneys could combine to reduce the number of current non-partner attorneys in the Am Law 200 from 65,000 to 47,500 — a 27% drop. (http://www.hbrconsulting.com/blog/archive/2010/09/23/chipping-away-at-the-traditional-model.aspx ) It’s unclear if her assumed efficiency gains included expected law firm consolidations, but mergers of any businesses usually eliminate jobs.

Meanwhile, non-economic metrics — the ones that the predominant Biglaw business model ignores — add another dimension. Associate satisfaction continues to plummet. If someone asked, many partners would express discontent as well. Particularly unhappy would be those feeling vulnerable to the metrics that make decisions automatic in too many big firms: billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios.

Think equity partners are safe? Think again. As Citi’s Law Firm Group chairman noted, “Most firms reduced equity partner headcount in the first half of 2010, so it’s clear that this is a focal point. We believe it will continue to be a priority throughout 2010.”

All of this brings to mind Martin Niemoller’s famous remark about Nazi Germany during the 1930s: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist…” His litany continued through trade unionists and Jews before concluding,

“When they came for me, no one was left to speak for me.”

Here’s where the analogy fails: More than 85% of attorneys practice outside Biglaw. That’s a lot of survivors.

SOLVING THE BIGLAW MYSTERY OF GROWING CAREER DISSATISFACTION

Clues that explain the growing ranks of dissatisfied Biglaw attorneys are everywhere — even on C-Span. I’d intended to watch the recently televised replay of a judicial conference panel discussion for a few minutes, but the ongoing train wreck captivated this onlooker for an hour. I wonder if I can get CLE credit?

Participants included a Biglaw managing partner, the general counsel of Fortune 100 company, and a professor at a top law school. The absence of a law firm management consultant was surprising; they’re ubiquitous.

There’s no reason to name the Biglaw partner or his firm because his views are mainstream — and reveal why attorney career dissatisfaction continues to increase more rapidly in large firms than elsewhere. Here’s a synopsis of his comments:

1.  Law schools should turn out project managers. That’s what he and his clients really need because front line opportunities — such as trials for litigators — are disappearing.

2.  In their first days at his firm, new associates learn about its finances: “They realize that our 35% profit margins are fragile. They understand the importance of billing their time. They know more about the firm’s finances than I did as a first-year partner.” He didn’t mention Am Law‘s most recent report that his firm’s average equity partner profits exceeded $1 million. Everyone avoided that elephant in the room.

3.  When asked whether associates today felt greater work-related pressures, he was adamant: “No. People today are nostalgic for a time that never existed. As an associate, I worked hundreds of hours a week reviewing documents. Today’s associates don’t work any harder, just differently. They leave the office, have dinner with their families, help put the kids to bed, and then work from their home computers. So they actually have it better than I did.”

The client representative on the panel followed with a line that generated the day’s biggest laugh: “I’m wondering how you billed hundreds of hours a week when there are only 168 hours in a week. But then I realized that you were talking about the bill you sent the client!”

No one asked the Biglaw partner an obvious and unsettling question: His firm’s NALP directory reports an associate minimum requirement of 2,000 billable hours yearly. What was the requirement in the early 1970s, when he was an associate? (Answer: There wasn’t one. There also weren’t cellphones or BlackBerrys that tether today’s attorneys to their jobs — 24/7.)

The law professor responded that law schools can’t train project managers because they’re not business schools. Besides, the law requires something different from such vocational-type training. He could have added that fewer that 15% of all attorneys comprise the NLJ 250, thereby prompting the obvious follow-up: Why should law schools tailor curriculum to satisfy such a small segment of the profession anyway?

“With highly paid starting positions in big firms disappearing,” he concluded, “what am I supposed to tell incoming students they’ll be getting for the $150,000 required to obtain a law degree?” No one suggested the truth, however he saw it.

The general counsel disagreed with the Biglaw partner on a key point: “I don’t hire lawyers to be project managers. I want their best judgments and special skills.” The Biglaw partner replied that perhaps the GC didn’t really know what he wanted or needed.

