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.

BIG LAW’S SHORT-TERMISM PROBLEM

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

The Tip of the Graying Iceberg

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

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

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

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

See the Problem

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

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

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

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

Ignore the Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Partner cooperation should trump partner competition.

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

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

Become the Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future Is Here

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

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

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

CRAVATH GETS IT RIGHT, AGAIN

 

biglaw-450The focus of The American Lawyer story about Richard Levin’s departure after eight years at Cravath, Swaine & Moore understates the most important point: Levin is a living example of things that his former firm, Cravath, does right. I can count at least three.

#1: Top Priority — Client Service

Cravath hired Levin, a top bankruptcy lawyer, from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom on July 1, 2007. At the time, Cravath didn’t have a bankruptcy/restructuring practice. But at the beginning of the downturn that would become the Great Recession, its clients were drawn increasingly into bankruptcy proceedings.

Explaining the firm’s unusual decision to hire Levin as a lateral partner, the firm’s then-deputy presiding partner C. Allen Parker told the New York Times that “the firm was seeking to serve its clients when they found themselves as creditors. Many of Cravath’s clients have landed on creditors’ committees in prominent bankruptcy cases, he said, and the firm has helped them find another firm as bankruptcy counsel.”

In other words, Cravath sought to satisfy specific client needs, not simply recruit a lateral partner who promised to bring a book of business to the firm. The Times article continued, “While Mr. Parker does not foreclose the chance of representing debtors — which is often considered the more lucrative side of the bankruptcy practice — for now, it is an effort to serve clients who are pulled into the cases.”

#2: Mandatory Retirement Age

It seems obvious that Levin’s upcoming birthday motivated his departure to Jenner & Block. Less apparent is the wisdom behind Cravath’s mandatory retirement rule. As The American Lawyer article about his move observes:

“[A]t 64, Levin is now approaching Cravath’s mandatory retirement age. And he says he’s not ready to stop working. ’65 is the new 50,’ Levin says. ‘I’d be bored. I love what I do [and] I want to keep doing it.'”

Well, 65 is not the new 50 — and I say that from the perspective of someone who just celebrated his 61st birthday. More importantly, sophisticated clients understand that a law firm’s mandatory retirement age benefits them in the long run because it makes that firm stronger. When aging senior partners preside over an eat-what-you-kill big law compensation system, their only financial incentive is to hang on to client billings for as long as possible. It creates a bad situation that is getting worse.

Recent proof comes from the 2015 Altman Weil “Law Firms in Transition” survey responses of 320 law firm managing partners or chairs representing almost half of the Am Law 200 and NLJ 350. I’ll have more to say about other results in future posts, but for this entry, one of the authors, Eric Seeger, offered this especially pertinent conclusion about aging baby boomers:

“That group of very senior partners aren’t retiring,” he explains.

Seeger went on to explain that even if they were, younger partners are not prepared to assume client responsibilities. Why? Because older partners don’t want that to happen. According to the Altman Weil survey, only 31 percent of law firm leaders said their firms had a formal succession planning process.

At Cravath, mandatory retirement works with the firm’s lock-step compensation structure to encourage much different behavior. Aging partners confront an end date that provides them with an incentive to train junior attorneys so they can assume client responsibilities and assure an orderly intergenerational transition of the firm’s relationships. Hoarding clients and billings produces no personal financial benefit to a Cravath partner.

In contrast, hoarding is a central cultural component of eat-what-you-kill firms. Individual partners guard clients jealously, as if they held proprietary interests in them. Internal partnership fights over billing credit get ugly because a partner’s current compensation depends on the allocations. Partners have learned that the easiest way to avoid those fights is to keep their clients in silos away from other partners. For clients, it can mean never meeting the lawyer in the firm who could be most qualified to handle a particular matter. If they understood the magnitude of the problem, most clients would be astonished and outraged.

#3: Strategic Thinking

With respect to Richard Levin’s practice area, the most recent Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report notes that in 2014 big firm bankruptcy practices suffered a bigger drop in demand than any other area. Lawyers who had billed long hours to big ticket bankruptcy matters have now been repurposed for corporate, transactional, and even general litigation tasks. Don’t be surprised as firms announce layoffs.

