TRUMP TEACHES BIG LAW A LESSON

Sometimes, a client isn’t worth the billable hours it brings to the firm. But long ago, Upton Sinclair revealed why some big law firm partners don’t accept that truism: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Except when a court appoints an attorney for a defendant who can’t afford one, lawyers choose their clients. In most firms, partners “eat-what-they-kill.” The resulting culture creates short-term incentives that cause business development efforts to focus on a single question: How much revenue will the prospective client generate?

Sheri Dillon, William Nelson, and their firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, are teaching the profession an important lesson: such myopia is a mistake.

Sliding Down Trump’s Slippery Slope

In 2016, candidate Trump was pushing a flimsy “under audit” excuse for not releasing tax his returns. On March 7, 2016, Dillon and Nelson signed a letter confirming that, in fact, Trump’s tax returns for 2002 through 2008 were no longer under audit. However, the letter explained, his returns for 2009 forward “are continuations of prior, closed examinations.” Needless to say, Americans will never see those returns—at least, not because Trump releases them voluntarily. But Trump used Morgan Lewis to suit his immediate public relations needs.

In a Jan. 11, 2017 press conference, Dillon, Nelson and their firm took a more prominent role in Trump’s circus. They unveiled a plan to deal with Trump’s business conflicts of interest made a mockery of American presidential ethics. Attorneys were quick to condemn it. Subsequent events have demonstrated that the plan remains useless in preserving the integrity of the presidency.

By April, even reliable stalwart Trump defender Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) wanted to know what Trump was doing to implement his attorneys’ earlier public promises. On May 24, The New York Times reported the Trump Organization’s response: a slick brochure explaining why it was impractical to comply “fully and completely” with Sheri Dillon’s earlier assurance that Trump would donate to the US Treasury all profits from Trump hotels and similar businesses derived from foreign governments.

Recently, The Washington Post summarized just one of small slice of the ongoing scandal: “This is nothing Washington has ever seen. For the first time in presidential history, a profit-making venture [the Trump International Hotel in DC] touts the name of a U.S. president in its gold signage. And every cup of coffee served, every fundraiser scheduled, every filet mignon ordered feeds the revenue of the Trump family’s private business.”

“I Put Out a Letter”… (from somebody)

The most recent hit to the reputations of Sheri Dillon, William Nelson, and their firm came during Trump’s now infamous July 19, 2017 interview with The New York Times. Reporters asked him what would happen if special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation included Trump and Trump family finances unrelated to Russia. Would that be would a breach of Mueller’s charge?

“I would say yeah,” Trump answered. “I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don’t make — from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms.”

Trump’s last remark referred to the March 8, 2017 letter that Dillon and Nelson had signed. But he couldn’t even remember whether Morgan Lewis was a firm of attorneys or accountants.

Substantively, the March 8 letter had actually raised far more questions than it answered. It even seemed to rebut Trump’s prior denials of income from Russia. Dillon and Nelson stated that “with a few exceptions”—totaling about $100 million—Trump’s tax returns for the past 10 years “do not reflect” any “income from Russian sources,” “debt owed by you or [The Trump Organization] to Russian lenders,” “equity investments by Russian persons or entities,” or “equity or debt investments by you or [The Trump Organization] in Russian entities.”

Among notable omissions were: the definition of “Russian”; whether Russian funds flowed into Trump projects more than 10 years ago; whether money from other former Soviet-bloc countries made its way into Trump projects; and what, if anything, Morgan Lewis had done to determine whether individuals or entities from Russia, Ukraine, or other former Soviet-bloc countries used shell corporations for transactions involving Trump businesses.

And Then There’s This

Investigative reporters—who aren’t Trump’s lawyers—have discovered that, since the 1990’s, tens of millions of dollars from former Soviet-bloc countries have found their way into Trump projects as investments, construction financing, and condominium purchases. No one outside Trump’s immediate orbit—except, perhaps, Vladimir Putin—knows the full extent to which that money contributed to his current fortune.

