THE TRUE COST OF THE WEIL LAYOFFS

The Wall Street Journal describes the layoffs of 60 lawyers and 110 staff as “the starkest sign yet that the legal industry continues to struggle after the recession.” But who, exactly, is struggling?

Not the owners of the business. The overall average profits for equity partners in the Am Law 100 reached record levels in 2012. Even during the darkest days of the Great Recession in 2008, PPP for that group remained comfortably above $1.2 million before resuming the climb toward almost $1.5 million last year.

Not equity partners at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, who earned a reported average PPP of $2.2 million in 2012, according the the American Lawyer.

So Who Suffers?

One group of victims consists of 60 young people who had done everything right until everything went wrong for them on June 24. They’re intelligent, ambitious, and hard-working. Exemplary performance in high school earned them places in good colleges where they graduated at the top of their classes. They attended excellent law schools and excelled, even as the competition got tougher.

All of those accomplishments landed them great jobs. In the midst of a dismal legal job market, they went to work at one of the nation’s most prestigious law firms. Making more than $160,000 a year, many believed that soon they might throw off the yoke of six-figure student loan debt.

Now, they’re unemployed.

Another group of victims consists of 110 staffers who also got the boot. According to the NY Times, approximately half of them were secretaries. These behind-the-scenes workers often go unappreciated by lawyers who mistakenly take all of the credit for their own success.

A third group is a reported 10 percent of partners, many of whom who will suffer compensation cuts of “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to the NY Times.

“It’s All About the Future”

Announcing the layoffs, executive partner Barry Wolf described the move as “about the future of the firm and strategically positioning us for the next five years.” But layoffs aren’t about weeding out associates who don’t measure up to the rigorous quality standards necessary for equity partnerships. They’re about matching supply (of associates) with demand (for legal work) according to undisclosed criteria.

In fact, it seems a bit strange to talk about a firm positioning itself for the future while simultaneously dropping a morale bomb on its associates (and some partners) during the height of the summer program. The best and the brightest young prospects are working in big firms where luring that talent into the firms is a top priority. Bad public relations from a high-profile layoff can have a chilling effect that outlasts a single news cycle.

And what is that future going to look like? Will Weil be hiring any new associates over the next 12 months? Or 18 months? Or even 24 months? If so, I know 60 candidates with big firm experience (at Weil) who may be interested.

There is no shortage of current students who will continue to seek high-paying jobs at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. But what if negative publicity dissuades those few with the rare qualities necessary to become superstar partners from even signing up for on-campus interviews? By its very nature, such longer-run damage is impossible to know, much less measure.

Big Law’s Cheerleaders Applaud the Move

Law firm management consultants applauded Weil’s move. That’s not surprising because they have been central players in the profession’s transformation to just another business. They consistently endorse businesslike steps to maximize short-term profits. They expect other firms to follow Weil’s lead, and perhaps some will. Law firm consultant Peter Zeughauser said, “Weil is a bellwether firm and this will be a real wake up call.”

The etymology of bellwether may be relevant. In the mid-15th century, a bell was hung on a wether, a castrated ram that led a domesticated flock. In that way, the noise from the bellwether made it possible to hear the flock coming before anyone saw it.

In an informal Am Law survey, other firm leaders have distanced themselves from Weil. Before following that lead ram, perhaps they’re giving some thought to where it is going.

DEWEY: COLLATERAL DAMAGE

The vast failure of knowledge among the nation’s brightest law students remains remarkable. Their comments in the wake of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s stunning implosion make the point regrettably clear. Even as they become collateral damage to a tragic story that has many innocent victims, some persist in allowing hope to triumph over reality.

The NY Times reported on the 30 second-year law students from the nation’s best schools who thought they’d be earning $3,000 a week as Dewey & LeBoeuf summer associates. They’re now scrambling to find another productive way to fill three months that were supposed to be a launching pad for full-time careers with starting compensation at $160,000 a year.

