HUMBLE LEADERSHIP

Over a year ago, I considered the then newly-named dean of the Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria. He’s been an outspoken critic of MBA curriculum that fosters short-term thinking at the expense of ethics and long-term values.

Nohria’s appointment came after the economic collapse of 2008 caused many to rethink what I call the MBA mentality of misguided metrics. Business school faculty worried that they’d taught too narrowly — emphasizing the need to maximize short-term profits at the expense of important but less easily measured values. Some suggested that business management should become more like a profession, such as medicine or, ahem, law.

Unfortunately, the most visible and powerful segment of the legal profession — big law — had already evolved to mimic some of the business world’s worst features. Nohria would have to look elsewhere for guidance.

So I read with interest his recent Q&A in the Wall Street Journal. Ethics has been a centerpiece of his curriculum overhaul at Harvard. But he’s even more concerned that this new classroom emphasis won’t stick once students return to the workforce.

“[T]here seems to be a big difference between people’s understanding of their responsibilities as business leaders and their capacity to live up to those when faced with pressure or temptation,” he told the Journal.

Because those achieving power have more difficulty retaining their moral compasses, Nohria’s new mission is cultivating humility.

“Abraham Lincoln said people think that the real test of a person’s character is how they deal with adversity,” Nohria told the Journal. “A much better measure of a person’s character is to give them power. I’ve been more often disappointed with how people’s character is revealed when they’ve been given power.”

Author Jonah Lehrer made a similar observation in a WSJ article discussing one study’s conclusion that nice people have a better chance of advancing:

“Now for the bad news, which concerns what happens when all those nice guys actually get in power. While a little compassion might help us climb the social ladder, once we’re at the top we end up morphing into a very different kind of beast.”

What does this have to do with lawyers? Plenty, especially most of those who run big firms where power has become concentrated increasingly at the top.

“Before the recession,” one management consultant observed, the top-to-bottom ratio within equity partnerships “was typically five-to-one in many firms. Very often today, we’re seeing that spread at 10-to-1, even 12-to-1.”

Several months ago, one big firm leader offered the Journal this spin:

“Pay spreads widen as firms become more geographically diverse, operating in cities with varying costs of living, said Peter Kalis, chairman of K&L Gates. The firm’s pay spread rose from about 5-to-1 to as much as 9-to-1 in the past decade as it expanded. ‘Houses cost less in Pittsburgh than they do in London,’ Mr. Kalis said.”

It’s a nice soundbite, but for reasons I’ve outlined before, not particularly persuasive. (E.g., Are there no top-of-the-range equity partners at K&L Gates’ Pittsburgh headquarters?)

But here’s the larger point: K&L Gates ranked 105th out of 126 firms in The American Lawyer  2011 Mid-Level Associate Survey. The firm scored well below the national averages in morale, collegiality, associate relations, training and guidance, family-friendliness, and overall rating as a place to work.

Kalis deserves praise for inviting recruits seeking jobs at his firm to ask tough questions. They won’t pose this one, but any leader should consider it:

While those at the top of big firms have consolidated their wealth and power, does true leadership — measured by the positive energy that everyone else in the place exudes — seem absent in a lot of them?

If Nohria is correct that the test of character comes when a person gains power, many at the top of some big firms could do better. Then again, it all depends on the metrics by which they’re measured.

THE COST OF DISSATISFACTION

This month began with the publication of The American Lawyer‘s annual Mid-Level Associate Satisfaction Survey results. The dismal descent to historic depths continues. Let’s end it with this question: Why should law firm leaders care?

Answer: Because dissatisfied lawyers are costing them money.

That’s the conclusion of Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile and fellow researcher, Steven Kramer, in The Progress Principle. They reported their findings in the Labor Day edition of the New York TimesAt a time when most workers feel fortunate to have jobs, Amabile and Kramer have a tough sell in convincing employers, including law firm leaders, to worry about the psychological state of their employees.

We all know the mantra: No one is required to accept any job. The market allocates resources. A labor market clears at the point where buyers and sellers agree on a price for services sought and rendered. Workers take into account the factors that matter to them and get paid appropriately for the jobs they’re willing to do. Case closed.

Not quite. Such an analysis makes dubious assumptions about the market. On the employee side, bad or incomplete information can distort outcomes. A prospective law student might hope to emulate popular media images that merge with law school promotional materials promising a secure, well-paying future. Once in school, individual financial imperatives — such as the need to repay staggering educational debt — can constrain post-degree options. Meanwhile, the anticipated job often turns out to be neither secure nor well-paying.

Likewise, employers take false comfort in the misconception that a new hire is simply exercising free will in a free market. A firm assumes that if young attorneys’ experiences diverge from rosier expectations, any resulting psychological distress isn’t its problem. Never mind that the firm’s underlying business model produces behavioral incentives and a culture that exacerbate the disconnect.

“We’re just trying to run a business,” most law firm leaders would say. “There’s no metric for assessing the impact of career dissatisfaction on performance. If I can’t measure it, how can I consider it when making decisions?”

As long as everyone keeps billing hours, the profits beast continues to be fed. As unhappy associates alone bear the burden of their discontent, leaders rationalize their indifference to growing dissatisfaction with a simplistic analysis: if it gets too bad, people can leave and find another job. In the current buyer’s market for associates, boatloads of replacements are waiting in the wings anyway.

The work of Amabile and Kramer offers an intriguing rebuttal to myopic managers who can’t see past next year’s profits. In a longitudinal study encompassing ten years and 238 professionals in seven different companies, they asked people to make daily diary entries about their emotional states. Negative inner work lives resulted in “a profound impact on workers’ creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality.”

The findings challenge the conventional wisdom that pervades many big firm cultures, namely, that pressure enhances performance. According to Amabile and Kramer, the data suggest that the opposite is true: “[W]orkers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do….[O]f all the events that engage people at work, the single most important — by far — is simply making progress in meaningful work.”

The authors note Gallup’s estimate that America’s “disengagement crisis” costs $300 billion annually in lost productivity. They also observe that the vast majority of 669 surveyed managers shared an important incompetence: the managers “failed to recognize that progress in meaningful work is the primary [employee] motivator, well ahead of traditional incentives like raises and bonuses.” The catalysts that enable such progress are worker autonomy, sufficient resources, and learning from problems.

Big firm leaders determine the extent to which their workers experience these three catalysts. The leveraged pyramid and its billable hour regime enslaves associates while inhibiting partners from becoming mentors. In other words, the prevailing big law model cuts the wrong way for everyone. The resulting work environment produces dissatisfaction that’s costing the equity partners money.

How much money? William Bruce Cameron’s observation (sometimes attributed to Einstein) was right: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

COMMENDABLE COMMENT AWARD

Rare candor at the top deserves recognition.

The September issue of The American Lawyer honors the magazine’s 2011 Lifetime Achievers — an impressive group. The list is alphabetical, which made Richard Beattie first. Now 72, he has enjoyed a long and distinguished career since joining Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett in 1968. Complementing a wildly successful big firm transactional practice, he also served the public in many capacities, including general counsel to the former U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare under Secretary Joseph Califano, Jr. in the 1970s.

In 1991, Beattie was elected to Simpson Thacher’s executive committee. He became chairman in 2004. By any measure, he has certainly earned his latest accolade. Yet another — my “Commendable Comment Award” — results from his response to The American Lawyer‘s question about his biggest regret:

“I regret the number of vacations with my family I missed as a result of working on transactions.”

Succeeding in big law requires talent, hard work, sacrifice, and — dare I say it — luck. Only the most reflective of big law leaders credit fortuity to their rise and even fewer discuss the downside — the personal cost that they and their families bear.

Mr. Beattie’s candor comes with a bit of irony. The same issue of the magazine reports this year’s Midlevel Associate Satisfaction survey. Overall, Simpson Thacher is tied for 56th out of 126 firms in the survey. It’s 36th out of 85 Am Law 100 and Global 100 firms. And remember, overall associate satisfaction for the survey group dropped again this year to an all-time low; being in the middle of the pack is, at best, a mediocre finish.

Going behind the numbers, Simpson scores below average in “family friendliness” — 3.47 out of five (the national average is 3.62). The firm is also below average in its associates’ stated likelihood of staying two years (3.44 compared to 3.58 nationally).

One more notable statistic from this year’s 2011 Am Law 100 listing: Simpson Thacher’s 2010 partner profits increased by more than nine percent over 2009. Its average profits per equity partner were $2.64 million — eighth place.

Being a lawyer has always been demanding. That won’t change. There are times when a situation requires sacrifices that only a particular lawyer (and his or her family) can make in responding to a client’s genuine emergency. But when it comes to big firms, clients in such situations rarely require the services of any particular mid-level associate.

In fact, during thirty years of practice, I never heard a client say, “I need associate X to cancel his or her family vacation to meet with me.” The seasoned senior partner may seem indispensable. Even the best midlevel associate? Never.

Which takes me back to Beattie and his firm. He gets high marks for admitting that work impaired his family life, but as a member of Simpson Thacher’s executive committee for two decades and chairman for the past seven years, he’s also had a unique power to shape his firm’s culture. His accomplishments are worthy of The American Lawyer‘s Lifetime Achievement Award, but he and others who set the profession’s tone have a special obligation to foster working environments in which young lawyers avoid what Beattie now describes as his biggest regret. Indeed, if they can’t, who can?

No leader of any big firm can single-handedly reverse the last two decades of unfortunately myopic and often short-sighted trends. But all should consider adopting “The Misery Index” — an informational tool that free market disciples should embrace. Such a metric might influence institutional behavior for the better, even if only marginally. Those willing to try it could, perhaps, improve the profession in ways they never thought possible back when they were missing all of those family vacations. There’s still time to keep others from missing theirs.

Anyone receiving honors recognizing a lifetime of achievement could leave no better legacy than empowering young proteges to avoid regrets similar to their own. Of course, the problem isn’t unique to Beattie or Simpson Thacher. It’s wrapped into the larger question of defining long-term success — a question that every big law leader should ponder for his or her firm. Regrettably, few will. There’s no way to bill a client for the time.

DO THEY COUNT AS BILLABLES?

In “New Lawyers, New Classes,” the Wall Street Journal reports on firms sending their attorneys through business-education type programs. Describing one full-time four week example, it states the obvious: “[L]aw firms aren’t billing the 160 training hours to clients.”

But the article is silent on a more interesting question: If a lawyer has to devote 160 hours — or any other amount — to firm-required business education, will that time count toward minimum billable hour expectations?

1958 ABA pamphlet suggested that a reasonable full-time schedule produced 1,300 client hours a year. That’s right, 1,300. Today, senior partners who had no minimum billables requirements as associates run firms where some new attorney orientation sessions dictate monthly targets, as well as annual ones. Big law associates average more than 2,000 billables a year. Adding another 160 hours — a month’s worth of time — for firm-required education is no small matter.