Cravath’s timing may have been fortuitous. It hired Levin at the outset of the Great Recession — just as a big boom time for bankruptcy/restructuring lawyers began. Likewise, Levin departs as that entire segment of the profession now languishes. I think Cravath’s leaders are too smart to think that they can time the various segments of the legal market. But the firm’s strategic approach to its principal mission — client service — caused it to do the right things for the right reasons.

The harder they work at that mission, the luckier they get.

A MYTH THAT MOTIVATES MERGERS

In a recent interview with The American Lawyer, the chairman of Edwards Wildman, Alan Levin, explained the process that led his firm to combine with Locke Lord. It began with a commissioned study that separated potential merger partners into “tier 1” and “tier 2” firms. The goal was to get bigger.

“Size matters,” he said, “and to be successful today, you really have to be in that Am Law 50.”

When lawyers deal with clients and courts, they focus on evidence. Somehow, that tendency often disappears when they’re evaluating the strategic direction of their own institutions.

Bigger Is…?

There’s no empirical support for the proposition that economies of scale accompany the growth of a law firm. Back in 2003, Altman Weil concluded that 30 years of survey research proved it: “Larger firms almost always spend more per lawyer on staffing, occupancy, equipment, promotion, malpractice and other non-personnel insurance coverages, office supplies and other expenses than do smaller firms.” As firms get bigger, the Altman Weil report continued, maintaining the infrastructure to support continued growth becomes more expensive.

Since 2003, law firms have utilized even more costly ways to grow: multi-year compensation guarantees to overpaid lateral partners. Recently, Ed Newberry, chairman of Patton Boggs, told Forbes, “[L]ateral acquisitions, which many firms are aggressively pursuing now…is a very dangerous strategy because laterals are extremely expensive and have a very low success rate — by some studies lower than 50 percent across firms.”

The Magic of the Am Law 50?

Does success require a place in the Am Law 50? If size is the only measuring stick, then the tautology holds. Big = successful = big. But if something else counts, such as profitability or stability, then the answer is no.

The varied financial performance of firms within the Am Law 50 disproves the “bigger is always better” hypothesis. The profit margins of those firms range from a high of 62 percent (Gibson Dunn) to a low of 14 percent (Squire Sanders — which is in the process of merging with Patton Boggs).

Wachtell has the highest profit margin in the Am Law 100 (64 percent), and it’s not even in the Am Law 50. But that firm’s equity partners aren’t complaining about its 2013 average profits per partner: $4.7 million — good enough for first place on the PPP list. Among the 50 largest firms in gross revenues, 17 have profit margins placing them in the bottom half of the Am Law 100.

Buzzwords Without Meaning

A cottage industry of law firm management consultants has developed special language to reinforce a mindless “size matters” mentality. According to The Legal Intelligencer, Kent Zimmermann of the Zeughauser Group said recently that Morgan Lewis’s contemplated merger with Bingham McCutchen “may be part of a growing crop of law firms that feel they need to be ‘materially larger’ in order to increase brand awareness, [which is] viewed by many of these firms as what it takes to get on the short list for big matters.”

Not so fast. In the Am Law rankings, Morgan Lewis is already 12th in gross revenues and 24th in profit margin (44 percent). It doesn’t need to “increase brand awareness.” That concept might help sell toothpaste; it doesn’t describe the way corporate clients actually select their outside lawyers.

In a recent article, Casey Sullivan and David Ingram at Reuters suggest that Bingham’s twelve-year effort to increase “brand awareness” through an aggressive program of mergers contributed mightily to its current plight. The authors observe that In the early 1990s “[c]onsultants were warning leaders of mid-sized firms that their partnerships would have to merge or die, and [Bingham’s chairman] proved to be a pioneer of the strategy.”

Consultants have given big firms plenty of other bad advice, but that’s a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that Bingham’s subsequent mergers got it into the Am Law 50. However, that didn’t protect the firm from double-digit declines in 2013 revenue and profits, or from a plethora of partner departures in 2014.