But there are clues. In September 2008, Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference: “In terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia. There’s indeed a lot of money coming for new-builds and resale reflecting a trend in the Russian economy and, of course, the weak dollar versus the ruble.”

Trump’s Reward

The fact that Trump couldn’t recall whether Sheri Dillon, William Nelson, and their firm practiced law or accounting is the least of their problems now. Trump has elevated the Dillon/Nelson/Morgan Lewis letter to a new status: evidence that the Russia investigation is a hoax. Depending on how special counsel Robert Mueller proceeds, those involved in preparing and signing that letter may need lawyers, too.

Other prominent law firms appear to have learned from the Morgan Lewis experience. In June 2017, Michael Isikoff reported that when Trump sought to bolster his legal team, four of the nation’s leading firms refused:

“The concerns were, ‘The guy won’t pay and he won’t listen,’ said one lawyer close to the White House who is familiar with some of the discussions between the firms and the administration, as well as deliberations within the firms themselves.”

Even if Dillon, Nelson, and Morgan Lewis have hedged the “won’t pay” problem by requiring a big retainer from their famous client, it won’t compensate for the potential impact on their professional reputations. And like all nightmare clients, Trump couldn’t care less about that.

TREATING SYMPTOMS; IGNORING THE DISEASE

On May 22, 2017, The Wall Street Journal ran an article about the legal profession’s enduring problem: psychological distress. For decades, attorneys have led most occupations in the incidence of serious psychological afflictions — depression, substance abuse, even suicide. Now some law firms are “tackling a taboo,” namely, the mental health problems of their lawyers.

Some observers theorize that a special “lawyer personality” is the culprit. In other words, we have only ourselves to blame, so no one should feel sorry for us. Then again, no one ever feels sorry for lawyers anyway. But attorney psychological distress has become a sufficient problem that, as the Journal reports, some big law firms are now “offering on-site psychologists, training staff to spot problems, and incorporating mental health support alongside other wellness initiatives.”

Stated differently, law firms are following the unfortunate path that has become a dominant approach in the medical profession: treating symptoms rather than the disease. Perhaps that’s because law firm leaders know that curing it would cut into their personal annual incomes.

The Facts

Other workers have serious psychological challenges, too. But attorneys seem to suffer in disproportionately high numbers. The Journal article cites a 2016 study of US lawyers finding that 20.6 percent of those surveyed were heavy drinkers (compared to 15.4 percent for members of the American College of Surgeons). Likewise, 28 percent experienced symptoms of depression (compared with eight percent or less for the general population). According to a 2012 CDC study cited in the Journal, attorneys have the 11th-highest suicide rate.

Now add one more data point. According to an ABA survey in 2007, lawyers in big firms are the least satisfied with their jobs. Anyone familiar with the prevailing big firm environment knows that it has deteriorated dramatically since 1985.

The New World

What has changed? For starters, just getting a job at a big law firm is more difficult. Corporate clients have found cost-effective alternatives to young attorneys billing $300 an hour to review documents. At many firms, demand remains soft.

But the real psychological problems begin after a new associate enters the door. For most of them, promotion to equity partner has become a pipe dream. In 1985, 36 percent of all lawyers in The American Lawyer’s first survey of the nation’s fifty largest firms were equity partners. In  2016, the comparable number was under 22 percent. More than 40 percent of all AmLaw 100 partners are now non-equity partners. The leverage ratio of equity partners to all attorneys has doubled. Stated another way, it’s twice as difficult to become an equity partner today as it was in 1985. That’s what’s been happening at the financial pinnacle of the profession.

The Business Model

There is nothing inevitable about the underlying business model that produces these outcomes. It’s a choice. In 1985, average profits per partner for the Am Law 50 was $300,000 — or about $700,000 in 2017 dollars. Today’s it’s $1.7 million. And the gap within most equity partnerships reflects their eat-what-you-kill culture. Instead of 3-to-1 in 1985, the ratio of highest-to-lowest partner compensation within equity partnerships often exceeds 10-to-1. As the rich have become richer, annual equity partner earnings of many millions of dollars has become commonplace.