Idealistic dreams meet harsh reality

One Ivy League student expressed optimism that other firms would step up and offer jobs to the displaced:

“A firm may look like a corporation, yes, but we’re all part of a fraternity of lawyers. Next year one becomes a member of the bar association, a linked structure. The firms may be competitors, but at the end of the day this is still the greater legal field. I hope this sensibility that we are part of a profession will also be in the minds of people as they consider us.”

The article doesn’t say which Ivy League law school the student attends, but it — along with his undergraduate institution — has failed the educational mission miserably. Most large law firms, including Dewey & LeBoeuf, ceased membership in a profession years ago and, during the last decade, that trend has accelerated. A myopic focus on short-term business school-type metrics, two of which are growth and equity partner profits — has taken Dewey and many others down a road to unfortunate places.

Most big firms are no longer “part of a profession” that will step up to offer law students or anyone else a life preserver. If they hire people, such as former Dewey lawyers and staff, it’s because they fit those firms’ own business plans. Another student who thought he had a job at Dewey for the summer got it right: “Now every other program is full, and it’s not like they’re going to adjust their plans to accommodate the failure of this one.”

It’s all connected

Everyone wonders why the number of law school applicants continues to outpace the number of law school openings that, in turn, dwarf the demand for lawyers. One answer is that colleges and law schools don’t educate prospective law students about the daunting challenges ahead. In fact, those institutions have the opposite incentives: colleges want to maximize the placement of their graduates in professional schools because that makes them look good; law schools maximize applicants because it pumps up the selectivity component of their U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Those already in the legal profession are well aware of the true state of affairs. The great disconnect is the failure of information to make its way to prospective lawyers who could benefit most from it. The press has increased its attention to the topics — the glut of lawyers; staggering law school debt that now averages more than $100,000; increasing career dissatisfaction among practicing lawyers.

Of course, ubiquitous confirmation bias will continue to encourage prospective lawyers to see what they want to see as they rationalize that they’ll be the lucky ones running the gauntlet successfully. Some will; too many won’t. The remarks of the Ivy Leaguer who spoke with the Times shows how much work remains for those who truly care about the fate of the next generation — lawyers and non-lawyers alike. There are miles to go before any of us should sleep.

FOR SUMMER ASSOCIATES ONLY — REPRISE

Everywhere you turn, there’s advice for summer associates — even on table manners.  Last year, I weighed in with this heresy: scrutinize the attorneys in your firm as closely they’re evaluating you. Who among them leads a life you’d want?

Even so, in a tough employment market where loan repayment schedules beckon, practicality reigns. Start with some basics:

1.  You want a full-time job offer. (It’s silly to call them “permanent” anymore.) After three days at the firm, you might have concluded that the place isn’t for you. But an offer to return is a useful ticket to wherever you want to go. Interviewing as a 3L, the most important question you’ll get is: did you get an offer from your summer firm? If so, it means others have signed off on you and your work; you’re a less risky proposition. If not, the road ahead is rougher, especially if you’re interested in a different big firm.

2.  You want to like the place. The job pays well; you’ll probably find some people you like; there are worse ways to start a legal career than as an associate in a big firm.

3.  Point number 2 means that you have confirmation bias. That is, you embrace input that reinforces what you want to believe. Be aware that you’re processing your summer experience accordingly. If you think you want a big law career, you’ll discount observations contrary to that premise. Among other delusions, you might view yourself as the exceptional candidate who survives to the equity partner finish line. It’s possible, but only about ten percent of your entering big law class actually will. In many firms, the percentage is much lower. As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things.”

With that backdrop, now what?

1.  Do your best work, but ask for clarification when needed. If you develop doubts about a particular task, ask the assigning attorney before spending hours on a frolic-and-detour.

2.  Befriend young associates. They can offer practical advice while providing a window into the firm and its lawyers. Burdened with their own confirmation bias, they’ll also be among its most enthusiastic boosters. All firms put their best public faces on their summer programs. If you encounter jerks or malcontents, remember this: the really bad apples are out of sight until you’re gone.