During year-end reviews, associates typically receive spreadsheets detailing their hours by category: client billables, recruiting, training, pro bono, personal, and so forth. (Hat-tip to The American Lawyer‘s A-List, which prompts many firms to count pro bono hours as billable time.)

How about training? Back in January 2008 when law firms were more concerned about attracting and retaining good associates than they are now, the New York Times found firms attacking enormous associate attrition rates with initiatives aimed at keeping the keepers. But even that didn’t always extend to giving billable credit for training.

For example, the Times wrote, “Strasburger & Price, a national firm based in Dallas, announced last October [2007] that it was decreasing the hours new associates were expected to log, to 1,600 from 1,920 annually. (Lest you think those lawyers will be able to go home early, however, note that newcomers will now be asked to spend 550 hours a year in training sessions and shadowing senior lawyers.)”

According to the NALP directory, Strasberger’s policy is unchanged, but at least it’s transparent. Many big law counterparts have remained opaque.

Consider the public positions of the three firms in the WSJ article — Debevoise & Plimpton; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy; and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. In their current NALP listings, none discloses its average associate billables for 2009 or 2010. But that doesn’t mean those in charge aren’t watching hours closely.

According to the Journal, “Debevoise said its associate billable hours rose by more than 10% in 2010 and are up by even more so far this year.” To what? The article doesn’t say — and neither does the firm.

Earlier this year, Milbank’s chairman, Mel Immergut, noted that billables were up, but “still low compared to what [they have] historically been.” Again, no hint of what those levels were or are.

Skadden’s culture is no secret. It became the subject of unwanted attention after one of its associates, Lisa Johnstone, died in June at age 32 — reportedly after weeks of extremely long hours.

All three firms state on their NALP forms that they have no minimum billable hours requirement. Debevoise’s website says that billable and pro bono hours “are monitored by partners to assure an associate’s full involvement in our practice and to attempt to spread workloads fairly.”

So perhaps there’s no need to worry about how those 160 business-education training hours get counted after all. Debevoise cares only about assuring full involvement and fairness for its associates, not whether they meet a minimum number of billables. Like many firms, Milbank actually uses its training programs as a sales tool: “Get paid to go to Harvard,” its website proudly proclaims. Skadden will always be Skadden.

But give credit where it’s deserved: Debevoise ranked an impressive 16th in overall mid-level associate satisfaction this year. Milbank and Skadden fared less well — placing 68th and 69th, respectively, out of 126. (The unfortunate backstory is that overall satisfaction for the survey group dropped to another record low.)

Interestingly, all three responded to this query on the NALP form:

“Billable hours credit for training time.”

Debevoise and Milbank answered “Y.” Skadden said “N.”

“Credit” toward what? Unless billables matter to evaluating or compensating associates, wouldn’t firms without a minimum requirement answer “N/A”?

Maybe their stated answers are typos.

FROM THE SPORTS PAGE

Subtle clues revealing the cause of a fundamental problem confronting the legal profession are everywhere, even in the sports section.

Recently, the New York Times wrote about 26-year-old Josh Satin, who made his major league debut for the New York Mets on Sunday, September 4. This time of year, such stories about minor league ballplayers getting a chance to play for out-of-contention major league teams are common. Regrettably, one of my hometown franchises — the Cubs — affords such opportunities almost every year.

This line of the Satin article caught my eye:

“After graduating as a political science major from Cal, Satin was selected by the Mets in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. And like any number of 20-somethings with a liberal arts degree and nebulous career prospects, he kept law school applications at the ready.”

Satin was drafted the  same year I began offering an advanced undergraduate course that targeted students like him. For many juniors and seniors who can’t decide what to do next, law school becomes a default solution that buys them more time. Sometimes it works out okay; for too many others, it’s a place where dreams go to die.

Bad information bears much of the blame for the problem of poor career choices that, in turn, contribute to widespread attorney dissatisfaction. Law schools skirting the outer limits of candor to fill their classrooms have made the problem worse. So has the transformation of big firms from a profession to a collection of short-term profit-maximizing businesses that use misguided metrics to drive decisions.

As a consequence, some not-so-funny things happened to many of those who went to law school for the wrong reasons. For starters, the promise of a secure future at a well-paying job turned out to be illusory. The persistent problem of lawyer oversupply rose to crisis levels during what would have been Satin’s first year of law school, if he’d gone. Since then, the market for new talent has gotten worse.

But even many who found decent legal jobs have been unpleasantly surprised. Popular images of dynamic lawyers engaged in courtroom battles widen the gap between student expectations and the reality they’ll encounter; that eventually makes for some very unhappy attorneys. By the time the truth hits, many find themselves burdened with educational debt equal to a home mortgage, albeit without the house.

That doesn’t mean no one should go to law school. The law is a great and noble pursuit in many ways. In fact, even the most pessimistic assessments suggest that about half of all attorneys enjoy satisfying careers. I sure did.

Nor does it mean that everyone who dreams of playing major league baseball — or any other high-profile job that the media infuses with irresistible glamour — should give it a shot. Everyone enjoys watching extraordinarily talented celebrities ply their trades, but for most of us, being a spectator is our highest and best use at such events. In his address to the Northwestern graduating class of 2011, Stephen Colbert referred to commencement speakers who tell college graduates to follow their dreams and asked, “What if it’s a stupid dream?”

But acknowledging the stupidity of a dream shouldn’t make law school the fallback answer to one of life’s most important questions, “Now what?”

I don’t know if Josh Satin will remain a major league ballplayer. If he doesn’t, I don’t know what he’ll do after that. But meanwhile, give him credit for having the courage to pursue passions for which he obviously has talent. It’s a safe bet that he’s happier than his college classmates “with a liberal arts degree and nebulous career prospects [who] kept law school applications at the ready,” sent them in, and pursued legal careers for which they had incomplete knowledge, limited enthusiasm, or both. Compounding the difficulties with which they began law school, they’re now having trouble finding the secure, well-paying and exciting work that they thought would be waiting for them when they graduated.

It turns out that for most of the nation’s 50,000 annual graduates, those particular jobs were never there at all.

SUFFERING IN SILENCE

The 2011 Am Law associate survey is out. Billable hours continue moving up; morale continues moving down. As I explain in “Suffering in Silence” (appearing in the September 2011 print edition of The American Lawyer), those who get to participate in the survey are the lucky ones.

It’s especially appropriate for Labor Day.

IT’S THE MODEL

[Thanks, readers. My big law novel — The Partnership — has been on the Amazon e-book “Legal Thrillers Best-Seller List” for more than a month. Last weekend, it was #7. Also available for iPadNook, and in paperback.]

Returning from vacation means tackling a pile of accumulated newspapers in a single sitting. That sounds like a chore, but it allows the mind to connect news items that otherwise might seem completely unrelated.

Consider these three from the Wall Street Journal on August 1, 2, and 3.

In “With Oracle and Dodgers Waiting, Boies Not Ready to Retire,” the Journal  interviewed David Boies — 70-year-old former Cravath partner who started his own firm. He represented Al Gore in the 2000 election fight, plaintiffs challenging California’s law banning gay marriage, the NFL in its litigation with players, and a long string of high-profile litigants. Boies explains why more than half of his firm’s cases have a potential success fee:

“Hourly rate billing is bad for the client and I believe bad for the firm. It sets up a conflict between what’s good for the lawyer and what’s good for the client.”

Enter the client with the will to resist the hourly billing regime. On August 2, the WSJ‘s “Pricing Tactic Spooks Lawyers” describes clients countering high big law fees with on line reverse auctions that pit firms against each other in bidding for business. The result: cost reduction.

But economizing can be dangerous. An article in the next day’s WSJ should make every big firm attorney squirm. “Objection! Lawsuit Slams Temp Lawyers” reports that J-M Manufacturing is suing its former law firm, McDermott, Will & Emery LLP, claiming that the firm didn’t supervise adequately the work of contract attorneys from a third-party vendor. McDermott denies wrongdoing:

“J-M…keeps changing its story. Now [it]…claims that McDermott failed to supervise the contract lawyers that J-M retained….”

According to the article, J-M alleges that it paid McDermott attorneys rates as high as $925 an hour, compared to $61 an hour to the firm supplying the temps. In other words and regardless of who retained them, using contract lawyers helped shave J-M’s outside legal bills.

Here’s the common thread. In the first article, Boies just says what everyone knows: the billable hour regime is a nightmare. The second reflects ongoing client efforts to reduce resulting legal costs. The third identifies a potential peril for law firms that attempt to oblige: a malpractice suit — the ultimate conflict with a client.

I don’t know if McDermott did anything wrong, but clients should realize that putting the squeeze on outside lawyers is tricky. For example, cutting fees is one thing; expecting large firm equity partners to do the obvious — reduce their own stunning income levels to help the cause — is something else, and it isn’t happening.

Amid corporate belt-tightening that targeted outside legal costs, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 actually rose during the last two years. They’re now back to pre-Great Recession levels of $1.4 million a year and it’s a safe bet that next year’s profits will be even higher. If I were a client, I’d ask, “How did that happen?”

“It’s the successful model at work,” most firm leaders would say without reflection or hesitation. “Growing equity partner earnings are essential to retain and attract top talent. Firms have become more efficient, so it’s a win-win for clients and partners.”

Clients should consider the untoward implications of austerity measures that don’t dent equity partners’ pocketbooks. Increased efficiency? Operating with fewer secretaries and putting locks on supply room cabinets don’t account for the extraordinary profits wave that big law continues to ride.

Here’s another explanation. The prevailing model requires increases in billable hours — big law’s distorted definition of productivity — to offset fee reductions that clients demand. Concerned about attorney fatigue that compromises morale and work product? Too bad; the model ignores it.

Clients can and should seek lower big law fees, but they should be careful what they wish for, scrutinize what they get, and wonder why equity partners’ eye-popping profits keep growing along the way. The prevailing model rewards big law equity partners handsomely, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s working for their clients or anyone else.

 

TRUTHINESS IN NUMBERS

Two recent developments here and across the pond share a common theme: ongoing confusion about young attorneys’ prospects. But the big picture seems clear to me.

Last month, I doubted predictions that the UK might be on the verge of a lawyer shortage. I expressed even greater skepticism that it presaged a similar shortfall in the United States. In particular, College of Law issued a report suggesting that an attorney shortage could exist as early as late 2011 and “may jump considerably in 2011-2012.”

This came as a surprise because the UK’s Law Society has warned repeatedly about the oversupply of lawyers in that country. Why such dramatically different views of the future?

Some commenters to an article about the College of Law report suggested that perhaps the study hadn’t taken into account the existing backlog of earlier graduates who, along with young solicitors laid off in 2008 and 2009, were still looking for work.

Another explanation may be that the College of Law and its private competitors, including Kaplan Education’s British arm, wants to recruit students to their legal training programs. Sound familiar?

The following is from the College of Law website:

“84% of our LPC graduates were in legal work just months after graduation.*”

But mind the asterisk: “*Based on known records of students successfully completing their studies in 2010.”