In his Legal Intelligencer interview, Kent Zimmermann of Zeughauser also said that he has “seen firms with new leadership in place look to undertake a transformative endeavor like this [Morgan Lewis-Bingham] merger would be.” If Zimmermann’s overall observation about firms with new leadership is true, such leaders should be asking themselves: transform to what? Acting on empty buzzwords risks a “transformative endeavor” to institutional instability.

Soundbites

In contrast to Alan Levin’s “size matters” sound bite, here’s another. A year ago, IBM’s general counsel, Robert Weber, told the Wall Street Journal“I’m pretty skeptical about the value these big mergers give to clients…I don’t know why it’s better to use a bigger firm.”

Weber should know because he spent 30 years at Jones Day before joining IBM. But is anyone listening? IBM’s long-time outside counsel Cravath, Swaine & Moore probably is. Based on size and gross revenues, Cravath doesn’t qualify for the Am Law 50, but its clients and partners don’t care.

Uncertain Outcomes

Does becoming a legal behemoth add client value? Does it increase institutional nimbleness in a changing environment? Does it enhance morale, collegiality, and long-run firm stability? Do profit margins improve or worsen? Why are many big firm corporate clients — H-P, eBay, Abbott Labs, ConocoPhilllips, Time Warner, DuPont, and Procter & Gamble, among a long list — moving in the opposite direction, namely, toward disaggregation that increases flexibility?

Wearing their “size alone matters” blinders, some firm leaders aren’t even asking those questions. If they don’t, fellow partners should. After all, their skin is in this game, too.

DANGEROUS ADVICE FOR LAW FIRM LEADERS

During the past 25 years, law firm management consulting has grown from cottage industry to big business. In a recent Am Law Daily article, “What Critics of Lateral Hiring Get Wrong,” Brad Hildebrandt, one of its pioneers, provides a comforting message to his constituents:

“Large law firms are weathering the storm of the past five years and continue to transform their businesses to operate with efficiency and agility amid a new set of client expectations.”

Hildebrandt v. Altman Weil

Hildebrandt correctly notes that painting all large firms with a single brush is a mistake. But his general description of most firms today is at odds with the results of Altman Weil’s recent survey, “2014: Law Firms in Transition.” The summary of responses from 803 law firm leaders (including 42 percent of the nation’s largest 350 firms) offers these highlights:

— “The Survey shows clear consensus among law firm leaders on the changing nature of the legal market…. [But] law firms are proceeding without an apparent sense of urgency.”

— “Less than half of the law firms surveyed are responding to the pressures of the current market by significantly changing elements of their traditional business model.”

— “Most firms are not making current investments in a future they acknowledge will be different – and different in seemingly predictable ways.”

— “Only 5.3 percent of firms are routinely looking farther than five years out in their planning.”

Altman Weil’s conclusions comport with its October 2013 Chief Legal Officer Survey. When clients rated outside law firms’ seriousness about changing legal service delivery models to provide greater value, the median score was three out of ten — for the fifth straight year.

Hildebrandt v. Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor and Henderson

So what are most big firms doing? Growth through aggressive lateral hiring. Hildebrandt responds to “academics, journalists, former practicing attorneys, and countless legal bloggers” who question that strategy. Count me among them.

Acquiring a well-vetted lateral partner to fill a specific strategic need is wise. But trouble arises when laterals become little more than portable books of business whose principal purpose is to enhance an acquiring firm’s top line revenues.

“Growth for growth’s sake is not a viable strategy in today’s market,” the 2014 Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report on the State of the Legal Market observes. Nevertheless, the report notes, most firms are pursuing exactly that approach: “[Growth] masks a bigger problem — the continuing failure of most firms to focus on strategic issues that are more important….”

Professor William Henderson has done extensive empirical work on this subject. “Is Reliance on Lateral Hiring Destabilizing Law Firms?” concludes: “[T]he data is telling us that for most law firms there is no statistically significant relationship between more lateral partner hiring and higher profits.”