At what cost? The future. As law firm leaders rely upon short-term metrics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios — they’re pulling up the ladder on the next generation. Too many associates; too few equity slots. Let the contest begin!

But rather than revisit the wisdom of the model, some big firm leaders have made what the Journal characterizes as a daring move: bring in a psychologist. It’s better than nothing, but it’s a far cry from dealing with the core problem that starts with the billable hour, moves through metrics that managers use to maximize short-run partner profits, and ends in predictable psychological distress — even for the so-called winners. The Journal notes that a psychologist at one firm was offering this sad advice to its attorneys: Take a cellphone reprieve by turning off all electronic devices between 2:00 am and 6:00 am.

But even such input from mental health professionals seems anathema to some firm leaders. According to the Journal, Dentons’ chairman Joseph Andrew says that his fear of offering an on-site psychologist was that “competitors will say we have crazy lawyers.”

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates recently told the New Yorker about her father, an attorney who suffered from depression and committed suicide. “Tragically,” Yates said, “the fear of stigma then associated with depression prevented him from getting the treatment he needed.”

For some firm leaders, “then” is still “now.” And that’s truly crazy.

ANOTHER BIG LAW FIRM STUMBLES

King & Wood Mallesons was never really a law firm. For starters, it was a verein — a structure that allowed three distinct firms to create a branding opportunity — King & Wood in China, Mallesons in Australia, and SJ Berwin in the United Kingdom. As things turned out, when SJ Berwin came on board in 2013, the verein whole quickly became less than the sum of its parts.

As The American Lawyer’s Chris Johnson and Rose Walker put it in their recent article, a verein is “a holding structure that allows member firms to retain their existing form. The structure…enabled the three practices to combine quickly and keep their finances separate.”

But the structure also means that when one member of the verein hits hard times, the others can walk away. For KWM, “the Chinese and Australian partnerships have effectively been able to stand back and watch as the European practice burned.”

Not Just a Verein Problem

To be sure, the verein structure exacerbates SJ Berwin’s current difficulties. But before leaders of big non-verein firms become too self-satisfied, they might consider whether their own firms risk the same dangers now afflicting KWM.

As Johnson and Walker report, the firm’s compensation system produced bad behavior. KWM awarded client credit to the partner who physically signed the invoice. That effectively encouraged partners to refer work to rival firms, rather than other KWM partners.

Think about that last sentence for a minute.

“It was one of the things that killed the firm,” says one former London partner. “If I sent work to other [KWM] partners, it would be out of my numbers at the end of the year. It was better for me to send it to another firm, as I’d then still be the one invoicing the client, so I’d get the credit for everything.”

A Team of One, Not One Team

When it came to cross selling among offices and practice groups, management talked a good game. Indeed, the verein’s 2013 merger tag line was “The Power of Together.” But here, too, behavior followed internal financial incentives. The compensation committee focused on individual partner performance, not the “one team, one firm” sound bite on its “vision and values” website page.

“There was a complete disconnect between what management said we should do and what the remuneration committee would reward us for doing,” says a former partner.

Lessons Not Learned, Again

As KWM’s European arm disintegrates, most law firm leaders will probably draw the wrong conclusions about what went wrong. Emerging narratives include: SJ Berwin had been on shaky ground since the financial crisis hit in 2008; the firm lacked competent management; the principal idea behind the combination — creating a global platform — was sound; only a failure of execution produced the bad outcome.

For students of law firm failures, the list sounds familiar. It certainly echoes narratives that developed to explain the 2012 collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf. But the plight of KWM — especially the SJ Berwin piece — is best understood as the natural consequence of a partnership that ceased to become a partnership. In that sense, it resembles Dewey & LeBoeuf, too.

The organizational structure through which attorneys practice law together matters. The verein form allows King & Wood and Mallesons to back away from Sj Berwin with limited fear of direct financial exposure. But as SJ Berwin careens toward disaster, fellow verein members will suffer, at a minimum, collateral damage to the KWM brand.

What’s the Future Worth?