The audience submitted written questions; the best came from a judge: “I didn’t go to law school to become rich. Why is everything so focused on the money? Is professionalism gone and, if so, how do we recover it?”

When such panels include attorneys willing to speak truth to power, we’ll hear honest answers to those inquiries. But who wants that?

SOME DOCTORS THINK THEY’RE GOD; SOME LAWYERS THINK THEY’RE DOCTORS

The medical analogy seemed familiar:

“When somebody comes to the emergency room and is on the operating table hemorrhaging, you don’t ask if [he] can pay the surgeon. You save the patient.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/02/business/02commission.html)

Lehman Brothers’ prominent bankruptcy lawyer was echoing the position of his client, former chairman Richard Fuld, a trader who rose from mail clerk to CEO. In his congressional testimony a few weeks ago, Fuld’s dominant theme was that others caused his company’s collapse. As untoward events overwhelmed the entire financial system, Lehman didn’t receive the favored treatment that saved AIG, facilitated JP Morgan Chase’s acquisition of Bear Stearns, allowed Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to become classified as bank holding companies, and eventually enacted a $700 billion TARP program to buttress things.

The argument that the federal government should have stepped in to help seemed like an odd position for any ardent Wall Street capitalist, but he had a point. Back in September 2008, I wondered whether Treasury Secretary Paulson’s enthusiasm to allow the market’s creative destruction waned just a bit as Goldman Sachs, the firm Paulson had led before joining the Bush Administration, seemed to careen along the same catastrophic path as Lehman’s.

Still, omitted from Fuld’s analysis was his own mindset. In a single sentence at the end of his prepared remarks, he acknowledged “some poorly timed business decisions and investments, but we addressed those mistakes…” (http://www.fcic.gov/hearings/pdfs/2010-0901-Fuld.pdf ). He gave little attention to his own attitudes that created the institutional culture described in the Lehman Bankruptcy Examiner’s Report (authored by former U.S. attorney Anton Valukas):

“In 2006, Lehman made the deliberate decision to embark upon an aggressive growth strategy, to take on significantly greater risk, and to substantially increase leverage on its capital. In 2007, as the sub‐prime residential mortgage business progressed from problem to crisis, Lehman was slow to recognize the developing storm and its spillover effect upon commercial real estate and other business lines. Rather than pull back, Lehman made the conscious decision to “double down,” hoping to profit from a counter‐cyclical strategy. As it did so, Lehman significantly and repeatedly exceeded its own internal risk limits and controls.”

Presumably, the Lehman lawyer’s “saving the patient” point was that taxpayer-funded loans to the company in September 2008 would have allowed time for more orderly asset sales and, perhaps, avoided bankruptcy altogether.

Maybe he and Fuld are right, but the Fed’s lawyer saw things differently:

“If the Federal Reserve had lent money to Lehman, this hearing and all other hearings would only have been about how we wasted taxpayers’ money.”

I was less interested in who’s right than in the medical analogy, which seemed familiar. Then I remembered that, in a different context, the same lawyer said this in May:

“If you had cancer and you were going into an operation, while you were lying on the table, would you look at the surgeon and say, ‘I’d like a 10 percent discount’? This is not a public, charitable event.”  (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/business/02workout.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hpw)

Back then, this attorney was commenting on requests from Kenneth Feinberg (court-appointed monitor in the Lehman bankruptcy) and Brady Williamson (examiner in the GM bankruptcy) for discounts in his Biglaw legal fees that reportedly ranged from $500/hour for first-year associates to more than $1,000/hour for some senior partners.

His concluding line — “this is not a public, charitable event” — was interesting. Bristling at the scutiny that Biglaw’s hourly rates had generated, he must have known that his firm had already billed $16 million in GM bankruptcy fees. Wasn’t “public” taxpayer money involved in GM’s dissolution?