I wonder who among their students isn’t “known.” As for “legal work,” a recent former UK bar chairman observed that the oversupply of attorneys in that country has driven many recent LPC graduates into the ranks of the paralegals. Digging deeper into the College of Law’s 84 percent number yields the following: 62 percent lawyers; 22 percent paralegals “or other law related.” At least the College appears to be more straightforward than American law schools compiling employment stats for their U.S. News rankings.

That takes me to the recent ABA committee recommendation concerning employment data here. U.S. News rankings guru Robert Morse has joined the ABA in assuring us that help is on the way for those who never dreamed that law schools reporting employment after graduation might include working as a greeter at Wal-Mart. Morse insists that if the schools give him better data, he’ll use it.

It’s too little, too late. Employment rate deception is the tip of an ugly iceberg comprising the methodological flaws in the rankings. For example, employment at nine-months accounts for 14 percent of a school’s score; take a look at the absurd peer and lawyer/judges assessment criteria, which count for 40 percent. Res ipsa loquitur, as we lawyers say.

Frankly, I’m skeptical about the prospects for progress even on the employment data front. Until an independent third-party audits the numbers that law schools submit in the first place, their self-reporting remains suspect. No one in a position of real professional power is pushing that solution.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, Allen & Overy — a very large firm — announced its “second round of cuts on number of entry level lawyers hired” — from the current 105 London training contracts down to 90 for those applying this November.  The article concluded:

“The news comes after the latest statistical report from the Law Society highlighted the oversupply of legal education places compared with the number of training contracts in the UK legal market. The number of training contract places available fell by 16% last year to 4,874 and by 23% from a 2007-08 peak of 6,303.”

So much for the College of Law’s predictive powers. Prospective lawyers in the UK are probably as confused as their American counterparts when it comes to getting reliable information about their professional prospects. Most students everywhere assume that educational institutions have their best interests at heart.

If only wishing could make it so.

DESPERATELY SEEKING DOWNTIME

Couple Friday afternoon summer getaway days with a long weekend like the fourth of July and what do you get? Maybe not as much as you think.

A recent NY Times article pictures a family of four seated across their living room couch. Each has a laptop or handheld electronic device. They looked at the camera for the photo op, but the accompanying text demonstrates that they and many others are kidding themselves: physical proximity isn’t the same as spending time together.

Lawyers aren’t alone in pondering what quality time with others really means, but they confront special challenges in trying to find it. Once upon a time, work remained generally in the office; secretaries tracked down partners only for real emergencies; home was a refuge. Vacations meant that the entire family went someplace where everyone reconnected — and I don’t mean with WiFi.

Those good old days weren’t idyllic, but the lines separating work from everything else were clearer. The erosion began with voicemail. The ability to leave a message made it easier to do so while creating subtle pressure for recipients to check in periodically, even during vacations. E-mail made things worse. To the sender, it’s less intrusive than a phone call and, therefore, isn’t considered an interruption. BlackBerrys, text-messaging, and smart phones sped connection times and completed the melding of personal and professional existences.

Self-delusion about the consequences has become a special problem for attorneys who measure their lives in billable hours. They’ve convinced themselves that these technological innovations have come with no downside. Especially in big law, it’s all positive because everyone is just utilizing time more productively, i.e., it’s getting billed and the equity partners in particular are getting richer.

Associates supposedly benefit, too. Unlike earlier, “tougher” times, they can go home and continue billable activities in their virtual offices.

Clients? They get 24/7 access to their lawyers.

Everyone wins because the human mind can simultaneously do many things well, right? Not really.

The human brain processes information sequentially, that is, one thing at a time. When interrupted, the mind disengages from the original task, turns to the second one, and then disengages again before returning to what it was doing first. Not surprisingly, a recent scientific study found that young people (average age 24) switched tasks more quickly and easily than old ones (average age 69).

But another study reveals that people of all ages underestimate the extent to which they are, in fact, distracted in ways that burden the brain and diminish productivity. Using television and computer screens concurrently, the subjects multitasked between TV and internet content. On average, they switched between the two media four times per minute — or 120 times during the 27-minute experiment.

That’s stunning, but less shocking than the gap between reality and the subjects’ perceptions. Compared to the actual number of 120, they thought they’d switched between TV and computer screens only 15 times. The report concluded:

“That participants underreported their switching behavior so drastically echoes recent work in the applied multitasking field that illustrates how individuals tend to overestimate their multitasking ability and how heavy multitaskers are prone to distraction…[P]eople have little self-insight into multitasking behavior.”

If you’re checking for messages between innings at a ballgame or between shots on a golf course, you may not even know you’re doing it.

I’m not a technophobe. You’re reading this article because I sat at a computer, typed away, and then hit a button that propelled my musings into cyberspace. This very blog proves that technology has opened communication channels that facilitate intelligent interactions across continents and oceans. That won’t change and it shouldn’t.

But the next time you see couples or families at a restaurant, resort pool, or some other venue that’s supposed to bring them together, consider whether whatever each is doing independently proves that technology run amok may also be closing some important channels, too.

My recent family vacation reminded me that live conversations with all participants in the same place are still the best entertainment. Yes, even better than Skype and FaceTime. And no, I didn’t tweet while I was gone.

AGING GRACEFULLY — OR NOT

A recent NY Times article revealed the baby boomer’s dilemma: await marginalization or hog opportunities. It has profound implications for big law attorneys of all ages.

“[I]n my experience, it is much harder for older partners to maintain their position if their billable hours decline,” an employment lawyer told the Times.

So a law firm consultant suggested this strategy: “Very few people are so skilled that they can’t be replaced by a younger, more current practitioner. You’ve got to be so connected to important clients that the firm is going to fear your departure.”

That’s unfortunate advice, but not surprising. Most elders don’t mentor talented proteges to assume increasing responsibilities, persuade clients that others can do equally first-rate work, or institutionalize relationships so that the firm weathers senior partner departures and prospers over the long run. Instead, they create silos — self-contained practice groups of clients and attorneys who will give them leverage in the internal battles to retain money, power, and status. (See, e.g., The Partnership) Rather than waste time gaining fellow partners’ respect, the prevailing big law model prefers fear — or, more precisely, fear of a senior partner’s lost billings.

Over time, intergenerational antagonisms result. Older partners become blockage because the leveraged pyramid that pervades big law requires adherence to short-term metrics. Artificial constraints block the promotion of well-qualified candidates who’ve given years of personal sacrifice. If there’s not economic room at equity partner decision time, their efforts will have been for naught; they’re left behind.

Meanwhile, young attorneys learn by example. “Firm” clients cease to exist; they’re absorbed into jealously guarded fiefdoms that become transportable business units. Traditional partnership principles of mutual respect and support yield to unrestrained self-interest.

Eventually, everyone loses. Young attorneys resent elders; wealthy equity partners erect futile defenses against their own inevitable decline to an unhappy place; firms lose the stability that comes with loyal clients.

For some aging big law partners, greed never retires. But for many others, hanging on isn’t about the money. As mortality rears its head, their real quest is for continuing relevance — the belief that they still have something to offer and are making a difference.

Another Times article suggested a possible way out of big law’s conundrum: encouraging partners to redirect their skills. The New York Legal Aid Society program, Second Acts, taps into the growing army of retired lawyers:

“The point is not to have distinct phases of working life and after-working life, but to meld the two by having pro bono work be part of a lawyer’s career. Therefore, when lawyers retire, they can somewhat seamlessly slip into meaningful volunteer work, said Miriam Buhl, pro bono counsel at…Weil, Gotshal & Manges.”

The article described 68-year-old Steven B. Rosenfield, a former Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison partner who traded his commercial securities practice for work in juvenile rights.

Behavior follows embedded economic structures and the incentives they create. In big law, the myopic emphasis on a handful of short-term profit-maximizing metics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios — has produced blinding wealth for a few. But sometimes those metrics become less satisfying as organizing principles of life.

Firm demands have left all lawyers with little time to reflect on what their lives after big law might be. Someday, most successful big law partners will pay the price and need help finding a path that reshapes self-identity while preserving dignity. The challenge is to permit disengagement with honor.

Firms could do a great service — and improve their own long-term stability in the process — if they relieved the stigma of economic decline in ways that encouraged aging colleagues to do the right thing. But it requires thinking beyond today’s metrics that determine a partner’s current year compensation. It requires valuing what can’t be easily measured and embedding it in a firm’s culture so that reaching retirement age isn’t a shock, it’s a blessing. It requires empathy, compassion, and — most of all — leadership.

In short, it requires things that are, tragically, in very short supply throughout big law.

FAMILY FRIENDLY?

Lawyers know that definitions dictate outcomes. That’s why the Yale Law Women’s latest list of the “Top Ten Family Friendly Firms” includes some surprising names. At least, some surprised me.

It turns out that the YLW’s definition of family friendly is more restrictive than the plain meaning of the words. According to the survey methodology, it’s mostly a function of firms’ attention to particular issues relating primarily to women. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it shouldn’t be confused with what really undermines the family-friendliness of any big firm — its devotion to billable hours and billings as metrics that determine success. That problem isn’t gender-specific.

To compile the annual list, YLW surveyed the Vault Top 100 Law Firms. What would happen if they included all of the NLJ 250 or an even larger group that included small firms? I don’t know, but I’ll bet the list would look a lot different.

Now consider the survey categories and YLW commentary:

— Percentage of female attorneys: “Although YLW found that, on average, 45% of associates at responding law firms are women, women make up only 17% of equity partners and 18% of firm executive management committees. Additionally, on average, women made up just 27% of newly promoted partners in 2010.”

— Access to and use of parental leave: Virtually all firms have them. Big deal.

— Emergency and on-site child care: I understand the advantages, but how much family friendly credit should a firm get for providing a place where young lawyers can leave their babies and pre-schoolers while they work all day?

— Part-time and flex-time work policies: “98% offer a flex-time option, in which attorneys bill full-time hours while regularly working outside the office.” So what? I know senior partners without families who’ve done that for years.

— Usage of part-time and flex-time policies: “On average, 7% of attorneys at these firms were working part-time in 2010.” Will they become equity partners? “Of the 7% of attorneys working part-time, only 11% were partners, a number that may also include partners approaching retirement. Only 5% of the partners promoted in 2010 had worked part-time in the past, on average, and only 4% were working part-time when they were promoted.”

— Billable hours and compensation practices: “[I]t remains to be seen whether it is truly possible to work part-time at all. Our statistics indicate that while part-time attorneys appear to be fairly compensated, many may work more hours than originally planned. Most firms (93%) provide additional compensation if part-time attorneys work more than the planned number of hours or make part-time attorneys eligible for bonuses (96%). However, part-time attorneys received bonuses at higher rates than full-time attorneys (25% compared to 23% on average), suggesting that many part-time schedules may ultimately morph into full-time hours over the course of a year.”

— Alternative career programs: What’s that? Outplacement support?

All of this gets weighted according to another survey of Yale Law School alumni who ranked the relative importance of the surveyed policies and practices.