The lesson for big law firm leaders seems obvious. Since the demise of Dewey, that lesson has also gone unheeded. A true partnership requires a compensation structure that rewards partner-like behavior — collegially, mentoring, expansion and transition of client relationships to fellow partners, and a consensus to pursue long-term strategies promoting institutional stability rather than maximizing short-term profit metrics.

Firms that encourage attorneys to build individual client silos from which partners eat what they kill risk devastating long-term costs. They’re starving firm of their very futures. Unfortunately, too many big law firm leaders share a common attitude: the long-term will be someone else’s problem.

In a line that stretches back to Finley Kumble and includes Dewey & LeBoeuf, Bingham McCutchen, and a host of others, the names change, but the story remains the same. So does a single word that serves both as those firms’ central operating theme and as their final epitaph: greed.

ASSOCIATE PAY AND PARTNER MALFEASANCE

Cravath, Swaine & Moore raised first-year associate salaries from $160,000 to $180,000 — the first increase since January 2007. As most law firms followed suit, some clients pushed back.

“While we respect the firms’ judgment about what best serves their long-term competitive interests,” wrote a big bank’s global general counsel, “we are aware of no market-driven basis for such an increase and do not expect to bear the costs of the firms’ decisions.”

Corporate clients truly worried about the long-run might want to spend less time obsessing over young associates’ starting salaries and more time focusing on the behavior of older attorneys at their outside firms. In the end, clients will bear the costs of short-term thinking that pervades the ranks of big firm leaders. Some already are.

Historical Perspective

Well-paid lawyers never generate sympathy. Nor should they. All attorneys in big firms earn far more than most American workers. But justice in big law firms is a relative concept.

Back in 2007 when associate salaries first “jumped” to $160,000, average profits per equity partner for the Am Law 100 were $1.3 million. After a slight dip to $1.26 million in 2008, average partner profits rose every year thereafter — even during the Great Recession. In 2015, they were $1.6 million — a 27 percent increase from seven years earlier.

In 2007, only 19 firms had average partner profits exceeding $2 million; in 2015 that group had grown to 29. But the average doesn’t convey the real story. Throughout big law, senior partners have concentrated power and wealth at the top. As a result, the internal compensation spread within most equity partnerships has exploded.

Twenty years ago, the highest-paid equity partner earned four or five times more than those at the bottom. Today, some Am Law 200 partners are making more than 20 times their lowest paid fellow equity partners in the same firm.

It Gets Worse

Meanwhile, through the recent prolonged period of stagnant demand for sophisticated legal services, firm leaders fueled the revolution of partners’ rising profits expectations by boosting hourly rates and doubling leverage ratios. That’s another way of saying that they’ve adhered stubbornly to the billable hours model while making it twice as difficult for young attorneys to become equity partners compared to 25 years ago.

The class of victims becomes the entire next generation of attorneys. Short-term financial success is producing costly long-term casualties. But those injuries won’t land on the leaders making today’s decisions. By then, they’ll be long gone.

So What?

Why should clients concern themselves with the culture of the big firms they hire? For one answer, consider two young attorneys.

Associate A joins a big firm that pays well enough to make a dent in six-figure law school loans. But Associate A understands the billable hour regime and the concept of leverage ratios. Associate attrition after five years will exceed 80 percent. Fewer than ten percent of the starting class will survive to become equity partners. Employment at the firm is an arduous, short-term gig. In return for long-hours that overwhelm any effort to achieve a balanced life, Associate A gets decent money but no realistic opportunity for a career at the firm.

Associate B joins one of the few firms that have responded to clients demanding change away from a system that rewards inefficiency. Because billable hours aren’t the lifeblood of partner profits, the firm can afford to promote more associates to equity partner. Associate B joins with a reasonable expectation of a lengthy career at the same firm. Continuity is valued. Senior partners have a stake in mentoring. The prevailing culture encourages clients to develop confidence in younger lawyers. Intergenerational transitions become seamless.

Associate A tolerates the job as a short-term burden from which escape is the goal; Associate B is an enthusiastic participant for the long haul. If you’re a client, who would you want working on your matter?

