TREATING SYMPTOMS; IGNORING THE DISEASE

On May 22, 2017, The Wall Street Journal ran an article about the legal profession’s enduring problem: psychological distress. For decades, attorneys have led most occupations in the incidence of serious psychological afflictions — depression, substance abuse, even suicide. Now some law firms are “tackling a taboo,” namely, the mental health problems of their lawyers.

Some observers theorize that a special “lawyer personality” is the culprit. In other words, we have only ourselves to blame, so no one should feel sorry for us. Then again, no one ever feels sorry for lawyers anyway. But attorney psychological distress has become a sufficient problem that, as the Journal reports, some big law firms are now “offering on-site psychologists, training staff to spot problems, and incorporating mental health support alongside other wellness initiatives.”

Stated differently, law firms are following the unfortunate path that has become a dominant approach in the medical profession: treating symptoms rather than the disease. Perhaps that’s because law firm leaders know that curing it would cut into their personal annual incomes.

The Facts

Other workers have serious psychological challenges, too. But attorneys seem to suffer in disproportionately high numbers. The Journal article cites a 2016 study of US lawyers finding that 20.6 percent of those surveyed were heavy drinkers (compared to 15.4 percent for members of the American College of Surgeons). Likewise, 28 percent experienced symptoms of depression (compared with eight percent or less for the general population). According to a 2012 CDC study cited in the Journal, attorneys have the 11th-highest suicide rate.

Now add one more data point. According to an ABA survey in 2007, lawyers in big firms are the least satisfied with their jobs. Anyone familiar with the prevailing big firm environment knows that it has deteriorated dramatically since 1985.

The New World

What has changed? For starters, just getting a job at a big law firm is more difficult. Corporate clients have found cost-effective alternatives to young attorneys billing $300 an hour to review documents. At many firms, demand remains soft.

But the real psychological problems begin after a new associate enters the door. For most of them, promotion to equity partner has become a pipe dream. In 1985, 36 percent of all lawyers in The American Lawyer’s first survey of the nation’s fifty largest firms were equity partners. In  2016, the comparable number was under 22 percent. More than 40 percent of all AmLaw 100 partners are now non-equity partners. The leverage ratio of equity partners to all attorneys has doubled. Stated another way, it’s twice as difficult to become an equity partner today as it was in 1985. That’s what’s been happening at the financial pinnacle of the profession.

The Business Model

There is nothing inevitable about the underlying business model that produces these outcomes. It’s a choice. In 1985, average profits per partner for the Am Law 50 was $300,000 — or about $700,000 in 2017 dollars. Today’s it’s $1.7 million. And the gap within most equity partnerships reflects their eat-what-you-kill culture. Instead of 3-to-1 in 1985, the ratio of highest-to-lowest partner compensation within equity partnerships often exceeds 10-to-1. As the rich have become richer, annual equity partner earnings of many millions of dollars has become commonplace.

At what cost? The future. As law firm leaders rely upon short-term metrics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios — they’re pulling up the ladder on the next generation. Too many associates; too few equity slots. Let the contest begin!

But rather than revisit the wisdom of the model, some big firm leaders have made what the Journal characterizes as a daring move: bring in a psychologist. It’s better than nothing, but it’s a far cry from dealing with the core problem that starts with the billable hour, moves through metrics that managers use to maximize short-run partner profits, and ends in predictable psychological distress — even for the so-called winners. The Journal notes that a psychologist at one firm was offering this sad advice to its attorneys: Take a cellphone reprieve by turning off all electronic devices between 2:00 am and 6:00 am.

But even such input from mental health professionals seems anathema to some firm leaders. According to the Journal, Dentons’ chairman Joseph Andrew says that his fear of offering an on-site psychologist was that “competitors will say we have crazy lawyers.”

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates recently told the New Yorker about her father, an attorney who suffered from depression and committed suicide. “Tragically,” Yates said, “the fear of stigma then associated with depression prevented him from getting the treatment he needed.”

For some firm leaders, “then” is still “now.” And that’s truly crazy.