Continuing efforts to achieve greater big law transparency are laudable. But one problem with lists and rankings is that they take on a life of their own, wholly apart from methodological limitations and the caveats accompanying the results. (See, e.g., U.S. News rankings). Here, the YLW cautioned that it “remains concerned about the low rates of retention for women, the dearth of women in leadership positions, the gender gap in those who take advantage of family friendly policies, and the possibility that part-time work can derail an otherwise successful career.”

The honored firms will gloss over that warning, issue press releases, and delude themselves into believing that they are something they’re not. Someone truly interested in whether a place is family friendly should find out where it ranks on the “Misery Index.” Partners won’t tell you, but that metric would reveal a firm’s true commitment to the long-term health and welfare of its attorneys and their families.

If you really love someone, you should set them free — even if it’s only every other weekend.

A NEW LAW SCHOOL MISSION

What ails the profession and is there a cure?

If you haven’t already seen it, you might want to take a look at Part I of my article, “Great Expectations Meet Painful Realities,” in the Spring 2011 issue of Circuit Rider. My latest contribution to the debate on the profession’s growing crisis begins on page 24 of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association’s semi-annual publication.

Part II begins at page 26 of the December 2011 issue.

IMPROVING PROSPECTS — BUT FOR WHOM?

Life is just a matter of perspective. For example, here’s some apparently good news:

— The legal sector added 1,500 jobs in April.

— Ashby Jones at the Wall Street Journal Law Blog cited a recent article in The Guardian for the proposition that the U.K. might actually have a shortage of lawyers next year. Could the U.S. be far behind?

— NALP’s Executive Director James Leipold noted that, along with an overall attorney employment rate of 88.3% for the class of 2009, “the most recent recruitment cycle showed signs of a small bounce in the recruiting activity of law firms, a sign that better economic times likely lie ahead.”

Now consider each headline a bit differently:

— “Legal sector” isn’t limited to attorneys; more than 44,000 new law school graduates hit the market every year.

The Guardian article relies solely on a report from the College of Law that has an interest in encouraging applications to its program for prospective solicitors. More than one comment to the initial report expressed angry skepticism about the College’s short-term motives. Where have I heard that before?

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that, for the entire ten-year period from 2008 to 2018, net U.S. attorney employment will increase by only 100,000. Even if all aging attorneys retired as they turned 65, there aren’t enough of them to make room for all the newbies. In 1970, for example, law schools awarded only about one-third of the number of JDs conferred in 2010.

— To his credit, NALP’s Leipold went behind the 88% employment rate for the class of 2009. The resulting caveats are significant.

First, the percentage employed are graduates “for whom employment status was known.” Who’s excluded? Who knows?

Second, nearly 25 percent of all reported jobs were temporary; more than 10 percent were part-time.

Third, only 70 percent “held jobs for which a J.D. was required.” Unfortunately, law schools don’t offer tuition refunds (or relief from student loans) for education that was unnecessary for their graduates’ actual employment opportunities. That doesn’t surprise me. (See “Law School Deception.”)

Finally, more than 20 percent of employed graduates from the class of 2009 “were still looking for work.” Beneath the veneer of superficially good news — having a job — career dissatisfaction continues to eat away at too many of the profession’s best and brightest in yet another generation.

That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t go to law school. It means that they should think carefully about it first, starting with this question: why do I want to be a lawyer and will the reality of the job match my expectations?

Turning the employment subject toward big law leads to one more lesson on perspective.

A day after the Ashby Jones and James Leipold articles, the WSJ‘s Nathan Koppel summarized big law’s continuing job-shedding: the NLJ 250 lost another 3,000 in 2010, bringing their total decrease since 2008 to 9,500. They may be hiring some new associates, but they’re getting rid of many more.

NALP expects to release its 2010 employment data in May. But every big law leader knows that May’s true importance lies in a much more significant event: annual publication of the Am Law 100. For some partners, pre-release anxiety is palpable, if not paralyzing.

This year, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 went up by over 8% — to almost $1.4 million. For context, that surpasses 2007, which was the peak of an uninterrupted five-year PPP run-up. Pretty stunning for an economy that remains difficult for so many. Gross revenues increased as overall headcount dropped by almost 3%. More revenues from fewer attorneys meant more billables — mislabeled as higher “productivity” in big law terms — for the chosen. (See “The Misery Index.”) As jobs remained scarce and associate hours climbed, equity partner earnings continued their ascent.

How much is enough? For some people, the answer will always be more; short-term metrics that maximize current PPP guide their way. Life is easy when deceptively objective numbers make solutions simple, reflection unnecessary, and the long-term someone else’s problem. It’s just a matter of perspective.

BIG LAW INCIVILITY

Attorney incivility is nothing new. Noting that the problem dated to the nineteenth century, Chief Justice Warren Burger addressed it in 1971 remarks to the American Law Institute. He criticized the lawyer who equated zealous advocacy with “how loud he can shout or how close he can come to insulting all those he encounters.” (“The Necessity for Civility,” 52 FRD 211, 213 (1971))

Here’s a more recent example from a deposition, cited in Judge Marvin E. Aspen’s oft-quoted 1998 article on the erosion of civility:

Mr. V: Please don’t throw it at me.

Mr. A: Take it.

Mr. V: Don’t throw it at me.

Mr. A: Don’t be a child, [Mr. V]. You look like a slob the way you’re dressed, but you don’t have to act like a slob….

Mr. V: Stop yelling at me. Let’s get on with it.

Mr. A: You deny I have given you a copy of every document?

Mr. V: You just refused to give it to me.

Mr. A: Do you deny it?

Mr. V: Eventually you threw it at me.

Mr. A: Oh, [Mr. V], you’re about as childish as you can get. You look like a slob, you act like a slob.

Mr. V: Keep it up.

Mr. A: Your mind belongs in the gutter.

Evidence of incivility among adversaries is largely anecdotal; the best examples don’t lend themselves to statistical analysis. A recent Above the Law post led me to ponder this question: does the prevailing big law business model contribute to incivility?

Mark Herrmann, a former big law partner, writes “Inside Straight” from his relatively new vantage point as in-house counsel. “How to Be a Crappy Partner” isn’t about civility, but some of his readers’ comments led me to this observation: when lawyers inside a law firm treat each other poorly, no one should expect their behavior to improve for outside opponents.

Unpleasant personalities are everywhere. Big firm lawyers as a group may be no worse than those in other practice settings; jerks exist across the spectrum. Likewise, drawing conclusions from any potpourri of Above the Law comments is dangerous. Even so, the most coherent “Crappy Partner” reactions fall into the following categories, each of which has a counterpart in external incivility:

— Disrespect for People’s Time

“Give me 10 minutes as an associate in a world without Blackberrys–please.” Other examples: delaying assignments until they conflict with an associate’s long-planned (and widely known) vacation; imposing tight deadlines only to let the completed work sit undisturbed on the assigning partner’s desk for two weeks; Friday night forwarding of a client’s earlier request for answers by the following Monday with a message revealing that the partner sat on the client’s request for five days.

Incivility counterpart: Fighting over inconsequential scheduling matters; taking actions, such as so-called emergency motions, solely to disrupt opponents’ personal lives.

— Flagrant Misbehavior

“Believe it or not, I’m on your side.” Examples: partners who yell, scream, and act in ways that most parents wouldn’t tolerate from a two-year-old; verbal abuse; sexist comments; narcissism.

Incivility counterpart: Ad hominem attacks.

— Lack of Candor About the Big Law Model

“I’m smart; that’s why you hired me. I can do the math.” Examples: pretending that associates don’t notice as fewer than ten percent of earlier new hires advance to equity partner after years of 2,000+ billables; bragging about the firm’s tenth year of increasing partner profits while laying off associates and staff; giving lip-service to mentoring and professional development when short-term profits drive decisions based on metrics that exclude such considerations.

Incivility counterpart: Lawyers believing their own press releases–and acting the role.

Send the purveyors (and victims) of such hubris into the world and what do you expect? More than most occupations, lawyers learn from role models and mentors. The culture that undermines morale at many large firms isn’t self-limiting. The prevailing business model often rewards “crappy partner” behavior and rarely penalizes it. External incivility is one byproduct of that internal ethos.

Large firms aren’t solely to blame for incivility; far from it. But for good and ill, they exert vastly disproportionate influence over the profession. Among other failings, the prevailing big law business model isn’t helping the cause of civility. Tellingly, here’s one commenter’s sad advice on how to avoid becoming a crappy partner:

“Please say please and thank you.”

I wonder what their mothers would say.

A NEW METRIC: THE MISERY INDEX

Let’s call it what it is.

Large law firms and their management consultants have redefined a word — productivity — to contradict its true meaning. Recent reports from Hildebrandt and Citi measure it as everyone does: average billable hours per attorney.

No one questions this perversion because the prevailing business model’s primary goal is maximizing partner profits. Billables times hourly rates produce gross revenues. More is better and the misnomer — productivity — persists.

The Business Dictionary defines productivity as the “relative measure of the efficiency of a person [or] system…in converting inputs into useful outputs.” But the relevant output for an attorney shouldn’t be total hours spent on tasks; it’s useful work product that meets client needs. Total elapsed time without regard to the quality of the result reveals nothing about a worker’s value. More hours often mean the opposite of true productivity.

Common sense says that effort on the fourteenth hour of a day can’t be as valuable as that exerted during hour six. Fatigue compromises effectiveness. That’s why the Department of Transportation imposes rest periods after interstate truckers’ prolonged stints behind the wheel. Logically, absurdly high billables should result in compensation penalties, but prevailing big law economics dictate otherwise.

Here’s a partial cure. Rather than mislabel attorney billables as measures of productivity, an index should permit excessive hours to convey their true meaning: attorney misery. The Misery Index would be a natural corollary to NALP’s survey of minimum billable hour requirements. Attorneys now accept as given the 2,000 hour threshold that most firms maintain, even though current big law leaders faced no mandatory minimum levels when they were associates. As Yale Law School describes in a useful memo, 2,000 is a lot. But even if the 2,000-hour bell can’t be unrung, the Misery Index could reveal a firm’s culture.

To construct this metric for a given firm, start with attorneys billing fewer than 2,000 hours annually (including pro bono and genuine firm-related activities such as recruiting, training, mentoring, client development, and management); those lawyers wouldn’t count toward their firm’s Misery Index. However, at each 100-hour increment above 2,000, the percentage of attorneys reaching each higher numerical category would be added. To reflect the increasing lifestyle costs of marginal billables, attorneys with the most hours would count at every 100-hour interval preceding their own. Separate indices should exist for associates (AMI) and partners (PMI).