The problem — universal throughout Biglaw — is this senior lawyer’s attitude of entitlement. (According to Am Law‘s 2010 list, his firm’s average equity partner profits exceeded $2.3 million in 2009.) The irony is the frequency with which partners make that complaint about younger lawyers: “They act like they’re entitled…they aren’t willing to work hard, like I did…they think they’re special.” I’ll bet such critics never thought that these traits merely qualified the upstarts to inherit their Biglaw thrones.

At the end of the day, I don’t know whether federal loans would have saved Lehman, but I’m sure of this: I hope I’m never on a operating table while a Biglaw attorney possessing such hubris holds the scalpel or the tourniquet.

ARE THE U.S. NEWS RANKINGS BIGLAW’S BLACK SWAN?

An earlier post considered Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestseller, The Black Swan. (https://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/biglaw-and-the-black-swan/ ). Taleb describes the folly of relying on supposedly proven models of the past to anticipate the smooth continuation of existing trends. Such myopic thinking ignores the wholly unexpected Black Swans that actually shape history. The essence of the Black Swan is its serendipity, coupled with its power. It can be good or bad, but it’s always transformative. September 11 was a Black Swan, as were Microsoft and Facebook.

If you accept Taleb’s theory, I think Am Law introduced Biglaw to a Black Swan in 1985 with its profits per equity partner rankings. They encouraged internal behavior that, over time, dramatically changed most large firms’ cultures. Today, accepting conventional wisdom means following managers (few of whom are leaders — a crucial distinction for Taleb) who focus on supposedly proven metrics: billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios. Free markets dictate decisions; important things that don’t impact the current year’s bottom-line drop out of key calculations; equity partner profits trees grow to the sky.

But wait! The U.S. News evaluations seem to ignore this crucial Am Law metric. They utilize client and attorney surveys assessing lawyer quality, not firms’ bottom-line profits. In seeking to attain or retain the highest available practice group rating (Tier 1), will firms teach to this new test that the criteria appear to use?

Not so fast. Even as U.S. News released the rankings, big firms began setting the goalposts for the new competition. Because U.S. News departed from its typical numerical approach in favor of tiers for practice groups, Sidley Austin and K&L Gates each claimed the overall #1 position based on their total Tier 1 rankings.

If I’m right, the new rankings will simply accelerate an embedded trend toward lateral recruiting at the highest levels. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/09/lateral-uptick.html) Big firms will compete even more ferociously for top partners to fill particular U.S. News practice group holes — and they’ll jettison incumbents to make room. How will high-powered partners decide where to plant themselves? They’ll take their books of business and follow the money. The definitive Am Law metric — average equity partner profits — will remain inviolate. Too many Biglaw partnerships will continue their devolution into collections of attorneys whose principal bond is financial.

So there’s no Black Swan here — just another log on the bonfire that is already consuming much of the profession.

But these developments favor the emergence of a Black Swan that I identified in my earlier post. Australia now has publicly traded law firms. Attorneys in Great Britain have begun preparing to follow that lead when the Legal Services Act becomes effective next year. (http://www.law.com/jsp/law/international/LawArticleIntl.jsp?id=1202463691626)

Biglaw’s ongoing transformation to a species of Big Business could culminate in non-lawyer shareholders and boards. What will stop them? Equity partners who have been hired to buttress a firm’s claim to Tier 1 status in the U.S. News rankings? As relative newcomers, their allegiance to their new firms will be more tenuous. The idea of preserving whatever remains of a unique professional culture will seem antiquated, particularly with the big bucks for their shares of an initial public offering (IPO) dangling before them.

It sure looks to me like the same country that introduced the first black swan to the New World is now exporting something far more ominous for the legal profession.

BIGLAW AND THE BLACK SWAN

After reading my novel, The Partnership, an insightful observer wrote that its themes “sound like a biglaw version of The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Drawing out the comparisons between your book and Taleb could fill many blog posts.”

This is the first.

Taleb’s title derives from the discovery of what everyone knew didn’t exist. In the Old World, universally reported human experience pointed unambiguously to a single conclusion: All swans were white. Then came the discovery of Australia and its black swans.

