PUZZLE PIECES – Part 4

[An imaginary cross-examination of the 67-year-old Dechert partner profiled in “Not Done Yet” continues…]

Q: “What about money?”

Partner: “What about it?”

Q: “Do you think your equity partner income made you reluctant to admit — even to yourself — that someday you’d have to retire from your firm?”

Partner: “I don’t know why it would. Wealth creates options.”

Q: “Perhaps. Or maybe it fuels the lesser angels of our nature. Forty years ago, you didn’t become a lawyer because you thought it would make you rich, did you?”

Partner: “No. As I told the ABA reporter, early American lawyers such as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay inspired me.”

Q: “When you started your career in the early 1970s, no one talked much about billable hours, did they?”

Partner: “No.”

Q: “Or partner leverage?”

Partner: “Nope.”

Q: “Or other law firms’ average equity profits per partner?”

Partner: “How much money people made was not the subject of polite conversation. There’s more information today.”

Q: “I take it that you’re referring to the Am Law 100. What’s that?”

Partner: “The annual listing of the nation’s largest law firms.”

Q: “Do you remember when the first list appeared?”

Partner: “Sometime in the 1980’s, wasn’t it?”

Q: “1985; it started as the Am Law 50. Ten years later — in 1995 — what did Am Law report the total number of lawyers in your firm to be?”

Partner: “Probably around 300.”

Q: “You’re close. 315. How many of those were equity partners?”

Partner: “I don’t recall.”

Q: “Let me refresh your recollection. The July/August 1996 issue of American Lawyer says you had 132 equity partners — more than 40% of your firm’s attorneys. Do you know what Am Law said Dechert’s average equity partner profits were in 1995?”

Partner: “I’m sure you’ll tell me.”

Q: “$345,000 in 1995. Do you know what Am Law reported your firm’s average equity partner income to be a dozen years later — in 2007 –when you had the revelation that, alas, you were getting older?”

Partner: “Go ahead.”

Q: “$2.35 million.”

Pause.

Q: “Let’s talk about how that happened.”

PUZZLE PIECES – Part 3

As he himself described it, one of the top partners at Dechert LLP was 64 years old when he first realized that on his next birthday he’d turn 65. Now 67, he’s quoted in “Not Done Yet”:

“It made me start to think, ‘I’m in the traditional retirement zone without having spent one day thinking about it.’…Every time I set a timetable for a decision, I move it.”

That’s a witness statement I’d like to cross-examine — even if only in my dreams.

Q: “You’re an intelligent, accomplished attorney at one of the nation’s most prestigious firms, aren’t you?”

Partner: “I suppose you could say that.”

Q: “Don’t be modest. You have Ivy League undergraduate and law degrees sandwiched around an MBA, right?”

Partner: “Yes.”

Q: “You’re a senior partner at one of the nation’s elite firms — a group known as the Am Law 100, right?”

Partner: “Yes.”

Q: “You say that you didn’t think about retirement for a single day until you were 64?”

Partner: “Right.”

Q: “The light dawned when a list of nominees for the firm’s policy committee circulated and you saw that your name wasn’t on it, right?”

Partner: “That’s correct.”

Q: “You must have been pretty busy worrying about other things?”

Partner: “I’ve cultivated a very demanding practice. Law has become a 24/7 job.”

Q: “In your case, the job was so demanding that it completely distracted you from any awareness that you were getting older, is that what you’re saying?”

Partner: “Well…”

Q: “Before you answer, let me ask if you think anything else might have been contributing to your denial of the inevitable?”

Partner: “What do you mean?”

PUZZLE PIECES – Part 2

Tomorrow, I’ll return to the first of two articles that propelled me to launch this blog with “PUZZLE PIECES.”  First up is “Not Done Yet,”  (ABA Journal, April 2010 http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/not_done_yet/), about an aging big law firm partner who approached traditional retirement age only to have his own mortality surprise him.

Born just a few years before the beginning of a baby boomer generation that seemed always to have its way, he’s not alone in pondering the question: “Now what?” In fact, there are one-quarter million attorneys over 55 behind him.

But knowing his answer is less important than understanding the path that has taken him and many others to their current predicaments. Even more important are the implications for those now seeking an opportunity to get into that game.

WHY LISTEN TO ME?

Before spending your most precious commodity — your time — reading what I have to say, you’re entitled to enough information about me to decide whether my words matter.

The title of this blog is no accident, but I’m not a bitter online screamer who uses internet access as a substitute for anger management classes. Born into a working class family during the middle of the baby boom, I eventually surprised myself when I wound up at Harvard Law School and, immediately after graduation, one of the country’s biggest law firms. “Big” meant something different in those days; I was lawyer number 150 or so.

My job afforded me great opportunities to do what I enjoyed, gave me a sense of personal autonomy, and provided my family with financial security. Still, as demanding as it was, being a lawyer never defined me exclusively. When I wasn’t out-of-town trying cases, I was home for dinner. I coached all of my kids’ little league and girls’ softball teams and am still married to my first wife. All of our adult children are making the world a better place.

I don’t take credit for all of the good things that have happened in my life, nor can I pretend that my priorities are right for everyone. But my approach helped to make me part of an increasingly rare breed: attorneys who are satisfied with their careers and happy with their lives.

Retirement in my early-50’s hasn’t dimmed my outlook or diminished my enthusiasm, but distance has sharpened my perspective on how the legal profession has changed. For those now entering it, career satisfaction seems to be more and more elusive. The reasons become clearer to me every day.

Even more importantly, they have a universal application that goes far beyond the law.

More about that in the days ahead.

PUZZLE PIECES

Connections are not always obvious.

In a single 24-hour period last week, two seemingly unrelated articles appeared in national publications. They addressed opposite ends of the legal profession’s pipeline: entry and exit.

An April 1, 2010 report in the New York Times, “At Law Firms, Reconsidering the Model for Associates’ Pay,” described a growing phenomenon that should interest all prospective lawyers and many others. The essential point: big law firms (where most graduates think they want to begin their legal careers) are looking for ways to pay their new associates less.

A day later, the April issue of the ABA Journal included “Not Done Yet: If 65 is the new 50, how will baby boomers remake retirement?” It described aging big firm attorneys who were approaching (or had already passed) the traditional retirement age.

In an upcoming series of posts, I’ll describe the profound connections between these two articles in the context of the profession’s recent trends. But before that, we’ll continue next time with some background information about me so readers can assess whether I have anything useful to offer them.

For starters, let me admit that for 30 years I was a litigator at a large law firm.