The Misery Index would reveal distinctions that firmwide averages blur. For example, Firm A has an Associate Misery Index of 125, calculated as follows:

50% of associates bill fewer than 2,000 hours = 0 AMI points

50% > 2,000 = 50  AMI points

40% > 2,100 = 40

25% > 2,200 = 25

10% > 2,300 = 10

None > 2,400

AMI: 125

Firm B’s AMI of 315 describes a much different place:

10% of associates bill fewer than 2,000 hours = 0 AMI points

90% > 2,000 = 90 points

75% > 2,100 = 75

60% > 2,200 = 60

45% > 2,300 = 45

30% > 2,400 = 30

15% > 2,500 = 15

None > 2,600

AMI: 315

A Misery Index would aid decision-making, especially for new graduates. Some would prefer firms with a high one; most wouldn’t. A Misery Index above 300 might prompt questions about the physical health of a firm’s attorneys; a Misery Index of zero — no one working more than 2,000 hours — might prompt questions about the health of the firm itself. Big disparities between partners (PMI) and associates (AMI) would be revealing, too.

Data collection is problematic. NALP won’t ask for the information and most firms won’t supply it — unless clients demand it. (In an earlier article, I explained why they should.) Alternatively, individual attorneys could provide the information anonymously, similar to The American Lawyer’s annual mid-level associate surveys.

Complementing the Misery Index would be firm-specific Attrition Rates by class year from starting associate to first year equity partner. NALP’s last report — before the 2008 financial crisis — showed big law’s five-year associate attrition rates skyrocketing to more than eighty percent, but significant differences existed among firms.

The Misery Index and Attrition Rates would be interesting additions to Am Law‘s “A-List” criteria that many big firms heed. Imagine an equity partner meeting that included this agenda item: “Reducing Our Misery Index and Attrition Rates.” It would certainly be a departure from scenes and themes in my best-selling legal thriller, The Partnership.

Big law is filled with free market disciples who urge better information as a panacea, as well as metrics to communicate it. Here’s their chance.

LAW SCHOOL DECEPTION — PART II

The National Law Journal just published its annual list of “go-to” schools — those that supply the most new associates to large law firms. Clearly, lower tier students aren’t alone in struggling to find jobs. One top school’s ride on the NLJ 250 rankings roller coaster is particularly interesting and instructive.

Northwestern jumped from eleventh to second place on the list in 2007. Then-Dean David Van Zandt credited the “tremendous effort to reach out to employers,” along with the emphasis on enrolling students with significant postgraduate work experience, as attracting big firm recruiters. Last year, Northwestern took the number one spot.

But in 2010, the school dropped to eighth — a relative decline that overall market trends don’t explain, but growing class size does. Northwestern awarded 234 JDs in 2007; the 2010 class had 50 more — 284. One reason: misguided short-term metrics became guiding principles.

Two years ago, the ABA Journal reported that Northwestern had become one of the most aggressive recruiters of transfer students (adding 43 to the first-year class). Such students were a win-win for short-term metrics-lovers: Their undisclosed LSATs didn’t count in the U.S. News rankings and their added tuition boosted the financial bottom line.

Meanwhile, Northwestern’s “go-to” position could continue dropping next year because the class of 2011 will include another new contingent — the first group of accelerated JDs. That program emerged from focus groups of large law firm leaders — part of the dean’s outreach program — who helped to shape Northwestern’s long-range strategic document, Plan 2008, Building Great Leaders for the Changing World.

That leads to another point: leadership. Defining a law school’s proper mission is critically important. There’s nothing wrong with getting input from all relevant constituencies, including large law firms. But retooling curriculum to fulfill big law’s stated desires for associate skills is a dubious undertaking.

In February 2010, Van Zandt explained his contrary rationale during a PLI presentation to large firm leaders. Simply put, he saw starting salaries as setting the upper limit that a school can charge for tuition. Accordingly, attending law school makes economic sense only if it leads to a job that offers a reasonable return on the degree’s required financial investment. However valid that perspective may be, the slipperiness of the resulting slope became apparent when Northwestern’s laudable goal — updating curriculum — focused on satisfying big firms that paid new graduates the most.

Tellingly, in the ABA’s Litigation quarterly, Van Zandt explained that high hourly rates made clients “unwilling to pay for the time a young lawyer spends learning on the job…As a result, the traditional training method of associate-partner mentoring gets sacrificed.” Law schools, he urged, should pick up that slack.

But the traditional training method gets sacrificed only because the firms’ prevailing business model doesn’t reward such uses of otherwise billable time. Rather than challenge leaders to reconsider their own organizations that produce staggering associate attrition rates and many dissatisfied attorneys, the dean embraced their short-term focus — maximizing current year profits per partner.

Relatively, Northwestern still fares well in the “go-to” rankings, but the data depict a dynamic exercise in magical thinking. Among the top 20 schools, it led the way in increasing class size as the school’s absolute big law placement numbers steadily declined: 172 in 2007; 154 in 2008; 142 in 2009; 126 in 2010.

Most law schools feel the continuing crunch. Overall, the top 50 law schools graduated 14,000 new lawyers in 2010; only 27% went to NLJ 250 firms — a drop of three percentage points (400 lawyers) from 2009. But that only highlights an obvious question: Why should that shrinking tail wag any dog? A diversified portfolio of career outcomes less dependent on large firms is a more prudent plan for schools and their students.

Even if jobs reappear, there’s another reason to combine balance with candor: Recent surveys indicate that a majority of large firm attorneys become dissatisfied with their careers anyway. Those metrics never appear on law school websites. Deans are uniquely positioned to help prospective students make informed decisions. They could serve the profession by focusing less on marketing and more on giving prospective students the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If only there were a metric for it.

NUMBERS TELL A STORY

When challenged to tell a story in as few words as possible, Ernest Hemingway replied with six: “For sale: Baby shoes — never worn.”

I’m not Hemingway, but in his spirit of brevity, I offer five phrases — totaling eight words — distilling a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Law Firms Hold Line In Setting Bonuses,” by Vanessa O’Connell and Nathan Koppel. It appeared on the Monday after Christmas, so you might have missed it.

***
HOURS UP: “Average hours billed by associates at the nation’s top 50 law firms by revenue rose by 7% in 2010.”
***
BONUSES FLAT: “At New York-based Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy LLP, where bonuses were only slightly above last year’s payouts, hours billed by associates were up about 6%.” [According to Above the Law, the firm’s 2010 bonuses ranged from $7,500 for first-year associates to $35,000 for those in the class of 2003. That’s a big drop from 2006, when first-year associates received “special year-end bonuses” of $30,000. Student-loan repayment requirements have not experienced a similar decline.]
***
MANAGERS RATIONALIZE: “‘The actual number of [billed] hours is still low compared to what it has historically been,’ [says Milbank’s Chairman Mel M. Immergut].”
***
PARTNERS WIN: “Revenue at Milbank Tweed will be up by about 3% on flat expenses, Mr. Immergut says, adding that profit per partner will be up by 8% to 10%, depending on year-end collections.” According to The American Lawyer, Milbank Tweed’s average profits per partner in 2009 were $2.230 million. How much is enough? The answer appears to be “More.”

LAW SCHOOL DECEPTION

Last Sunday, the NY Times asked: Are law schools deceiving prospective students into incurring huge debt for degrees that aren’t worth it?

Of course they are. The U.S. News is an aider and abettor. As the market for new lawyers shrinks, a key statistic in compiling the publication’s infamous rankings is “graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation.” Any job qualifies — from joining Cravath to waiting tables. According to the Times, the most recent average for all law schools is 93%. If gaming the system to produce that number doesn’t cause students to ignore the U.S. News’ rankings altogether, nothing will.

My friend, Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law Professor Bill Henderson, told the Times that looking at law schools’ self-reported employment numbers made him feel “dirty.” I assume he’s concerned that prospective students rely on that data in deciding whether and where to attend law school. I agree with him.

But an equally telling kick in the head is buried in the lengthy Times article: Most graduates who achieve their initial objectives — starting positions in big firms paying $160,000 salaries — quickly lose the feeling that they’re winners. Certainly, they must be better off than the individuals chronicled in the article. What could be worse than student debt equal to a home mortgage, albeit without the home?

Try a legal job with grueling hours, boring work, and little prospect of a long-term career. Times reporter David Segal summarized the cliche’: “Law school is a pie-eating contest where first prize is more pie.”

These distressing outcomes for students and associates aren’t inevitable. In fact, they’re relatively new phenomena with a common denominator: Business school-type metrics that make short-term pursuit of the bottom line sterile, objective, and laudable. Numbers prove who’s best and they don’t lie.

Law school administrators manipulate employment data because they have ceded their reasoned judgment to mindless ranking criteria. (“[M]illions of dollars [are] riding on students’ decisions about where to go to law school, and that creates real institutional pressures,” says one dean who believes that pandering to U.S. News rankings isn’t gaming the system; it’s making a school better.)

Likewise, today’s dominant large firm culture results from forces that produced the surge in average equity partner income for the Am Law 50 — from $300,000 in 1985 to $1.5 million in 2009. Leveraged pyramids might work for a few at the top; for everyone else — not so much.

The glut of law school applicants, as well as graduates seeking big firm jobs to repay their loans, leaves law school administrators and firm managers with no economic incentive to change their ways. The profession needs visionaries who are willing to resist perpetuating the world in which debt-laden graduates are becoming the 21st century equivalent of indentured servants.

Henderson calls for law school transparency in the form of quality employment statistics. I endorse his request and offer a parallel suggestion: Through their universities’ undergraduate prelaw programs, law schools should warn prospective students about the path ahead before their legal journeys begin.

Some students enter law school expecting to become Atticus Finch or the lead attorneys on Law & Order. Others pursue large firm equity partnerships as a way to riches. Few realize that career dissatisfaction plagues most of the so-called winners who land what they once thought were the big firm jobs of their dreams.

A legal degree can lead to many different careers. The urgency of loan repayment schedules creates a practical reality that pushes most students in big law’s direction. If past is prologue, the vast majority of them will not be happy there. They should know the truth — the whole truth — before they make their first law school tuition payments. Minimizing unwelcome surprises will create a more satisfied profession.

Meanwhile, can we all agree to ignore U.S. News rankings and rely on our own judgments instead of its stupid criteria? Likewise, can big law managers move away from their myopic focus on the current year’s equity partner profits as a definitive culture-determining metric? I didn’t think so.

MEASURING VALUES

In a recent NY Times column, David Brooks wrote about the future of our nation, but one observation applies to big law:

“In a world of relative equals, the U.S. will have to learn to define itself not by its rank, but by its values. It will be important to have the right story to tell, the right purpose and the right aura. It will be more important to know who you are.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/14/opinion/14brooks.html?_r=1&ref=opinion)

Large law firms, too, have become a world of relative equals. That has been an unintended consequence of the transformation from a profession to a business. In pursuit of rank, too many managers rely on B-school-type metrics — billings, billable hours, leverage ratios — as definitive measures of worth. They use them as substitutes for independent judgments based on values that are less easily quantified.

Behavior follows incentives. Partners jockey for internal position and managers focus myopically on short-term profits. They believe that favorable Am Law rankings will distinguish them but, Brooks argues, similar thinking would be a mistake for our country over the long-run.