ANOTHER BIG LAW FIRM STUMBLES

King & Wood Mallesons was never really a law firm. For starters, it was a verein — a structure that allowed three distinct firms to create a branding opportunity — King & Wood in China, Mallesons in Australia, and SJ Berwin in the United Kingdom. As things turned out, when SJ Berwin came on board in 2013, the verein whole quickly became less than the sum of its parts.

As The American Lawyer’s Chris Johnson and Rose Walker put it in their recent article, a verein is “a holding structure that allows member firms to retain their existing form. The structure…enabled the three practices to combine quickly and keep their finances separate.”

But the structure also means that when one member of the verein hits hard times, the others can walk away. For KWM, “the Chinese and Australian partnerships have effectively been able to stand back and watch as the European practice burned.”

Not Just a Verein Problem

To be sure, the verein structure exacerbates SJ Berwin’s current difficulties. But before leaders of big non-verein firms become too self-satisfied, they might consider whether their own firms risk the same dangers now afflicting KWM.

As Johnson and Walker report, the firm’s compensation system produced bad behavior. KWM awarded client credit to the partner who physically signed the invoice. That effectively encouraged partners to refer work to rival firms, rather than other KWM partners.

Think about that last sentence for a minute.

“It was one of the things that killed the firm,” says one former London partner. “If I sent work to other [KWM] partners, it would be out of my numbers at the end of the year. It was better for me to send it to another firm, as I’d then still be the one invoicing the client, so I’d get the credit for everything.”

A Team of One, Not One Team

When it came to cross selling among offices and practice groups, management talked a good game. Indeed, the verein’s 2013 merger tag line was “The Power of Together.” But here, too, behavior followed internal financial incentives. The compensation committee focused on individual partner performance, not the “one team, one firm” sound bite on its “vision and values” website page.

“There was a complete disconnect between what management said we should do and what the remuneration committee would reward us for doing,” says a former partner.

Lessons Not Learned, Again

As KWM’s European arm disintegrates, most law firm leaders will probably draw the wrong conclusions about what went wrong. Emerging narratives include: SJ Berwin had been on shaky ground since the financial crisis hit in 2008; the firm lacked competent management; the principal idea behind the combination — creating a global platform — was sound; only a failure of execution produced the bad outcome.

For students of law firm failures, the list sounds familiar. It certainly echoes narratives that developed to explain the 2012 collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf. But the plight of KWM — especially the SJ Berwin piece — is best understood as the natural consequence of a partnership that ceased to become a partnership. In that sense, it resembles Dewey & LeBoeuf, too.

The organizational structure through which attorneys practice law together matters. The verein form allows King & Wood and Mallesons to back away from Sj Berwin with limited fear of direct financial exposure. But as SJ Berwin careens toward disaster, fellow verein members will suffer, at a minimum, collateral damage to the KWM brand.

What’s the Future Worth?

The lesson for big law firm leaders seems obvious. Since the demise of Dewey, that lesson has also gone unheeded. A true partnership requires a compensation structure that rewards partner-like behavior — collegially, mentoring, expansion and transition of client relationships to fellow partners, and a consensus to pursue long-term strategies promoting institutional stability rather than maximizing short-term profit metrics.

Firms that encourage attorneys to build individual client silos from which partners eat what they kill risk devastating long-term costs. They’re starving firm of their very futures. Unfortunately, too many big law firm leaders share a common attitude: the long-term will be someone else’s problem.

In a line that stretches back to Finley Kumble and includes Dewey & LeBoeuf, Bingham McCutchen, and a host of others, the names change, but the story remains the same. So does a single word that serves both as those firms’ central operating theme and as their final epitaph: greed.

BIG LAW RESISTS THE ASSAULT ON DEMOCRACY

Call them unsung heroes.

When attorneys in big law firms get things right, they deserve more attention than they receive. Recently, some of them have won important victories in the profession’s noblest pursuit: protecting our republic. And they’re not getting paid anything to do it.

Start with North Carolina. On July 29, a unanimous court of appeals threw out that state’s voter ID law. In an 83-page opinion, the court wrote that the law had targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.”

Behind that monumental win was an enormous investment of money and manpower — all of it pro bonoDaniel Donovan led a team of lawyers from Kirkland & Ellis LLP through two trials over a four-week period. More than fifty witnesses testified. After losing in the trial court — which issued a 479-page opinion denying relief — the plaintiffs appealed. On July 29, they won. Think of it as Kirkland & Ellis’s multi-million dollar contribution to democracy.