3.  Listen to non-lawyers; treat them as real people. Secretaries and staff reveal a firm’s culture. There’s also a practical reason for being nice: they know the place; you don’t.

4.  Don’t take on more work than you can comfortably handle. Many assigning attorneys don’t really know how long a project should take. I counseled summer associates to avoid taking on new tasks until they’d’ brought earlier ones to conclusion. But even that guideline isn’t fool-proof. Sometimes, a project thought to be completed can reappear through a “follow-up” request.

5.  Related corollary to point number 4: moderation in all things. The prevailing culture of most firms makes it easy to take on lots of work to demonstrate your “productivity,” which is what big law mislabels gross billable hours. But it’s far better to complete all of, say, seven summer projects well than to do ten good jobs and two mediocre ones.

6.  Don’t make waves, but watch for the underlying currents. Take a close look at senior associates and partners, especially those at the top who set the institution’s tone. Discounting their pep rally presentations, how many behave like the lawyer — and the person — you want to become?

Finally, when it’s time to complete The American Lawyer summer associate survey, pierce through your own confirmation bias and tell the truth. Future classes will thank you.

As for table manners, does it really matter if a recruit passes the bread to the right or the left? I hope not. Of course, no one should ever be a pig, but every good attorney I know would say this: give me a promising young talent over a lesser one with impeccable etiquette every time.

I can teach anyone how to hold a fork.

CULTURE SHOCK

On December 30, K&L Gates Chairman Peter Kalis sent an email that recently reached the legal blogosphere. Bluntly, he reminded fellow partners to get their outstanding client bills paid before the firm’s fiscal year-end. Above the Law reproduced it [complete with typos purportedly from the original]:

“Let me be clear about a couple of things. First, partners and administrators at this law firm are expected to run through the tape at midnight on December 31. Many of you came from different cultures. I don’t care about your prior acculturation. We didn’t conscript you into service at this law firm. You came volunatrily [sic]. What we are you are as well.

“And that brings me to my second point. We are a US-based global law firm. US law firms operate on a cash basis of accounting. Our fees must be collected by midnight within the fiscal year in which they are due. You don’t get to opt out of this feasture [sic] because it doesn’t appeal to you. Again, I couldn’t care less whether it appeals to you. It is who we are and therefore it is who you are. Get us paid by tomrrow [sic].” (http://abovethelaw.com/2011/01/the-two-faces-of-kl-gates/)

The message demonstrates three things — from the predictably banal to the inadvertently profound.

First, although the tone is a bit harsh, the substantive content doesn’t surprise any big law partner. Most lawyers aren’t particularly good businessmen. Reminding them that aging invoices require follow-up isn’t evil or wrong; it’s necessary. No attorney enjoys nagging clients about an overdue receivable. Presumably, the December 30 message was just the final step in a sustained year-end drive asking partners to complete a task that they’d otherwise avoid (as I did).

Second, email is perilous. Speedy communication can be great, but it’s fraught with danger. In less than a minute, you can address, type, and send a message to an entire group (and eventually reach many more blog readers). If you don’t take the time to proofread for typos, much less reflect on how others might later analyze your statements, no one will stop you from hitting the send button. Once released, the words assume a life of their own and context disappears. Every trial lawyer who has sought to explain away a client’s unflattering email message understands the problem. Surprisingly, some of those same lawyers fail to apply the lesson to their own writings. Next time, Kalis will probably prepare a script and deliver his thoughts via voicemail.

The third point has nothing to do with substance — that is, chiding partners to get client bills paid. Rather, the message acknowledges an unintended consequence of the prevailing big law business model: It has produced unprecedented lateral partner mobility that, in turn, erodes distinctive firm cultures. Two sentences make the point:

“Many of you came from different cultures. I don’t care about your prior acculturation.”

