Back in January, newspaper headlines reported a dramatic development in investment banking. Bank of America Merrill Lynch and others announced a reprieve from 80-hour workweeks.

According to the New York TimesGoldman Sachs “instructed junior bankers to stay out of the office on Saturdays.” A Goldman task force recommended that analysts be able to take weekends off whenever possible. Likewise, JP Morgan Chase gave its analysts the option of taking one protected weekend — Saturday and Sunday — each month.

“It’s a generational shift,” a former analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch told the Times in January. “Does it really make sense for me to do something I really don’t love and don’t really care about, working 90 hours a week? It really doesn’t make sense. Banks are starting to realize that.”

The Fine Print

There was only one problem with the noble rhetoric that accompanied such trailblazing initiatives: At most of these places, individual employee workloads didn’t change. Recently, one analyst complained to the Times that taking advantage of the new JP Morgan Chase “protected weekend” policy requires an employee to schedule it four weeks in advance.

Likewise, a junior banker at Deutsche Bank commented on the net effect of taking Saturdays off: “If you have 80 hours of work to do in a week, you’re going to have 80 hours of work to do in a week, regardless of whether you’re working Saturdays or not. That work is going to be pushed to Sundays or Friday nights.”

How About Lawyers?

An online comment to the recent Times article observed:

“I work for a major NY law firm. I have worked every day since New Year’s Eve, and billed over 900 hours in 3 months. Setting aside one day a week as ‘sacred’ would be nice, but as these bankers point out, the workload just shifts to other days. The attrition and burnout rate is insane but as long as law school and MBAs cost $100K+, there will be people to fill these roles.”

As the legal profession morphed from a profession to a business, managing partners in many big law firms have become investment banker wannabes. In light of the financial sector’s contribution to the country’s most recent economic collapse, one might reasonably ask why that is still true. The answer is money.

To that end, law firms adopted investment banking-type metrics to maximize partner profits. For example, leverage is the numerical ratio of the firm’s non-owners (consisting of associates, counsel, and income partners) to its owners (equity partners). Goldman Sachs has always had relatively few partners and a stunning leverage ratio.

As most big law firms have played follow-the-investment-banking-leader, overall leverage for the Am Law 50 has doubled since 1985 — from 1.76 to 3.52. In other words, it’s twice as difficult to become an equity partner as it was for those who now run such places. Are their children that much less qualified than they were?


Likewise, law firms use another business-type metric — billable hours — as a measure of productivity. But billables aren’t an output; they’re an input to achieve client results. Adding time to complete a project without regard to its impact on the outcome is anathema to any consideration of true productivity. A firm’s billable hours might reveal something about utilization, but that’s about it.

Imposing mandatory minimum billables as a prerequisite for an associate’s bonus does accomplishes this feat: Early in his or her career, every young attorney begins to live with the enduring ethical conflict that Scott Turow wrote about seven years ago in “The Billable Hour Must Die.” Specifically, the billable hour fee system pits an attorney’s financial self-interest against the client’s.

The Unmeasured Costs

Using billables as a distorted gauge of productivity also eats away at lawyers’ lives. Economists analyzing the enormous gains in worker productivity since the 1990s cite technology as a key contributor. But they ignore an insidious aspect of that surge: Technology has facilitated a massive conversion of leisure time to working hours — after dinner, after the kids are in bed, weekends, and while on what some people still call a vacation, but isn’t.

Here’s one way to test that hypothesis: The next time you’re away from the office, see how long you can go without checking your smartphone. Now imagine a time when that technological marvel didn’t exist. Welcome to 1998.

When you return to 2014, read messages, and return missed calls, be sure to bill the time.


This is the third in a series profiling Dewey & LeBoeuf’s former leaders. Apparently, Jeffrey Kessler (Columbia University, B.A., 1975; Columbia Law School, J.D., 1977) has become a prisoner of his celebrity clients’ mentality. A prominent sports lawyer, he analogizes big-name attorneys to top athletes: “The value for the stars has gone up, while the value of service partners has gone down.”

Kessler was a long-time partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges before joining Dewey Ballantine in 2003. After the firm’s 2007 merger with LeBoeuf Lamb, he became chairman of the Global Litigation Department, co-chairman of the Sports Litigation Practice Group and a member of the Executive and Leadership Committees. Long before he became a member of the Gang of Four in Dewey & LeBoeuf’s office of the chairman, he was a powerhouse in the firm.

Blinded by their own light

Some attorneys have difficulty resisting the urge to absorb the ambitions and ethos of their clients. Many corporate transactional attorneys have long been investment banker and venture capital wannabees, at least when it comes to the money they’d like to make.

Of course, not all corporate practitioners are myopic thinkers. Kessler proves that narrow vision isn’t limited to transactional attorneys. But the rise of such attitudes to the top of many large law firms has occurred simultaneously with the profession’s devolution to models aimed at maximizing short-term profits and growth.

Kessler was a vocal proponent of the Dewey & LeBoeuf star system that produced staggering spreads between people like him — reportedly earning $5.5 million a year — and the service partners, some of whom made about five percent of that. It was the “barbell” system: top partners on one side; everybody else on the other.