The Same Old, Same Old

As clients have talked about refusing to pay for first-year associate time on their matters, big firms’ upward profit trends continue. But the real danger for firms and their clients is a big law business model that collapses under its own weight.

As it has for the past eight years, Altman-Weil’s recently released 2016 “Law Firms In Transition” survey confirms again the failure of leadership at the highest levels of the profession. Responses come from almost half of the largest 350 firms in the country. It’s a significant sample size that provides meaningful insight into the combination of incompetence and cognitive dissonance afflicting those at the top of many big firms.

When asked about the willingness of partners within ten years of retirement to “make long-term investments in the firm that will take five years or more to pay off,” fewer than six percent reported their partners’ “high” willingness to make such investments. But at most firms, partners within ten years of retirement are running the place, so the investments aren’t occurring.

Almost 60 percent of firm leaders reported moderate or high concern about their law firms’ “preparedness to deal with retirement and succession of Baby Boomers.” Meanwhile, they resolve to continue pulling up the ladder, observing that “fewer equity partners will be a permanent trend going forward” as “growth in lawyer headcount’ remains a “requirement for their firms’ success.”

Do law firm leaders think they are losing business to non-traditional sources and that the trend will continue? Survey says yes.

Do law firm leaders think clients will continue to demand fundamental change in the delivery of legal services? Survey says yes. (56 percent)

Do law firm leaders think firms “are serious about changing their legal service delivery model to provide greater value to clients (as opposed to simply reducing rates)”? Survey says no. (66 percent)

Do clients think law firms are responding to demands for change? Survey says most emphatically no! (86 percent)

But do law firm leaders have confidence that their firms are “fully prepared to keep pace with the challenges of the new legal marketplace”? Survey says yes! (77 percent)

If cognitive dissonance describes a person who tries to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously, what do you call someone who has three, four or five such irreconcilable notions?

At too many big law firms the answer is managing partner.

THE REAL STORY OF THE NEW YORK PRIMARY

It was a “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment.

Shortly after the polls closed on primary election night in New York, CNN made a bold prediction. Its exit polling showed Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders locked in a tight Democratic primary race. Clinton’s win would be close, Wolf Blitzer said: 52 percent to 48 percent.

Less than an hour later, that prediction was as laughable as the famous November 3, 1948 Chicago Tribune headline announcing that voters had elected Thomas E. Dewey President of the United States.

Statistically, the CNN call was far worse. In the end, Truman beat Dewey 49 to 45 percent. Clinton won New York — 58 to 42 percent.

When the News is News

One interesting aspect of the CNN mistake is how quickly it disappeared from public sight. That’s because all major media outlets use exit polling to predict results as soon as they can. First-predictors are the first to attract viewers. There’s no incentive for any of them to throw mud on a process that they all use as a marketing gimmick.

Another aspect is the paucity of discussion over what went wrong at CNN. I don’t know the answer, but this article isn’t about that. It’s about the real lesson of the episode: The use of statistics can be a perilous exercise.

Law Schools

Data are important. It’s certainly wise to look at past results in weighing future decisions. But it’s also important to cut through the noise — and separate valid data from hype.

For example, if less than one-third of a particular law school’s recent graduates are finding full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD, prospective students are wise to consider carefully whether to attend that school. But it becomes more difficult when some law professor argues that the average value of a legal degree over the lifetime of all graduates is, say, a million dollars.

It’s even more challenging when law deans and professors repeat the trope as if it were sacrosanct with a universal application every new JD degree-holder from every school. And it sure doesn’t help when schools with dismal full-time long-term JD employment outcomes tout, “Now is the Time to Fulfill Your Dream of Becoming a Lawyer.”

Law Firms

Likewise, based on their unaudited assessments, leaders of big law firms confess that only about half of their lateral hires over the past five years have been breakeven at best. And that not-so-successful rate has been declining.

Law firms are prudent to consider carefully that data before pursuing aggressive lateral hiring as a growth strategy. But it becomes more difficult when managing partners seek to preside over expanding empires. And it doesn’t help when law firm management consultants keep overselling the strategy as the only means of survival.