On, Wisconsin!

The same day that the court of appeals threw out North Carolina’s unconstitutional voter ID law, a federal judge in Madison invalidated Wisconsin’s effort to disenfranchise African Americans and Latinos. Big law firm partner Bobbie Wilson at Perkins Coie LLP was at the center of that effort. A nine-day trial and more than 45 witnesses (including six experts) culminated in Judge James B. Peterson’s 119-page ruling in favor of the plaintiffs.

On August 22, the seventh circuit court of appeals denied the request of Governor Scott Walker’s administration to stay Judge Peterson’s ruling.

North Dakota

Three days later, Richard de Bodo of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP won a challenge to North Dakota’s voter ID laws. The targets of that legislation were Native Americans.

Like similar statutes enacted throughout the country since 2010, voter ID laws in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and North Dakota were products of a Republican-controlled legislature and governorship. The real motivation behind such restrictions on a fundamental right is as ugly as it is obvious.

Fighting Against the Demographic Tide of History

In 2014, the Brennan Justice Center noted that North Carolina and Wisconsin were in select company: “Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, 7 have new restrictions in place: Mississippi (73.1 percent), South Carolina (72.5), Wisconsin (70.5), Ohio (70.0), Georgia (68.1), North Carolina (68.1), and Virginia (68.1).”

Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, North Carolina was one of nine that made it harder to vote. The others were South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina, Mississippi, South Dakota, Georgia, and Virginia.

Rigged Elections? Yes, But in Whose Favor?

Now that the Republican nominee for President of the United States is pushing a dangerous and destructive new theme, the battle to vote has now assumed a great significance.

“I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged,” Donald Trump warned at a rally in Columbus, Ohio on August 1, right after the North Carolina federal appeals court ruled.

That evening he told an interviewer: “I’m telling you, November 8, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged. And I hope the Republicans are watching closely, or it’s going to be taken away from us.”

Dedicated attorneys — especially those in big firms willing to donate enormous resources to the cause — have worked hard to protect the right of every eligible person to vote. If they hadn’t, then the North Carolina legislature might, indeed, have rigged the election in a key swing state that President Obama had won. But that’s not what Trump meant, was it?

No, he sees a different enemy.

“[P]eople are going to walk in, they are going to vote 10 times maybe. Who knows?” he said in an August 2 interview.

He now has a website page: “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election.” Such whining is actually much more than that. It’s a campaign tactic uniting two sinister and pervasive themes: racial division and attacks on the rule of law.

Facts Don’t Matter

Trump began stoking fear and division with a promise to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, whom he called rapists and drug dealers. He then coupled it with a “deportation force” to “round ’em up,” sending 11 million illegal immigrants “back where they came from.”

Then he professed ignorance about David Duke. (“I don’t know anything about David Duke… I know nothing about white supremacists.”) Before long, he unleashed hostility toward “Mexican” Judge Gonzalo Curiel. After scaring people, it was a short step for him to becoming their self-professed “law-and-order” savior.

Now he is wrapping his message in a long-discredited canard. Defenders of unconstitutional voter ID laws persist in fomenting “election fraud” paranoia, even though it lacks any factual basis. Professor Justin Levitt at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles tracked all claims of alleged voter ID fraud and found a grand total of 31 credible allegations – out of more than one billion ballots cast.

In the North Dakota case, Judge Daniel L. Hovland wrote, “There is a total lack of any evidence to show voter fraud has ever been a problem in North Dakota.”

Likewise, in the Wisconsin case, the judge ruled. “The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”

And in the North Carolina case, a unanimous court of appeals concluded, “The record thus makes obvious that the ‘problem’ the majority in the General Assembly sought to remedy was emerging support for the minority party.”

Mob Mentality

The cry of phantom election fraud feeds Trump’s narratives, while taking them a perilous step farther: de-legitimizing an election that polls now show Trump is losing “hugely.” As his prospects sag, his vile rhetoric escalates.