In such a regime, there’s no shared sacrifice. What kind of partnership issues IOUs to star partners when the firm doesn’t make its target profits? Something that isn’t a partnership at all.

Lost in their own press releases

Kessler regularly finds himself in the presence of celebrity athletes. That can be a challenging environment. But once you start believing your own press releases, the result can be the plan that he and fellow Dewey & LeBoeuf partner Charles Landgraf “spearheaded” (according to fellow Gang of Four member Martin Bienenstock).

To deal with outstanding IOUs to Dewey partners whose guaranteed compensation couldn’t be paid when the firm underperformed for the year, Kessler helped to mortgage its future: for “a six- or seven-year period, starting in 2014, [a]bout six percent of the firm’s income would be put away to pay for this….”

It’s a remarkable notion. Partners didn’t get all of their previously guaranteed earnings because the firm didn’t do well enough to pay it. But rather than rethink the entire house of cards, it morphed into a scheme whereby future partnership earnings — for six or seven years — would satisfy the shortfall. Never mind that there was no way to know who would be among the firm’s partners in those future years. The money had to be promised away because the stars had to be paid.

Sense of entitlement

Kessler gives voice to the pervasive big law firm attitude that without stars there is no firm. It’s certainly true that every firm has to attract business and that some lawyers are more adept at that task than others. But Kessler’s approach produced yawning income gaps at Dewey. Similar attitudes have contributed to exploding inequality afflicting many equity partnerships. For insight into the resulting destabilization, read the recent article by Edwin Reeser and Patrick McKenna. “Spread Too Thin.”

But does Kessler really think that he and a handful of his fellow former Dewey partners are the first-ever generation of attorney stars? Twenty-five years ago when average partner profits for the Am Law 100 were $325,000 a year, did his mentors at Weil Gotshal earn twenty times more than some of their partners — or anything close in absolute dollars to what Kessler thinks he’s worth today? Does he believe that there are no stars at firms such as Skadden Arps, Simpson Thacher or other firms that have retained top-to-bottom spreads of 5-to-1 or less?

Beyond his prominence in the profession, Kessler is shaping tomorrow’s legal minds as a Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia. For anyone who cares about the future, that’s worth pondering.


After twelve years at Goldman Sachs, 33-year-old Greg Smith decided he’d seen enough. He resigned because, as he put it, “The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.”

Let’s do what lawyers do best: distinguish him away and move on.

The Times op-ed describes Smith as former executive director and head of the firm’s U.S. equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. After Smith’s public condemnation, CEO Lloyd Blankfein and President Gary Cohn sent employees a memo saying that he was one of 12,000 vice presidents out of 33,000 employees. He reportedly earned $500,000 last year, which would put him far down the Goldman food chain.

Analogizing to a big law firm, Smith would probably be the equivalent of a non-equity partner. That doesn’t make his observations irrelevant or wrong, but context matters.

As for what Goldman stands for, what did Smith think the firm was when he joined in 2000? An eleemosynary institution? It seems unlikely that the radical transformation he depicts occurred only after Blankfein and Cohn took over in 2006. After all, they rose to the top for reasons relating to the firm’s culture and values.

Case closed. Move on.

Any big law analogies?

Not so fast. If Goldman has accelerated in a particular direction, it’s not alone. In that respect, some parallels between trends at Goldman and the prevailing big law model are interesting:

– Management

At the top of Goldman, traders displaced traditional investment bankers. That bespeaks a shift from long-term thinkers to short-term profit-maximizers. Once in power, Blankfein (a former commodities trader) surrounded himself with “like-minded executives — ‘Lloyd loyalists,’” according to the Times in 2010.

Transactional attorneys have similarly risen to lead many big law firms. Along the way, they have absorbed the business school mentality of corporate clients.  Dissent is not always a cherished value.

– Resulting culture changes

Goldman’s determination to represent all sides of a deal recently became the subject of Delaware Chancellor Leo Strine’s highly critical opinion of the firm. Likewise, large law firms have perfected techniques to maximize their representational flexibility. Those techniques have been essential to the remarkable growth that many firms have experienced.

– Metrics

Goldman’s leverage ratio is stunning: 442 partners out of more than 33,000 employees. As a group, large law firms have pulled up ladders, widened the top-to-bottom range within equity partnerships, and doubled attorney-to-equity partner leverage ratios since 1985.

– Partner Wealth

Goldman’s partners are famously rich. Many big law equity partners now enjoy seven- and even eight-figure incomes previously reserved for media celebrities, professional athletes, corporate CEOs, and — yes — their investment banker clients.

Yet the most important question is mission. Smith’s op-ed suggests that Goldman had become focused on squeezing money out of clients. Last year, The Wall Street Journal wrote about “Big Law’s $1,000-Plus an Hour Club” — senior partners who command four-figure hourly rates from clients. It quoted Weil, Gotshal & Manges’s bankruptcy leader Harvey Miller: ”The underlying principle is if you can get it, get it.”

A year earlier, Miller was resisting discount requests from the court-appointed monitors in the Lehman and GM bankruptcies:

“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.”