The lesson: Widely accepted truths often turn out to be false. Relying on models of the past to anticipate the future can be a fool’s errand, especially if it ignores the wholly unexpected Black Swans that actually shape history. Who imagined that Bill Gates’ boyhood fascination with computers would lead to Microsoft, or that Mark Zuckerberg’s college dorm room at Harvard would be the birthplace of a revolutionary social networking phenomenon?

Black Swans can be good or bad — but they are always transformative. Most of us fail to consider them because we tend to theorize about the future in specific and limited ways from prior experience. For example, Taleb notes, the French built the Maginot Line to defend against German attack following the Great War, only to watch Hitler zip around it during a greater one, World War II.

“What did people learn from the 9/11 episode?” he continues. “Did they learn that some events, owing to their dynamics, stand largely outside the realm of the predictable? No. Did they learn the built-in defect of conventional wisdom? No. What did they figure out? They learned precise rules for avoiding proislamic terrorists and tall buildings.”

The Black Swan came out in 2007 and was a best-seller before the Great Recession — an event that others began calling a Black Swan, although Taleb said it didn’t qualify. Rather, that downturn replays previous Black Swan events — including the 1982 bank failures, 1987 market crash, and 1998 collapse of Long-Term Capital Management — from which intelligent people persistently failed to learn. So-called financial experts with MBAs had lost fortunes betting that such Black Swans were so improbable that they could be ignored. According to Taleb, these empty suits persevered and suckered others into accepting their discredited models, only to have them fail yet again.

So how could this relate to Biglaw? After all, it has enjoyed a 30-year run as straightforward metrics — billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios — enabled large firms to produce staggering wealth for their owners. Even as many positions disappeared and revenues remained flat or declined at some firms, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 continued to rise.

The dominant Biglaw model is working, right?

Only until a Black Swan appears. It would be presumptuous to predict its form or timing. Indeed, the Black Swan’s essence is its serendipity, coupled with its power. It strikes when overconfidence creates complacency and vigilance takes a vacation.

So for Biglaw, accepting conventional wisdom means following managers (few of whom are leaders — a crucial distinction) who focus on  supposedly proven metrics that have made them rich. They let free markets dictate decisions; they ignore things that don’t impact this year’s bottom-line; they watch their equity partner profits trees grow to the sky.

Where in all of this might Biglaw’s Black Swans lurk?

The candidates are too numerous for thoughtful consideration in a single article. Some examples: increasing attorney dissatisfaction at all levels; client resistance to hourly billing regimes; the displacement of a professional ethos with business-school metrics aimed at short-term profit-maximization; prospective lawyers’ growing awareness of Biglaw’s darker side.

But many of us already know about these difficulties, which makes them less likely Black Swan candidates. Then again, the Black Swan need not come as a surprise to everyone. For too long, most Biglaw managers have been oblivious to the profession’s growing challenges; too many behave as if they still are. As Taleb notes, a well-fed turkey that becomes fatter as Thanksgiving approaches is amazed to encounter the ultimate Black Swan event — its slaughter. But the butcher always knew what was coming.

I’ll add one more to the list:

Australia has pioneered a new regulatory regime that allows outsiders — non-lawyers — to invest in private law firms. Some are now publicly traded. http://www.abanet.org/legaled/committees/Standards%20Review%20documents/AnthonyDavis.pdf

Lawyers in Great Britain have begun preparing to follow that lead when the Legal Services Act becomes effective next year.  http://www.law.com/jsp/law/international/LawArticleIntl.jsp?id=1202463691626

Could Biglaw’s ongoing transformation to a species of Big Business culminate in non-lawyer shareholders and boards? It’s a frightening prospect — but not so scary that equity partners are likely to forego the enormous short-term windfalls they’d reap from initial public offerings (IPOs) of their firms’ stock. Most view themselves as disproportionately responsible for their own success and will be content to let the next generations fend for themselves in a bleak professional landscape.

Could the same country that introduced the first black swan to the world be exporting something far more momentous?