Hildebrandt v. Citi/Hildebrandt

Big law partners acknowledge the truth behind Henderson’s data. According to the 2014 Citi/Hildebrandt Client Advisory, only 57 percent of law firm leaders describe their lateral recruits during 2008-2012 as successful, down from 60 percent last year. If those responsible for their firms’ aggressive lateral hiring strategies acknowledge an almost 50 percent failure rate, imagine how much worse the reality must be. Nevertheless, the lateral hiring frenzy continues, often to the detriment of institutional morale and firm culture.

With respect to culture and morale, Hildebrandt rejects the claim that lateral partner hiring crowds out homegrown associate talent. But the 2013 Citi/Hildebrandt Client Advisory suggests that it does: Comparing “the percentages of new equity partners attributable to lateral hires vs. internal promotions in 2007…with percentages in 2011 reveals a marked shift in favor of laterals” — a 21 percent decrease in associate promotions versus a 10 percent increase in lateral partner additions.

Nevertheless, Hildebrandt offers this assessment:

“In the six years prior to the recession, many firms admitted far too many partners—some into equity partnership, many into income partnership. A driving factor in the number of partners in the lateral marketplace is that firms are coming to grips with the mistakes of the past. Lax admissions standards have been a far greater issue than mistakes made on laterals.”

When I read that passage, it seemed familiar. In fact, Chapter 5 of my latest book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisisopens with this quotation:

“The real problem of the 1980s was the lax admission standards of associates of all firms to partnerships. The way to fix that now is to make it harder to become a partner. The associate track is longer and more difficult.”

Those were Brad Hildebrandt’s words in September 1996. (“The NLJ 250 Annual Survey of the Nation’s Largest Law Firms: A Special Supplement — More Lawyers Than Ever In 250 Largest Firms,” National Law Journal)

“Fool Me Once, Shame On You…”

Evidently, most firms followed Hildebrandt’s advice in the 1990s because the overall leverage ratio in big law firms has doubled since then. His recent suggestion that “lax admission standards” caused firms to make “far too many” equity partners during the six years prior to the Great Recession of 2008-2009 is particularly puzzling. In the May 2008 issue of American Lawyer, Aric Press noted that during the “Law Firm Golden Age” from 2003 to 2007, “Partners reaped the benefits of hard work — and of pulling up the ladder behind them. Stoking these gains has been a dramatic slowdown in the naming of new equity partners.”

Meanwhile, the swelling ranks of income partners reflect a different strategy: using the non-equity partner tier as a profit center. The strategy is misguided, but pursuing it has been intentional, not a “mistake.” (Take a look at the American Lawyer article, “Crazy Like a Fox,” by Edwin Reeser and Patrick McKenna.)

Even so, Hildebrandt’s words reassure firms that are recruiting laterals for all the wrong reasons and/or tightening the equity partner admission screws. Tough love might better serve the profession.

BIG LAW LEADERS “GET IT”? SERIOUSLY?

biglaw-450

This article won the “Big Law Pick of the Week.” BigLaw‘s weekly newsletter reaches the world’s largest law firms and the corporate counsel who hire them.

The concluding lines of this year’s Client Advisory from Hildebrandt/Citi are defensive, if not petulant:

“Unlike the commentary of many observers of the legal profession suggesting that today’s senior management do not ‘get it,’ we believe the large law firms today have every capability to adjust to the changing market….”

That nifty non sequitur is also a rhetorical sleight of hand. Having “every capability to adjust” is not the same as actually adjusting. The suggestion that today’s senior law firm leaders “get it” implies that they are responding in healthy and productive ways to a period of dramatic change.

Well, most of them aren’t. Instead, they’re maximizing current income at great expense to the future of their institutions. But don’t take my word for it; take theirs.

Facts get in the way

Consider the dominant big firm strategy: lateral hiring and mergers to achieve top line revenue growth. In Citi’s 2012 Law Firm Leaders Survey, senior leaders self-reported that only 60 percent of their laterals were above “break even.” For 2013, the rate dropped to 57 percent. As for mergers, anyone who thinks bigger is always better should look at the decline in operating margins that has followed most recent big firm combinations. That phenomenon is called diseconomies of scale.