Data should drive decisions. But the CNN misfire is a cautionary tale about the limits of statistical analysis. Sometimes numbers don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes they point people in the wrong direction. And sometimes they’re just plain wrong.

THE LATEST BIG LAW FIRM STRATEGY: PERFECTING ERROR

NOTE: Amazon is running a promotion. The KINDLE version of my novel, The Partnership, is available as a free download from March 30 through April 3, 2016.

Two months ago in “Big Law Leaders Perpetuating Mistakes,” I outlined evidence of failure that most big law firm leaders ignore. Back in December 2011, I’d covered the topic in “Fed to Death” The recently released trade paperback version of my latest book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis, includes an extensive new afterword that begins, “The more things change…”

The failure is a ubiquitous strategy: aggressive inorganic growth. In response to facts and data, big law firm leaders aren’t stepping back to take a long, hard look at the wisdom of the approach. Instead, they’re tinkering at the margins in the desperate attempt to turn a loser into a winner. To help them, outside consultants — perennial enablers of big law firms’ worst impulses — have developed reassuring and superficially appealing metrics. For anyone who forgot, numbers are the answer to everything.

Broken Promises

One measure of failure is empirical. Financially, many lateral partners aren’t delivering on their promises to bring big client billings with them. Even self-reporting managing partners admit that only about half of their lateral hires are above breakeven (however they measure it), and the percentage has been dropping steadily. In “How to Hire a Home-Run Lateral? Look at Their Stats,” MP McQueen of The American Lawyer writes that the “fix” is underway: more than 20 percent of Am Law 200 firms are now using techniques made famous by the book and movie “Moneyball.”

“Using performance-oriented data, firms try to create profiles of the types of lawyers they need to hire to help boost profits, then search for candidates who fit the profile,” McQueen reports. “They may also use the tools to estimate whether a certain candidate would help the firm’s bottom line.”

There’s an old computer programmer’s maxim: “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Useless Data

Unlike baseball’s immutable data about hits, runs, strikeouts, walks, and errors, assessing attorney talent is far more complicated and far less objective. Ask a prospective lateral partner about his or her billings. Those expecting an honest answer deserve what they get. Ask the partner whether billings actually reflect clients and work that will make the move to a new firm. Even the partner doesn’t know the answer to that one.

Group Dewey Consulting’s Eric Dewey, who is appropriately skeptical about using prescriptive analytics in this process, notes, “An attorney needs to bring roughly 70 percent of their book of business with them within 12 months just to break even.” He also observes that more than one-third bring with them less than 50 percent.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with assessing the likely value that a strategically targeted lateral hire might bring to the firm. And there’s nothing wrong with using data to inform decisions. But that’s different from using flawed numerical results to justify growth for the sake of growth.

Becoming What You Eat

Beyond the numbers is an even more important reality. Partners who might contribute to a firm’s short-term bottom line may have a more important long-term cultural impact. It might even be devastating.

Dewey & LeBoeuf — no relation to Group Dewey Consulting — learned that lesson the hard way. During the years prior to its collapse, the firm hired dozens of lateral rainmakers. But as the firm was coming apart in early 2012, chairman Steven H. Davis was wasting his breath when he told fellow partners there wasn’t enough cash to pay all of them everything they thought they deserved: “I have the sense that we have lost our focus on our culture and what it means to be a Dewey & LeBoeuf partner.”

Half of the partners he was addressing had been lateral hires over the previous five years. Most of them had joined the firm because it promised them more money. They hadn’t lost their focus on culture. They had redefined it.

A DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

The Wall Street Journal’s front page headline tells only part of story: “Legal Fees Cross New Mark: $1500.” The February 9 article lists the range of partner hourly rates at some big firms: Proskauer Rose from $925 to $1475; Ropes & Gray from $895 to $1450; Kirkland & Ellis from $875 to $1445; and so on and so on and so on.