Six months ago, I praised Kalis for encouraging prospective associates to put interviewing partners on the spot when he urged: “[Recruits] should ask searching questions. How practice has changed over the years and how you deal with the changing demands. And how hard it is to reconcile your life at work with the rest of your life…I don’t believe lawyers should bow to icons. I want them to look me in the eye and ask tough questions.”  (http://thecareerist.typepad.com/thecareerist/2010/06/kl-gates-likes-them-sassy.htmlhttps://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/summer-associates-take-note-inadvertent-revelations/)

Although they probably won’t pose them, recruits now have more tough questions for him and other big law attorneys: As partners lateral into equity partnerships, what does the culture of the receiving firms become? Does it coalesce around the common denominator of maximizing current-year profits? Or is there room for other, non-monetary values that have traditionally defined the profession? If it’s the latter, how does the firm encourage them?

The answers matter because Kalis’s email emphasizes (twice): “What we are you are as well.”

I don’t know about K&L Gates, but what passes for culture in too many big firms is his message’s final exhortation: “Get us paid by tomrrow [sic].”

BONUS TIME!

Firms that abandoned lock-step in favor of merit-based compensation a year ago are now reversing course. Why?

The prevailing theory is backlash. Associate dissatisfaction pervades big law; some saw “competency models” as thinly disguised efforts to reduce associate wages.  (http://www.lawjobs.com/newsandviews/LawArticle.jsp?id=1202443769098&rss=newswire&slreturn=1&hbxlogin=1) Restoring lock-step, the argument goes, should enhance morale.

But when firm leaders really care about morale, they’ll ask associates to evaluate partners on mentoring, training, and overall humanity — and, at least to some extent, partner compensation will reflect the results. Instead of looking into those unpleasant mirrors, managers are likely to form a new committee investigating the “associate problem,” as if it were a mystery.

One way to improve morale would be to tell associates the truth earlier. But quality merit review is tough work. Performing it properly is not in most large firms’ short-term economic interests. For starters, they can’t bill the time to clients.

When I chaired my firm’s associate review committee in the 1990s, the process focused on a single goal: Identifying the best among a distinguished group. That meant evaluating specific skills, developmental needs, and future prospects. To squeeze out personality conflicts and internal politics, partners from outside their assigned associates’ practice areas gathered performance information. Then the committee actually deliberated for an entire day.

In an era when lateral partner movement among firms was rare, promotion decisions were akin to choosing a new family member. Admittedly, subjective judgments produced the distinctions, but partners generally played fair with the next generations. The integrity of the process produced widespread respect for outcomes.

In those days, compensation didn’t turn on billable hours. High outliers (those billing over 2,400) were singled out for counseling that doesn’t happen anymore: “If you burn out, you’re no good to us or anyone else.” Low outliers (below 1,600) attracted a different concern: “Partners aren’t giving that person work. Why? Is there a performance problem?” Between those extremes, hours had little impact on reviews or compensation. As incredible as that now sounds, it was true throughout big law. Just ask the senior partner who is pressing you to “get your hours up.”

Transparency worked. Knowing relative position allowed associates to handicap prospects while they were most marketable. Performance ratings translated into monetary distinctions that spoke for themselves. Anyone displeased with the message could explore other options.

New York firms pioneered lock-step. Exploding client demand caused many more to follow. Uniform compensation to a class allowed partners to postpone the day of reckoning for those with limited futures. Unpleasant news went undelivered.

Some partners rationalized the failure to provide more candid feedback: “We need the bodies to run our business. We’re paying them decent money. So they’re doing ok.”

The first two points were true: A myopic MBA-mentality emerged and departing associates often found that their new positions paid substantially less than they had been making. But doing ok? Some lost their jobs, their lifestyle, and chunks of their self-image in a single belated conversation.

Lock-step was also supposed to improve morale by reducing internal competition. But as compensation packages ballooned, associate satisfaction plummeted and voluntary attrition skyrocketed. Bonuses tied to hours but unrelated to quality erode meritocracies and morale — as does boring work that doesn’t enhance attorney skills.