It’s equally true for big firms. High-paying clients assume that only the best and brightest lawyers will work on their matters. But to attract and retain those attorneys, even the self-described top firms will have to offer more than money. In that contest, values will separate the biggest winners from everyone else.

Of course, in the very short-term, top graduates respond to the urgency of school loan repayment schedules. But as the novelty of a steady paycheck fades, the superstars will yearn for something else. They’ll understand that a firm’s “make more money” mantra limits its vision. For most, it fails to offer long-term career satisfaction. Indeed, the prevailing model doesn’t even contemplate long-term careers for the vast majority of new hires.

The most ambitious and talented new graduates are already beginning to understand the game. As greater knowledge of what lies ahead empowers students to make better decisions, firms viewing their own missions merely as maximizing this year’s equity partner profits will lose the values contest for the next generation’s talent. It won’t happen this year or next, but it will happen.

What are the winning values? Here are some suggestions:

Resisting the deceptive simplicity of short-term metrics. Embracing efforts to shed light on a troubled business model. Requiring decency in all human interactions. Punishing bullies. Providing young lawyers with mentors, training, and opportunities because even the best internal programs are no substitutes for the real thing. (Pro bono programs can help as they advance other important values.) Creating a reality that matches more closely students’ prelaw expectations of what being a lawyer would mean.

Offering realistic prospects for long-term careers. Without tolerating mediocre performers, implementing decision-making processes that minimize the impacts of internal politics and clashing personalities in determining the fate of human beings. Providing meaningful and candid reviews while also jettisoning arbitrary barriers that the leveraged pyramid model imposes on equity partnership entry. Advancing all who deserve promotion.

Conquering the billable hour and its death-grip on associate compensation. Finding a way to measure attorney productivity that rewards those who complete a task efficiently — and penalizes those whose long hours produce big client billings based on diminishing (or negative) returns.

To secure their firms’ futures, thoughtful partners will accept modest reductions from the staggering personal incomes that they’ve enjoyed in recent years. Those willing to make the investment will reap great dividends. Large firms depend uniquely on the wisdom, judgment, and intelligence of their attorneys. The best new graduates will flock to firms cherishing values consistent with a satisfying career, even if it means less money (although in the long-run, it probably won’t).

As for the rest? Much of big law will continue pursuing the highest short-term dollar — wherever it is and whatever its cost to others, their institutions, or the profession. Such is the power of greed. But those who measure everything they value risk creating an unpleasant world in which they value only what they measure.

“IT’S A WONDERFUL [BIG LAW] LIFE?”

‘Twas the week before Christmas when all through the firm,

The coming New Year caused every body to squirm.

Associates awaited the annual time,

When they’d learn of a bonus, oh so sublime.

***

The seasoned had worked a lot harder this year,

As dreams of a partner’s life blurred hope and fear.

Equity partners were again in a squeeze:

They ate what they killed. Who was ever at ease?

***

As happens whenever there is a recession,

Clients sought value; their lawyers fought depression.

While pondering how most large law firms had changed,

I overheard rustling, peculiar and strange.

***

The holidays! I remembered at last.

Hard to believe, one more year had now passed.

Whispers foreshadowed the annual display,

“The Chairman is here…he’s in town for the day.”

***

Chance and fortuity determine one’s fate,

Except for our Chairman who thought himself great.

A new breed of leader who’d come to the fore,

How much is enough? He will answer you: “More.”

***

I sprang from my desk for a glimpse of the man

Who’d been somewhere warm; he was sporting a tan.

With a custom made suit, crisp shirt, and red tie,

I knew in a moment that this was The Guy.

***

He walked not alone but with minions galore,

They seemed like a dozen, but there were just four.

The group strode by briskly – as followers massed,

I stepped forward slowly. Who cares if I’m last?

***

“The large conference room,” I heard someone say,

“That’s where the Chairman will speak this grand day.”

I dutifully followed the gathering throng

To where The Great Man was to sing us his song.

***

As dry mouth with oral argument arises,

I feared he’d be off’ring unpleasant surprises.

He was dressed to the nines – impressively so.

I prayed that he’d speak his piece quickly and go.

***

With the crowd settling in to hear his remarks,

I knew what was coming – pure brimstone and sparks.

“It’s that time again,” he began with a cheer,

“As we near the end of our firm’s fiscal year.”

***

“Get bills out at once and then follow them through.

Be relentless with clients; be tough; be true.

If our profits decline, it’s trouble for all,

Money binds us as one – without it, we’ll fall.”

***

He turned to associates, awaiting the news,

Another bad year? They looked closely for clues.

They all knew the truth: The firm’s profits still soared.

But what partners share their great wealth with the horde?

***

“We’re a business,” the Chairman silenced the joint.

“All else is, well, really quite outside the point.

It takes a whole team to keep the wheels turning,

Billed hours are key – although some call it churning.”

***

“Billables – that is the firm’s soul and its heart,

That means you associates must all do your part.”

As this aging hypocrite climbed the ladder,

Mentors told him that his hours did not matter.

***

I hoped he was done, but alas he was not:

“Associate morale is stuck deep in a pot.

So you’ll each get a bonus matching our peers,

And we’ve formed a committee – they’ll dry your tears.”

***

“I can’t promise mentors, good training, or more,

But you’ll out-earn friends for whom life’s less a chore.

You still have school loans that will not go away.

So happy or not, you will all want to stay.”

***

“Remember the job that you have in this crash,

Your unemployed friends would take on in a flash.

Keep making me rich – as much as you’re able,

What else can you do? Wash dishes? Wait tables?”

***

“Lest you think that I’m heartless, greedy, or crass,

I’m running a business, not being an ass.

A handful of metrics rule everything now,

Billables, leverage, the pyramid – Wow!”

***

His message delivered, he soon left the floor.

He picked up his iPad and walked out the door.

But I heard him exclaim as he vanished from view,

“Keep those hours rising – your worst enemy is you!”

—— Steven J. Harper, December 2010

*****************************************************

Thanks to all of you, the editors of the ABA Law Blawg chose The Belly of the Beast as one of the 100 best blogs of 2010. To be selected from more than 3,000 in the ABA directory is humbling, especially for this novice blogger.

Happy Holidays – and please return in the New Year! I will.

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.

EXPLAINING BAD BEHAVIOR

I’ve never met Steven Pesner, who lit up the legal blogosphere with his now infamous e-mail to Akin Gump’s New York office litigation billers and their secretaries. (http://abovethelaw.com/2010/11/akin-gump-partner-pens-email-fantasy-about-firing-delinquent-time-keepers/) Some say he’s typical of big law partners; others argue hopefully that he is an exception. Someone else can tackle that survey. I’m interested in what the episode reveals about the prevailing large firm business model that put him in a position to disseminate the words that now define him.

First, his fundamental point applies to almost all large firms: Get your time in because the billable hour remains big law’s cornerstone. People working for Pesner undoubtedly log lots of them; they lead to revenue — an essential prerequisite to his internal power. That’s not unique.

Second, the model has many problems, only one of which he targets: Tardy time submission. Some attorneys wait a week — or even a month — before trying to “reconstruct” their billable activities. That allows them to believe that doing their best to remember earlier tasks isn’t lying. Insofar as Pesner sought to deter creative writing at week’s or month’s end, he was protecting clients and his firm. Of course, that doesn’t justify his rhetoric. Nothing can. But his topic reveals one of many flaws infecting the billable hour regime.

Third, economic self-interest looms large. His message went exclusively to all New York litigation personnel — a point commentators have ignored. Pesner’s departmental billings may well frame a larger internal debate: His NY litigation group’s near-term economic standing. He might have been preparing to defend his memo’s recipients against annual intra- and interoffice warfare with corporate, restructuring, and transactional group leaders. Most large firm equity partners eat what they kill, along with what they successfully claim to have killed. In many firms, allocating profits often starts geographically by office practice group before proceeding to rainmakers who then decide the fate of individuals within each group.

Fourth, Pesner’s valid points morphed into a tirade that reveals pervasive equity partner hubris, especially among big law managers: He believes his own press releases.

“9. For those of you who think you are exempt from doing time sheets on a daily basis, I’d suggest that you reevaluate your importance and get ready to prove that (a) you are busier than I am on legal work, (b) you are busier than I am on client development work, (c) you are busier than I am on firm work and (d) [Redacted] and I do not have better things to do with our time than beg you to be responsible.”

The word “I” appears five times. That’s how some senior partners orient their world — around themselves. Few, if any, others compare favorably to their own idealized self-images. Their constant refrain is “today’s young people just don’t want to work as hard as I did.” But as associates, none had the challenge of a BlackBerry keeping them on-call 24/7. In fact, they didn’t even have annual minimum billable hours requirements. Their hypocrisy is stunning.

Finally, he acknowledges the life-or-death power that all senior partners wield over subordinates’ careers:

“10. Candidly, I’d put every future material violator’s name in a hat, randomly pick out a name, and publicly fire the person on the spot—to demonstrate that time sheet compliance is serious business. And incidentally, it is my understanding that the job market is not so good right now in case you did not know.”

The immediate issue was time submissions, but the underlying attitude infects working relationships throughout big law. Pesner was unique in his candor, but not in his views. Few dare to challenge such a partner in a position to make or break careers. Pesner’s threatening finale leaves no doubt in that respect:

“11. Also, please remember that I have a long and excellent memory.

If you have any questions, think long and hard before asking them—this simply is not very complicated.”

Sometimes a few words from one man are worth a thousand pictures of what too many others in his profession have become.

COCKROACHES, MEDICINE, AND THE BILLABLE HOUR

Cockroaches should take lessons from the billable hour. Detractors notwithstanding, it has survived every economic downturn of the last 30 years including, apparently, this one. Although a recent ALM survey noted that almost 75% of client payments in 2009 were pursuant to “alternative fee arrangements,” almost 80% of those were simply discounts from attorneys’ hourly rates. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/10/billing.html)

Here’s the real problem: Whenever the regime eventually crumbles, the worst aspects of the billable hours culture will persist. Take fixed fee caps, for example. Even if they benefit some clients financially — a big “if” that’s a separate discussion — they create a Hobson’s choice for associates.

On one side is the pressure not to log all time. Keeping matters within internal budgets makes billing partners look good in their year-end reviews.

On the other side stands the billable hour as the definitive metric for measuring individual productivity. They might be working on fixed fee matters, but attorneys must still account for their time. Large firm minimum hours requirements aren’t going away.

What happens when externally fixed fees meet internal billable hours cultures? Ask your doctor.

Do you sometimes get the impression that your family physician is rushing through an appointment? That’s because the doctor is responding rationally to something called the relative value unit (RVU) — medicine’s equivalent to the billable hour.

In 1964, the AMA created reimbursement codes for the newly enacted Medicare program. Fifteen years later, a Harvard School of Public Health economist began investigating ways to compare the seemingly incomparable: the time and effort associated with doctors’ diverse tasks. The typical economist’s study sought to develop relative values for measuring productivity across a range of different activities — from well-child checkups to brain surgery.