That’s great if you can get it, but most firms can’t. The 2016 Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor “State of the Legal Profession” tells a second part of the story: realization and collection rates have plummeted. How much a firm bills doesn’t matter; what it actually brings in the door does. In 2005, collections totaled 93 percent of standard rates. By the end of 2015, it was down to 83 percent.

The Music Stopped, Almost

Annual standard hourly rate increases have blunted the profit impact of declining collections, but trees stopped growing to the sky about ten years ago. Except in bankruptcy courts. That’s the third element of the story and the profession’s dirty little secret: one of the most lucrative big law practice areas has no client accountability for its fees. Even worse, the process facilitates pricing behavior that spills over into other practice areas.

Take the recent Journal article. Where did the reporters get the detailed hourly rates for the firms it identified? A note at the bottom of the chart reveals the answer: “Source: Bankruptcy court filings.” If managing partners exchanged their firms’ hourly rates privately, it would raise serious antitrust issues. But in bankruptcy, publicly filed fee petitions do all of that work for them.

It gets worse. In bankruptcy, no one forces attorneys into the discounting that produces the current 83 percent overall average collections rate. Remember the infamous “Churn that bill, baby” email involving DLA Piper a few years ago? That was a bankruptcy case. Traditional mechanisms of accountability are ineffective. Unlike a solvent corporate client, a company in trouble has little leverage in dealing with its outside counsel. Until it emerges from a Chapter 11 reorganization, the days of minimizing legal expenses to maximize shareholder value are suspended. If it winds up in Chapter 7 liquidation, those days are gone forever.

At the same, time, the lawyers handling the bankruptcy have little risk. They get paid ahead of everyone else. Lawyers for creditor committees are a theoretical check only. They, too, get paid first and the members of the exclusive club of big law firm attorneys reappear. Their roles may change — debtor’s counsel in one bankruptcy may be creditors’ attorney in another and the liquidating trustee’s lawyer in yet another. In none of those capacities is there any incentive to rock the long-term, “paid-in-full hourly rate” boat.

More Theoretical Accountability

The U.S. Trustee receives all attorneys’ fees petitions before courts approve them. The Trustee can object, but it doesn’t have sufficient resources to analyze detailed line item time and expense entries on the thousands of pages that firms submit. The Trustee issued new guidelines that became effective for cases filed after November 1, 2013. Perhaps they will make a difference. But in the end, they are still guidelines and the final decision on attorneys fees resides with the bankruptcy judge.

As hourly rates have increased to the $1500 level that the Journal highlights, courts have given their rubber stamps of approval to the trend. Rather than challenge the high rates that all firms charge, bankruptcy judges determine merely that they are “reasonable and customary” because, after all, comparable firms are charging them for comparable work. The circularity is as obvious as the resulting payday for the lawyers. Someday, media attention and popular outrage may force meaningful change that has yet to occur.

Worse Than It Seems

Considering the 83 percent collection rate in the context of the nearly 100 percent rate for bankruptcy lawyers yields an insight relevant to the fourth and final part of the larger big law firm story. In particular, the current 83 percent collection rate is deceptively high. If a firm’s average is 83 percent and its bankruptcy lawyers collect close to 100 percent, then firms with large bankruptcy practices have non-bankruptcy clients pushing some practice areas into deep concessions off standard rates.

Likewise, combining this fact with two conclusions from the Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report produces ominous implications for such firms:

— “Demand for law firm services…was essentially flat in 2015,” and

— Bankruptcy experienced the largest negative growth rate in demand by practice area.

Unless the country heads into a recession that few economists expect, the continuing reduction in bankruptcies will drive overall average collections dramatically lower. That’s bad news for big law firms with significant bankruptcy practices.

Back in 2011, an icon of the bankruptcy bar, the late Harvey Miller of Weil, Gotshal and Manges, defended his firm’s approach to legal fees: “The underlying principle is, if you can get it, get it.”

Miller isn’t around anymore, but his unfortunate credo for a noble profession survives — for now.

[NOTE: The trade paperback edition of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books) — complete with an extensive new AFTERWORD — will be released on March 8, 2016 and is now available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.]