Modern mega-firms now face the toughest task. To perform truly merit-based reviews, they must develop meaningful individual assessments for legions of associates — sometimes hundreds in a single office. Without proof that the exercise contributes to the bottom line, what incentivizes firms to devote the non-billable time required to perform reviews diligently? Management’s concern for the future, you say? At most big firms, that means projecting next year’s equity partner profits. They’re counting on laterals to fill quality gaps.

Associates should be skeptical about how firms now promising merit review will deliver quality feedback. But lock-step that camouflages meaningful information is no panacea. Student loan repayment demands notwithstanding, sooner is better than later when it comes to acquiring the knowledge that frames life’s most important decisions.

THE END OF LEVERAGE? JUST KIDDING.

Since the beginning of the Great Recession, some observers have predicted the demise of the Biglaw leverage model. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202428174244) Are they correct? After all, recent associate classes are dramatically smaller than in prior years. Unless equity partner ranks shrink proportionately, the argument goes, something has to give and that something will be the very business model itself. The days of using four or more associates to sustain a single equity partner must be numbered, right?

In fact, the model endures, but with structural innovations. What has been transient leverage — continuous non-equity attorney attrition coupled with annual replenishment from law schools — is giving way to something more permanent and, perhaps, more sinister for the future of the profession. Law firm management consultant Jerome Kowalski recently called it the “Associate Caste System.”  (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202472939044&PostRecession_Law_Firms_A_New_Caste_System_Emerges)

New hires earning $160,000 a year are the “showcase pieces,” but they are a much smaller group than they once were. Below them at the same firms is a vast underbelly of lawyers. Some are full-time but have taken themselves off partner tracks and make less than their nominal classmates. At the bottom are contract attorneys whose jobs won’t last beyond their current projects. They work per diem with no benefits. Kowalski describes them as comparable to “those guys who hang around in front of a Home Depot waiting for some contractor to show up with a truck.”

The rise of  legal outsourcing could add yet another attorney subclass contributor to Biglaw profits, provided firms can persuade clients to accept fees greater than what the people doing the outsourced work earn. That’s nothing new. For a long time, clients have regarded overpriced associates as a necessary cost incurred to retain a big-name attorney.

Does this add up to the demise of the lucrative leverage model that has kept average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 well above $1 million annually for many years?

For all practical purposes, it means the opposite. Although big firms are hiring 30 or 35 new associates rather than the 100 or more of a few years ago, most of them will still be unpleasantly surprised when they don’t capture the equity partner brass ring after pursuing it for a decade or more. That component of the model remains intact. Meanwhile, the rest of the leverage action has moved to the growing ranks of underbelly people. For as long as they get paid less than their billing rates, they contribute to equity partner wealth.

In fact, many Biglaw managers prefer this new system. They save on recruiting (say, 35 instead of 150 new associates each year), summer programs, associate training, and other expenses associated with talent development. Meanwhile, the underclass of attorneys who know their places will resign themselves to their limited prospects: a source of permanent leverage.

This continues an ugly trend: Many big firms have been candidly closing long-term career windows for their youngest lawyers. For example, Morgan Lewis already had a non-partner track for those who opted onto it. But when the firm recently announced a return to lock-step associate compensation, it included this kicker: another permanent non-partner track for young lawyers who pursue partnership but don’t make it. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/11/morganlewispay.html)

Rather than up-or-out, it’s becoming stick around and make the equity partners some money. In earlier times, wise firm leaders either promoted such individuals to well-deserved equity partnerships or terminated them as counterproductive blockage that undermined morale and deprived more promising younger lawyers of developmental opportunities. Either way, positioning the next generation to inherit clients served long-term institutional interests. But that’s less important when equity partners jealously guard their clients to preserve personal economic positions and “long-term” doesn’t extend beyond current profits or the coming year’s equity partner compensation decisions.

Here’s my question: How will any aspect of this new world promote the profession’s unique and defining values or improve Biglaw’s dismal career satisfaction rates? Here’s an even better one: Does anyone care?