The academic exercise remained theoretical until 1985 when Medicare expanded the inquiry: Might such a scale be used to control costs associated with spiraling “reasonable, customary and prevailing fee-for-services” payment schedules? In 1992, Congress linked the relative value unit system to the Medicare codes used for reimbursing more than 7,000 different physician tasks. Private health insurers soon adopted RVUs for reimbursement, too.

Physicians now generate RVUs to earn a living, but time becomes a critical limiting factor. For example, whether a family physician spends 10 or 30 minutes on a routine office visit, Medicare and insurance companies set physician reimbursement at the activity’s predetermined RVU value (0.7). That gets multiplied by the uniform RVU rate (about $40/RVU) for a total of $28. (The final bill exceeds $28 because practice expense and malpractice RVU-factors get added.)

Specialists’ tasks have greater RVU values than general practitioners.’ Compared to a 15-minute routine visit worth 0.7 RVU, a 30-minute colonoscopy is worth several times that. Such differences relate to physician training, skills, mental effort, judgment, stress, and other aspects of the work. But cynics note that specialists have dominated Medicare’s RVU schedule advisory boards.

Behavior has followed incentive structures:

— RVU-driven compensation differences have created shortages of family physicians.

— Specialists mean well, but they tend to view patients myopically through the prism of their expertise, rather than as entire beings. Piecemeal medicine results.

— The system encourages pills, procedures, and tests. Prescription drugs promise quick fixes that move patients out of their doctors’ offices sooner. Procedures generate high RVU values; tests requiring expensive equipment likewise reap generous reimbursement.

Meanwhile, doctors must meet minimum annual RVUs, sometimes pursuant to explicit contractual requirements. That should sound familiar to any big law associate.

As physicians ceded control of hospitals to lay managers, RVUs became a key tool by which the MBA mentality of misguided metrics overtook that profession. Don’t take my word for it. Ask your doctor — if he’ll give you the time.

What would happen if clients and the courts that approve fee petitions started “fee-capping” lawyers the way Medicare and insurance companies have sliced into doctors’ incomes since 1992? Probably unintended consequences no less dramatic than those still surprising the medical profession. Many haven’t been pretty.

Here’s the real kicker: Unlike the legal profession, most physicians have always liked their jobs.

“LIES, DAMN LIES, AND STATISTICS”

ALM editor-in-chief Aric Press penned a provocative article about Indiana Law Professor Bill Henderson’s for-profit venture on recruiting, retention, and promotion. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/11/pressconventionalwisdom.html) The WSJ law blog and ABA Journal covered it, too. (http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2010/11/15/on-law-firms-and-hiring-is-a-new-paradigm-on-the-way/) Henderson is analyzing why some attorneys succeed in Biglaw and others don’t.

Does anyone else find his project vaguely unsettling?

At first, I thought of the venerable computer programming maxim, “garbage in, garbage out.” That’s because he’s asking Am Law 200 partners to identify values and traits they want in their lawyers — and he’s assuming they’ll tell him the truth. But will they admit to seeking bright, ambitious associates wearing blinders in pursuit of elusive equity partnerships typically awarded to fewer than 10% of large firm entering classes? Or that such low “success” rates inhere in the predominant Biglaw business model that requires attrition and limits equity entrants to preserve staggering profits?

Then I considered Mark Twain’s reflections on the three kinds of falsehoods: “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” It came to mind because Henderson’s researchers “pour over the resumes and evaluations of associates and partners trying to identify characteristics shared by those who have become ‘franchise players’ and those who haven’t.” Here’s what those resumes and evaluations won’t reveal: the internal politics driving decisions.

Most Biglaw equity partners are talented, but equally deserving candidates fail to advance for reasons unrelated to their abilities. Rather, as the business model incentivizes senior partners to hoard billings that justify personal economic positions, those at the top wield power that makes or breaks young careers — and everybody knows it. Doing a superior job is important, but working for the “right” people is outcome determinative. Merit sometimes loses out to idiosyncrasy that is impervious to Henderson’s data collection methods.

But perhaps the biggest problem with Henderson’s plan is it’s goal: identifying factors correlating with individual success. Does the magic formula include “a few years in the military, a few years in the job force, or a few years as a law review editor?”

If managers warm to Henderson’s conclusions (after paying his company to develop them), they’ll leap from correlation to causation, develop checklists of supposed characteristics common to superstars like themselves, and hire accordingly. Law schools pandering to the Biglaw sliver of the profession (it’s less than 15% of all attorneys) could take such criteria even more seriously. Before long, prospective students will incorporate the acquisition of “success” credentials into their life plans.

The difficulty is that today’s Biglaw partners already favor like-minded proteges. That inhibits diversity as typically measured — gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and the like — along with equally important diversity of views and a willingness to entertain them. Even today, concerned insiders are reluctant to voice dissent from Biglaw’s prevailing raison d’etre — maximizing short-term profits at the expense competing professional values and longer-term institutional vitality. Won’t meaningful diversity — of backgrounds, life experiences, and resulting attitudes about professional mission — suffer as groupthink makes firms even more insular? Meanwhile, trying to improve overall “success” rates is a futile goal; they won’t budge until the leveraged pyramid disappears.

I don’t fault Henderson, who bypassed Biglaw practice for academia after his 2001 graduation. But Press’s warning is important: “To some extent, it doesn’t matter what Henderson and Co. discover. What matters is that the inquiries have begun…If we’ve learned anything from the last decade, it’s that we can’t predict the consequences of new information beyond acknowledging its power to disrupt.”

Consider two unfortunate examples. The flawed methodology behind U.S. News’ law school rankings hasn’t deterred most students from blindly choosing the highest-rated one that accepts them. (Exorbitant tuition and limited job prospects may be changing that.) Likewise, Biglaw’s transformation from a collegial profession to a short-term bottom-line business accelerated after publication of average partner profits at the nation’s largest firms (then the Am Law 50), beginning in 1985; I just published a legal thriller describing that phenomenon. (http://www.amazon.com/Partnership-Novel-Steven-J-Harper/dp/0984369104)

The most important things that happened to me — in Biglaw and in life — were fortuitous. No statistical model could have predicted them. Still, I hope Henderson’s study answers an important question: Would his likely-to-succeed factors have led any firm to hire me?

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?

ACCELERATING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION

Recently, law firm management consultant Hildebrandt Baker Robbins’ Kristin Stark offered her solution to problems that she sees with many large firm compensation systems:

“Firms need to be talking to their partners about their performance every year — and throughout the year. Ongoing coaching of partners on their performance and helping them make improvements has become a powerful tool for driving partner and firm performance in successful firms. High-performing partners want to work in an environment where co-owners are engaged and actively contributing to firm growth. Without this, a firm’s top performers are at risk.” (http://www.law.com/jsp/law/article.jsp?id=1202472843670&Partner_Compensation_The_Downturns_New_Touchy_Subject)

Stark buried the lead, but her key point appears to be that a firm’s principal mission should be to keep its rainmakers happy. Otherwise, they’re “at risk” — meaning that they’ll leave to make more money elsewhere.

Wait a minute. A few lines earlier, Stark described the growing gap in high-to-low partner compensation: “Before the recession, [it] was typically five-to-one in many firms. Very often today, we’re seeing that spread at 10-to-1, even 12-to-1.”

“You can imagine that creates a lot of problems,” she continued. “It drives further tension between partners over compensation and creates an environment of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in law firms.”

What should firms that have become beholden to a few rainmakers and their often oversized egos do? Whatever it takes to keep them? Won’t that exacerbate the resentment of those whom Stark calls the “have-nots”? What are the limits of tolerably bad behavior by the “haves”? Big billers always get a pass for hoarding clients. How about verbally abusing subordinates? Or worse?

Meanwhile, she suggests, firms should coach other lawyers on the importance of “improving performance.” That’s code for billing more hours and bringing in more business. Forget about mentoring the next generation, encouraging collegiality, enhancing attorney career satisfaction, or focusing on other professional values for which the dominant large law firm model lacks a metrics link to bottom-line equity partner profits.

It also means reconciling the “have-nots” to their proper places in the firm:

“In this market firms have to constantly reevaluate the expectations of a partner, communicate with partners about what is required of them, and incorporate partner goals and expectations into the compensation process,” Stark said.

In other words, everyone should understand the need to work harder so that the highest paid equity partners widen their already enormous compensation advantages over all others.

All of this is an interesting commentary on a group of extraordinarily talented men and women — a firm’s longstanding (but non-rainmaker) equity partners who, apparently, somehow lost the intelligence and personality traits that caused them to excel in the first place. As students, their brains and hard work took most of them to the best colleges and law schools. As associates, their ambitions carried them past peers into equity partnerships. Presumably, they served clients who valued their work.

When did they lose it? Admittedly, a few never deserved promotion, but internal firm political stars aligned in a way that allowed them to bypass quality control criteria. Success made others fat, happy, and lazy; still others burned out. But most equity partners achieved their status because they had a lot going for them — and still do. If they continue to enjoy the practice of law, that alone pushes them as it always has.

Not so, says Stark. They need coaching to keep their expectations in check. They must pander to top billers whose eternal answer to the question “How much is enough?” will always be “More.” They should live with the anxiety accompanying ongoing performance evaluations throughout the year. Never mind that, in Biglaw as in life, individual careers experience peaks and valleys; rarely is any overall upward trajectory a straight line.

Fear isn’t a productive ingredient in the recipe for motivating talent. But try telling that to some large firm managing partners and their outside consultants. On second thought, don’t bother. They already know everything.

WORK-LIFE BALANCE MONTH

Pity the United Kingdom, which I just visited. It has only “Work-Life Balance Week” — the last seven days of September. How many Americans realize that October was our “Work-Life Balance Month“? Such commemorations suggest an obvious question: What should we celebrate the rest of the year? Work-Life Imbalance?

The concept of work-life balance is laudable, even if the phrase itself can be somewhat off target. For those who are chronically unhappy with their jobs, “balancing” unpleasant “work” with the rest of “life” is at best palliative, not curative. Dissatisfaction with a career usually infects everything else. Notwithstanding daunting economic realities, a better long-term plan for such sufferers is to find another way to make a living.

On the other hand, my friend, Northwestern Professor Steven Lubet, correctly notes that no job is perfect: “That’s why they call it work.” But attorneys who generally enjoy their tasks still benefit from time spent on people and things other than clients and their problems. Enjoying life outside the office makes most of us better in every way and improves worker productivity. Unfortunately, that’s an increasingly tough sell in most of  the Biglaw world where the MBA-mentality of misguided metrics — billable hours, billings, and short-term equity partner profits — force all oars in the water to row in the same myopic direction.

Being a lawyer has always been demanding, but when even satisfied attorneys feel pressure to work unreasonably long hours, bad things happen to them, their families, clients, firms, and the profession. Slackers can take no comfort in my views. An honest 2,000 billed hours — the annual minimum that most big firms report to NALP — requires 10-hour days and occasional weekends. (http://www.law.yale.edu/documents/pdf/CDO_Public/cdo-billable_hour.pdf) That’s more than firms required 25 years ago, but it’s still not unreasonable.