(Miller’s concluding line was ironic. At the time, his firm had already billed $16 million for the GM bankruptcy, which “public” taxpayer money was facilitating. Through January 31, 2012, Lehman ran up a $383 million tab at Weil Gotshal. Meanwhile, Weil recently reported average profits per partner of more than $2.4 million — an all-time high.)

Attitudes such as Miller’s are pervasive. It’s easy to single him out because he’s been publicly blunt about them. Greg Smith’s indictment was his way of revealing truth as he saw it. Sometimes statements from those at the top of large law firms allow the truth to reveal itself for all to see. Often, it’s not pretty.


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.


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.” (

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…” ( ). 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.”  (

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.


Tuesday night’s Nova episode on PBS –“Mind Over Money” (April 27) — waded into the continuing debate over what went wrong to produce the recent economic collapse. Coincidentally, Goldman Sachs executives spent the day explaining themselves to the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. Meanwhile, biglaw leaders around the world anxiously await the April 29 release of this year’s Am Law 100 rankings.

Maybe these things are related.

Nova interviewed scientific researchers who think they’ve identified the human brain’s unique response to money. MRIs show that it activates deep recesses in the mind — areas that evolutionists believe we share with the earliest forms of life, such as lizards.

Once engaged, those impulses become as powerful as any addiction and as strong as the instincts for sex and survival. They dominate our actions in ways that explain why, for example, people hold on to losing stocks too long and new participants in an auction experiment routinely bid more than $20 for a twenty-dollar bill. It’s not just that the efficient markets model of economic rationality fails; affirmatively irrational behavior takes over.

If these researchers are correct, money itself triggers something that can combine with competition and ego to produce a dangerous mix. When a subconscious reaction to dollar signs overrides rational thought, the resulting decisions can be — shall we say — problematic.

What’s the connection to Goldman Sachs and the Am Law 100? I’m not suggesting that obviously intelligent people at GS did anything illegal. Judges and juries will make that determination someday. Nor am I criticizing leaders of large or small law firms who pay attention to revenues and costs because they need to make a living, just like everybody else. The practice of law has never been an eleemosynary endeavor and never will be.

Still, the research shines an interesting light on the intersection of human behavior and free market capitalism. Just as stratospheric quarterly profits propelled Goldman to develop novel vehicles that continued to feed its insatiable profits beast, perhaps the fixation on annual Am Law rankings triggers an inner impulse in biglaw leaders that even they themselves don’t realize. When a money-laden thought — like average equity profits per partner — becomes a definitive decisional metric that defines professional standing and institutional culture, does reason become a casualty?

If so, what’s the antidote?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. There’s not much incentive to recover from a socially acceptable addiction that defines who too many of us are.


Media coverage since the SEC initiated its controversial enforcement action against Goldman on April 16 has reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with one of my kids’ twenty-something friends.

Immediately after college, he took an entry level position at Goldman. At the time, he properly regarded his offer as the ultimate reward for a distinguished record coupled with extraordinary personal charm. He didn’t know whether GS was the beginning of an investment banking career, but he hadn’t ruled it out. The pay was good and his student loan repayment program beckoned. (Sound familiar to any recent law school grads out there?)

At first, his enthusiasm was infectious:

“I’m getting pretty interesting assignments, including travel to attend presentations with more senior people. I’m working long hours, but the money is good. It’s nice to repay my loans and save a little money.”

Two years later, he was still working 16-hour days and his BlackBerry felt like a very long leash — or a choke-collar — that he could never remove.

“Here’s the real problem,” he told me. “When I look up at the successful people above me, I can’t find anyone whose life I’d want. The pressure, stress, and long hours never end. That’s a problem.”

I told him he had his eye on the right ball: look up the food chain and decide whether anyone leads the life you envision for yourself. When he completed repaying his student loans a year later, he quit to pursue a completely different line of work. He’s making less money, but his life is better.

Maybe his story doesn’t matter because he never belonged in investment banking in the first place. Then again, maybe his story — and his observations — are not unique to Goldman or investment banking or even biglaw. Like many talented young people who would have benefitted their organizations in the long-run, short-run reality drove them away.

Who will get this message to the top of such institutions? A recent NY Times article reveals the challenge, especially to any firm that is wildly successful in its financial mission of maximizing short-term profits:

“Even insiders acknowledge that Mr. [Lloyd] Blankfein [Goldman’s CEO], a former trader, has remade Goldman Sachs. He has built a giant powered by formidable trading operations rather than by bankers who give advice to corporate clients and help them raise money. In the past, Goldman was often run by two senior executives; one from trading and one from banking. Under Mr. Blankfein, the traders have consolidated their power.” (

Is it a problem? Here’s the rest of the NY Times quotation that caught my eye:

“Mr. Blankfein has surrounded himself with like-minded executives — ‘Lloyd loyalists,’ as they are known — plucked from the trading ranks….”

Are such lieutenants less likely to tell the emperor the truth about  his new clothes when he needs to hear it? It’s a question that many biglaw firm leaders might ponder as they strive to maximize profits per partner at the expense of other values that are less easily quantified. Maybe a biglaw episode of Undercover Boss would help.