INTERVIEWING SEASON — THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…

Labor Day is a good time to talk about getting a job. When it comes to Biglaw, I’ve been on both sides of that table. As interviews proceed on law school campuses, I wonder, “If I were a law student today, what would I ask big firm representatives?”

Here’s my answer: the same question that I posed to them 30 years ago. Before revealing it, I offer a few thoughts from an insider’s perspective.

Every law student knows the two-step process. Grades, life experience, and the campus interviewer’s subjective reactions combine at the first stage to answer a single question: Should the recruit receive an invitation to visit the firm’s offices for more interviews that, if successful, will culminate in a job offer?

As I conducted such interviews, I also asked myself what I assumed students were asking themselves about me:

“Is this someone with whom I’d want to work — perhaps for a long time?”

The process involved judgments about which reasonable partners differed. Personally, I was looking for brains and the interpersonal competence to use them effectively. I gave the nod only to those whom I thought would pass muster at the next level and receive offers. There was no reason to waste anyone’s time.

Can a student influence the exercise?

Grades and resumes are what they are, so there’s not much maneuvering room there. Even so, thoughtful interviewers are looking for something more:  a relaxed, engaging conversation. How can a student help to achieve it?

This sounds trite, but being authentic is the best strategy because that’s how you’re most comfortable. What have you accomplished if someone likes the person you pretend to be? How long can you maintain that facade? Through the second stage of attorney interviews at a firm? For a summer, if you get an offer? Until you become a non-equity partner? You’ll lose yourself if you start down that road.

Eventually, most recruiters will ask if an interviewee has any questions. Generally, students are reluctant to raise controversial topics. I didn’t, either. Perhaps it was cowardice, but I like to think that I developed a more subtle path to a firm’s jugular. Subject to modification for a particular interviewer’s age, here it is:

“Can you briefly sketch your own career highlights at the firm as, say, a second-year associate, a fifth-year associate, a non-equity partner, and now?”

The question works for both stages of the interview process — on campus and in the office. Lawyers love to talk about themselves and, if you pay attention, you can learn much from the responses.

For example, when a young partner in a prestigious New York firm told me that he’d spent his 10 years there on a single large lawsuit and still hadn’t seen the inside of a courtroom (or much of his family), I learned everything I needed to know about the place. It was — and remains — a great firm of talented attorneys. But I’d attended law school for reasons that seemed unrelated to what he was doing with his life.

Conversely, a fourth-year associate from another big firm told me that he’d recently first-chaired and won a federal jury trial. That sounded like a better fit for my lawyerly ambitions.

Of course, that was then. Any recruit looking for the New York experience that I shunned 30 years ago can find it in most large firms everywhere today. On the other hand, a first-chair trial for any Biglaw associate is rare because small cases offering such opportunities fall outside the current metrics-driven business model in two respects: 1) The limited stakes render associates’ huge hourly rates prohibitive, and 2) a firm’s average profits-per-equity-partner are higher when associates become absorbed into the leverage calculation on large matters.

But the salient point of my earlier inquiry still holds. The experiences of an attorney who has been with the same firm for several years are relevant to potential newcomers. Those listening carefully — and hearing between the spoken lines — can glean important truths about opportunities, mentoring, lifestyle, working environment, and firm culture. If the interviewer is a lateral hire, the answers provide different insights.

So while you’re busy hoping that a firm will offer you employment, you’ll also be getting information that will help you decide whether it’s a job you really want (and for how long). The effort could prevent you from becoming another statistic, namely, one of the more than half of practicing lawyers who are so dissatisfied that they counsel young people to avoid a legal career altogether.

One final point: I, too, labored under constraints that still persist, namely, enormous student loans that leave new graduates little room to maneuver. Get any job now; figure out a way to tolerate it later; repay crushing educational debt; then regroup. I get it.

But law students posing the right questions might cause some big firm interviewers to revisit their own careers, institutions, and lives. As others within the profession raise serious questions about the dominant Biglaw business model, its impact, and its future, a gentle nudge from the next generation can’t hurt.