Unfortunately, too many large firms made the 2,000 minimum culturally irrelevant long ago. No debt-ridden associate concerned about keeping a job wants to bring up the rear of a year-end billable hours list. Nor does the pressure end with advancement. Equity partners must continually justify their economic existences — year-after-year.

During my 30 years at a large firm, my billed hours usually ranged from 2,000 to 2,200 yearly. Once or twice, they reached 2,500 and every incremental hour above 2,200 took a increasingly severe toll. Beyond losing any semblance of a personal life, how well does anyone function during the 14th hour of a workday compared to hour 8? A fatigued mind is fuzzy, irrational, less efficient, and prone to error. Most clients paying for an attorney’s 3,000th billed hour in a year are getting very little for their money. Yet some lawyers do that year after year — and some clients encourage such behavior.

The Department of Transportation reviewed scientific studies on the effects of exhaustion on the human mind and body before limiting over-the-road truckers to 70 hours in an 8-day period, after which they must rest for 34 consecutive hours. (http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/rules-regulations/topics/hos/) Ask any Biglaw lawyer the last time he or she worked at that clip (or worse) and then went 34 straight hours without looking at a BlackBerry or talking with clients and colleagues on a cellphone.

Who presents the greater societal danger — a tired, overworked driver exceeding the 8-day maximum of 70 hours, or an attorney maintaining a more strenuous pace? Big-hours legal billers might argue that trucker fatigue is different. When a sleep deprived driver causes a catastrophe, innocent bystanders are at risk. If lawyer exhaustion produces suboptimal or even negative results, the client (or the attorney’s malpractice carrier) pays the price; usually it’s financial. That’s reassuring.

No one wants an attorney who has nothing to do. Likewise, every good lawyer sometimes confronts genuine emergencies that require burning the midnight oil. But a firm’s perennial billable hours winners present potential problems that, for some reason, don’t concern most clients. I’ve never understood why.

THEY’RE NOT ENTITLED TO ME

At a recent debate, New York’s U. S. Senate candidate Joseph J. DioGuardi repeated his charge that Democratic incumbent Kirsten E. Gillibrand spent her early professional career at a prestigious New York City law firm (Davis, Polk & Wardwell) where she represented the world’s largest cigarette company. Gillibrand countered that DioGuardi cast pro-tobacco votes as a congressman. She also explained that, as a young lawyer, she had no choice in her assigned cases.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/16/nyregion/16debate.html)

Gillibrand’s response was intriguing for two reasons. First, she fought tobacco taint with tobacco taint, rather than citing the foundational principle of our adversary system: However distasteful it sometimes seems, everyone is entitled to representation. Second, her law firm supposedly had a policy that allowed attorneys to decline work for its tobacco client. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/10/opinion/10observer.html). If she didn’t avail herself of the firm’s policy, what does that mean?

Maybe nothing. Although she didn’t mention the principle that everyone deserves a lawyer, it still applies. That’s why even Liz Cheney’s most conservative colleagues with law degrees lambasted her for publicly listing current Department of Justice attorneys who represented Gitmo detainees pro bono — as if there was something wrong with providing a defense to those individuals.

To be sure, Cheney has the personal freedom to decline such representations. My former law school professor, Alan Dershowitz, defended notorious criminal defendants, but as he told my fellow classmates more than 30 years ago, “Everyone has a right to representation, but no one has a right to me.”

Every lawyer has that power to exercise a final veto. If used, someone else will certainly take up the cause. But Gillbrand’s defensive response concerning her tobacco client suggests at least a retrospective queasiness with her earlier work. If the firm gave her the right to say no, what’s the significance of her failure to do so?

Every young associate in a big firm could answer that question. Regardless of a firms’s official position, practical considerations define the limits of an associate’s willingness to say no.

Large clients’ biggest and often unpopular problems have become central to Biglaw profits. The prevailing law firm business model has reduced the number of available equity partnership slots and concentrated internal power in the relatively few who control clients and billings. For an associate, it’s only natural that a firm’s official “freedom to choose” policy would sometimes yield to the pressures accompanying a request from a senior partner who can single-handedly make or break a subordinate’s career. Partners themselves sometimes confront analogous difficulties when clients push uncomfortably close to the outer edges of what their lawyers deem permissible.

Some consequences are subtle. The resulting erosion of individual attorney autonomy has probably contributed to growing career dissatisfaction, especially in large firms where unhappiness is greatest. In today’s tight labor markets, young lawyers desperately need their jobs to repay enormous student debt and sustain themselves. Few would risk unemployment to assuage their consciences or to avoid an abusive superior. In fact, most don’t allow such rebellious thoughts to enter their heads, but maybe they should.

One of my adult children recently encountered a high school classmate who is now working in a big firm after graduating from a top law school. While contemplating the many challenges confronting the next generation, consider that young lawyer’s lament and career plan:

“I’m working too hard for clients I don’t like pursuing I causes I can’t stand and making the world worse. But I have to do it long enough to repay student loans and get experience that I can use to do something worthwhile with my law degree.”

It may not be that simple. Those wrestling with situations that burden them with genuine moral havoc — whatever its nature or origins — might be well advised to extricate themselves sooner rather than later. Life’s decisions tend to be cumulative and the consequences of earlier choices that seem inconsequential at the time can endure far beyond their originally anticipated life expectancies. Just ask Kirsten Gillibrand.

WHO REMEMBERS FINLEY KUMBLE?

“I just don’t see the need to cram two firms with around a thousand lawyers [each] together. It made no sense,” one Akin partner reportedly told the National Law Journal shortly after the collapse of Akin-Orrick merger talks.

The number of law firm mergers in 2010 is down from recent years, but look at the headliners: Sonnenschein – Denton; Hogan & Hartson – Lovells; Reed Smith – Thompson & Knight; Orrick and anyone. An earlier consolidation wave produced K&L Gates, DLA Piper, Bingham McCutcheon and others.

How much of this activity proceeds from the simplistic premise that bigger is always better?

When I was a young partner in my large firm, Finley Kumble became a disaster that struck fear in the hearts of big firm expansionists. During the early 1980s, Finley rocked the legal world as it signed up high-profile figures and raided other firms’ superstars, some of whom earned the then-staggering sum of $1 million annually. From only 8 lawyers in 1968, Finley became the nation’s second largest firm by 1985.

It promoted itself as a national powerhouse run on principles of meritocracy. The more business a lawyer generated, the more money he or she took home. Money was the glue that held the partnership together. Does that sound familiar?

But Finley grew too fast, assuming debt for office expansions and promising outsized paychecks to big name lateral hires. As revenue dollars dwindled, the firm disintegrated. With more than 650 attorneys at the time of its dissolution in 1987, it was still one of the nation’s largest firms.

The ghost of Finley Kumble haunted Biglaw leaders for years. Some saw its end as confirming that even large, diverse firms possessed their own identities. Mixing cultures through aggressive recruitment of name players with portable practices was a mistake. Others concluded that senior attorneys and their egos couldn’t survive as a single cohesive unit if their sole point of intersecting common purpose was greed. Still others saw the failure as an inevitable consequence of unrestrained growth. Finley proved that there was a limit on the size that any healthy large law firm could attain. No one knew the outside boundary with certainty, but crossing it was fatal.

What did today’s Biglaw managers learn from the lessons of Finley Kumble’s demise? Probably very little. After all, lawyers excel at distinguishing away precedent that undermines their preferred positions.

In that respect, modern proponents of growth through merger and high-profile lateral acquisitions can point to many differences between Finley and today’s firms. For example, the use of MBA-type metrics that focus on short-term profits at the expense of non-monetary values is now pervasive throughout Biglaw. In that respect, the earlier potential for cultural clashes has diminished as  current year equity partner profits have become the universal coin of the realm. Likewise, lateral movement at all levels — especially among rainmakers who were Finley Kumble’s signature recruits — has become commonplace. Indeed, the legal world has become more hospitable to Finley’s central mission and modus operandi.

It would be interesting to hear from former Finley attorneys on the question of how today’s large firms differ from what their old firm once was. Perhaps Finley was just ahead of its time. Or perhaps some major players in Biglaw law are about to see their times change. Or maybe the large firm segment of the profession is proceeding toward the same countdown that big accounting firms have already experienced: From Big 8 to Big 6 to Big 5 to Big 4 — and the race is on to be one of those few.

Here’s the key question: Who benefits in the long run from the rise of mega-firms? Management consultants embrace strategic fits producing scale economies that supposedly benefit clients and equity partners. Perhaps they are correct. But who considers whether hidden costs include undermining community, exacerbating attorney dissatisfaction, or imperiling broader professional values?

Personally, I enjoyed the time when I recognized most of my equity partners at the firm’s annual meetings. Who is willing to develop or consider a metric by which to measure that?

SELLING FRUIT

A few weeks ago, Martin Dannenberg died at age 94. You’ve probably never heard of him. I hadn’t until I read his obituary in the NY Times. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/us/29dannenberg.html) He was a retired insurance company executive. During 50 years of work for Sun Life, he’d risen from the mailroom to the chairman’s office.

Few people — even senior executives of major corporations —  rate a Times obituary. What made Dannenberg special had nothing to do with his insurance career. Rather, he’d been the Army intelligence officer who, as World War II ended in Europe during April 1945, opened an envelope in a German bank vault. It contained the original documents of what had become known as the Nuremburg Laws — “the pretext for the dehumanizing of Jews that led ineluctably to the pile of bodies Mr. Dannenberg saw [earlier at Dachau].”

History offers many lessons to those who demonize, marginalize, and ostracize fellow human beings based on ethnicity, race, religion, or other criteria that eliminate the need for one person truly to understand another. Unfortunately, those lessons often go unheeded, especially when intelligent people who know better gain control over the discourse. It’s no great accomplishment to exploit vulnerable populations looking for convenient scapegoats and handy enemies. As such cynical voices prevail, civilization itself pays the price.

The story of what happened to the documents that Dannenberg discovered occupied most of the Times article. They eventually made their way to the National Archives, but not before General George S. Patton decided to keep them himself, rather than send them as evidence to war crime trials as his boss, General Eisenhower, had ordered. Instead, Patton gave them to the Huntington Library, which a close family friend had founded. There, they remained in a bombproof shelter; the world didn’t even know of its existence for the next 54 years.

It’s a fascinating story. But here’s the paragraph that caught my attention:

“He attended Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore School of Law at night. He dropped out of law school when his boss [at Sun Life] pointed out the window at men selling fruit.

‘Each one of them used to be a lawyer before the Depression,’ he said.”

Obviously, Dannenberg did just fine without the legal degree that he once thought he wanted. There’s a lesson in that, too. At a time when there are still far too many law school graduates for the available legal jobs, the educational debt required to become an attorney skyrockets, and the ranks of dissatisfied practicing attorneys swell, it’s food for thought.