Moreover, even the self-reported “success rate” is inflated. It takes years to determine the true financial impact of a lateral hire, so most managing partners touting those efforts actually have no idea whether their recent acquisitions will benefit their firms’ bottom lines. In fact, if leaders already admit to mediocre results for the laterals they personally sponsored, imagine how much worse the reality must be.

Beyond the numbers

Notwithstanding previous failures on a massive scale, managing partners are still pursuing growth for the sake of growth. Unfortunately, it can be a loser in ways that go far beyond mere financial losses. The negative impact on a firm’s culture, morale, and long-term institutional stability can be devastating.

For example, the 2013 Hildebrandt/Citi Client Advisory reported that between 2007 and 2011, law firms increased the number of lateral partners by 10 percent. Meanwhile, homegrown promotions to partner during the period dropped by 21 percent. That trend is undermining already low associate morale.

The lateral hiring frenzy has demoralized partners, too. A loss of community afflicts partnerships of people who don’t know each other. That’s one reason that forty percent of respondents to Altman Weil’s May 2013 survey of firm leaders said their partners’ morale was lower than it was at the beginning of 2008.

Another reason for diminished partner morale is the way lateral hiring has contributed to higher internal equity partner compensation spreads. Bidding to attract so-called rainmakers has pushed the high end of the range up. So have existing partners who threaten to test the lateral market. In that zero sum game of dividing the partnership pie, the bottom end of the range has moved down. (For an example, take a look at James B. Stewart’s New York Times profile of a former Dewey & LeBoeuf partner who reportedly earned $350,000 while his “protector” earned $8 million.)

More collateral damage ignored

Accompanying the lateral hiring frenzy and short-term metrics that drive the prevailing big firm business model are destructive client silos. More than 70 percent of law firm leaders responding to the Altman Weil survey said that older partners were hanging on too long. In the process, they’re hoarding clients, billings, and opportunities in ways that block the transition of firm business to younger lawyers.

But leadership’s response to this problem is perverse: 80 percent of managing partners admit that they plan to continue tightening equity partner admission standards.

The ongoing failure of leadership also reveals itself in managing partners’ overall agendas. When asked to prioritize goals for their firms, they placed “client value” number eight — behind (1) increasing revenue, (2), generating new business, (3) growth, (4) profitability, (5) management change, (6) cost management, and (7) attracting talent.

Closer to the mark

In contrast to the Hildebrandt/Citi 2014 Client Advisory, the Georgetown Law Center/Peer Monitor 2014 Report on the State of the Legal Profession concludes that most law firm leaders don’t “get it” at all:

“[G]rowth for growth’s sake is not a viable strategy in today’s legal market…Strategy should drive growth and not the other way around. In our view, much of the growth that has characterized the legal market in recent years fails to conform to this simple rule and frankly masks a bigger problem – the continuing failure of most firms to focus on strategic issues that are more important for their long-term success than the number of lawyers or offices they have.”

The report explains that, in an effort to justify the counterproductive urge to grow, “law firm leaders feel constrained to articulate some kind of strategic vision…and the message that we need to ‘build a bigger boat’ is more politically palatable than a message that we need to fundamentally change the way we do our work.”

Similarly, the author of the 2013 Altman Weil survey, Thomas Clay, says that too many firms are “almost operating like Corporate America…managing the firm quarter-to-quarter by earnings per share.” That shortsighted approach is “not taking the long view about things like truly changing the way you do things to improve client value and things of that nature.”

Even clients recognize that most outside law firms aren’t adapting to new realities. An October 2013 Altman Weil Survey asked chief legal officers to evaluate the seriousness of their outside law firms in changing the legal service delivery model to provide greater value. On a scale from zero (not at all serious) to ten (doing everything they can), “for the fifth year, the median was a dismal ‘3.’”

Perhaps the authors of the Hilebrandt/Citi 2014 Client Advisory actually believe that most of their big law managing partner constituents “get it.” No one else does.

PROOF OF THE PROFESSION’S CRISIS

biglaw-450

This article won the “Big Law Pick of the Week.” BigLaw‘s weekly newsletter reaches the world’s largest law firms and the general counsel who hire them.

Someone should remind law firm leaders that the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination isn’t just for clients. It can work for them, too. The latest Altman-Weil survey of firm leaders is proof of widespread management incompetence, stupidity, and worse.

The survey went to the chairs or managing partners of 791 firms with 50 or more lawyers. Firms with more than 250 lawyers (that is, mostly Am Law 200 firms) had a much higher response rate (42 percent) than smaller firms (26 percent). In other words, the survey results tilt toward big law firm attitudes.

The troubling big picture

The Am Law Daily’s summary includes comments from the survey’s author, Thomas Clay, who said that too many firms are “almost operating like Corporate America…managing the firm quarter-to-quarter by earnings per share.” That shortsighted approach is “not taking the long view about things like truly changing the way you do things to improve client value and things of that nature.”

For example, 95 percent of respondents view increased pricing competition as an ongoing trend, and 80 percent expect shifts to non-hourly billing structures. But only 29 percent have made significant changes to their own pricing practices in the wake of the recession.

Group stupidity

It gets worse. When asked to identify their greatest challenges over the next 24 months, the item that managers cite most often is “increasing revenue.” The rest of the list is, in order: new business, growth, profitability, management transition, cost management, and attracting talent. If you’re wondering where clients fit — other than as a source of revenue and profits in items one, two, and three — “client value” finished eighth.

Long-term thinking? Forget it. The client silo mentality and resulting culture of short-termism are widespread and deep. Almost 30 percent of law firm leaders say their firms lack adequate mid-level partners to whom they could transition clients. In another set of responses, they reveal why: 78 percent say that “senior partners don’t want to retire”; 73 percent admit that “senior partners don’t want to forfeit current compensation by transitioning client work.”

Lateral incompetence

Meanwhile, lateral hiring remains the prevailing strategy to achieve growth. Ninety percent of respondents plan to hire laterals in 2013; more than 60 percent seek entire practice groups. For firms of more than 250 lawyers, the numbers are even more startling: 100 percent plan to acquire laterals; 92 percent plan to acquire groups.

How much time do lateral partners get to prove their worth? Almost 60 percent of responding firm leaders say two years or more; 30 percent don’t set a time frame.

What happens when laterals don’t meet the expectations that brought them into the firm? Two-thirds of firm leaders said that they “sometimes, rarely or never” tell unproductive lateral hires to leave.

Institutional ineptitude

Almost 40 percent of respondents say their partners’ morale is lower compared to the beginning of 2008. And those partners survived the purges of 2009 and beyond.

If you’re looking for contributors to declining morale, try these. Seventy-two percent of firm leaders report that fewer equity partners will be a permanent trend going forward. Three-fourths have either tightened their standards or take them more seriously. Meanwhile, 92 percent of responding two-tier firms don’t have an up-or-out policy as non-equity partner profit centers grow.

To summarize:

Managing partners know that change is coming and clients are demanding it, but firms aren’t revisiting their basic strategies or business models.

Growth and profits finish far ahead of enhancing client value as most law firm leaders’ top concerns.

Leaders view aggressive lateral hiring as critical to law firm growth, but when laterals don’t produce, most firms don’t do much about it.

Succession planning is problematic because senior partners don’t want to relinquish compensation that is tied to their client billings.

As senior leaders continue to pull up the equity partner ladder on the next generation, morale plummets and managing partners worry about the absence of mid-level talent to serve clients in the future.

Taking all of this together, psychologists would call it a severe case of cognitive dissonance — simultaneously holding contradictory thoughts in your head. Those who assert that most big firms are resilient and face no life-threatening problems are wrong. A crisis of leadership is already upon us as lot of supposedly smart people continue to do some really dumb things. Don’t take my word for it; they’re outing themselves.