Shortly after an August 10 poll showed Trump trailing in Pennsylvania by double digits, he went to that state and told an Altoona crowd, “Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times… The only way we can lose, in my opinion – I really mean this, Pennsylvania – is if cheating goes on… ”

Never mind that Pennsylvania hasn’t voted for a Republican Presidential nominee since 1988. Even an incumbent, George H.W. Bush, couldn’t carry it in 1992.

Trump then continued waving his red herring: “Without voter ID there’s no way you’re going to be able to check in properly.”

Scorched Earth

The real danger to democracy isn’t election rigging or cheating. It’s Donald J. Trump. De-legitimization – the ultimate ad hominem attack on a process to undermine its outcome – is a standard tactic from his deal-making playbook. When it appeared that he might not arrive at the Republican convention with enough delegates to secure the nomination, he warned about “riots,” if someone else won.

Never mind the rules; they’re for losers. Anyone fearing that Trump will win should fear more that he won’t.

Trump knows that facts don’t matter because – true or false – the branding sticks. For example, there was never any evidence to support Trump’s wild “birther” claims about President Obama in 2011. But five years later, 20 percent of Americans still believe — today — that he was born outside the United States.

Some people will always believe anything Trump says, even as he contradicts himself from one moment to the next. His infamous line was pretty accurate: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

Perhaps he is discovering that “any” was an overstatement. But his de-legitimization strategy worked against most Republican politicians, who folded like cheap suits rather than break from the man-baby who would be king. Now the stakes are higher. His targets are the rule of law, the essence of democracy, and the peaceful transfer of Presidential power that occurs every four years.

The Real Losers

The eventual victims of Trump’s scorched earth approach will be the American people. If, as with his false “birther” claims five years ago, 20 percent of voters – about half of his current supporters – believe that Trump’s defeat results from a “rigged” election that “cheaters” won, the collateral damage to the county will be profound.

Donald Trump lives in a simple binary world of winners and losers – and he’s all about winning at any cost. He measures success in dollars. His latest tactic makes democracy itself the loser. Try putting a price on that. And thank some big law firms and their attorneys who are willing to make the investment required to stand in his way.

ASSOCIATE PAY AND PARTNER MALFEASANCE

Cravath, Swaine & Moore raised first-year associate salaries from $160,000 to $180,000 — the first increase since January 2007. As most law firms followed suit, some clients pushed back.

“While we respect the firms’ judgment about what best serves their long-term competitive interests,” wrote a big bank’s global general counsel, “we are aware of no market-driven basis for such an increase and do not expect to bear the costs of the firms’ decisions.”

Corporate clients truly worried about the long-run might want to spend less time obsessing over young associates’ starting salaries and more time focusing on the behavior of older attorneys at their outside firms. In the end, clients will bear the costs of short-term thinking that pervades the ranks of big firm leaders. Some already are.

Historical Perspective

Well-paid lawyers never generate sympathy. Nor should they. All attorneys in big firms earn far more than most American workers. But justice in big law firms is a relative concept.

Back in 2007 when associate salaries first “jumped” to $160,000, average profits per equity partner for the Am Law 100 were $1.3 million. After a slight dip to $1.26 million in 2008, average partner profits rose every year thereafter — even during the Great Recession. In 2015, they were $1.6 million — a 27 percent increase from seven years earlier.

In 2007, only 19 firms had average partner profits exceeding $2 million; in 2015 that group had grown to 29. But the average doesn’t convey the real story. Throughout big law, senior partners have concentrated power and wealth at the top. As a result, the internal compensation spread within most equity partnerships has exploded.

Twenty years ago, the highest-paid equity partner earned four or five times more than those at the bottom. Today, some Am Law 200 partners are making more than 20 times their lowest paid fellow equity partners in the same firm.

It Gets Worse

Meanwhile, through the recent prolonged period of stagnant demand for sophisticated legal services, firm leaders fueled the revolution of partners’ rising profits expectations by boosting hourly rates and doubling leverage ratios. That’s another way of saying that they’ve adhered stubbornly to the billable hours model while making it twice as difficult for young attorneys to become equity partners compared to 25 years ago.

The class of victims becomes the entire next generation of attorneys. Short-term financial success is producing costly long-term casualties. But those injuries won’t land on the leaders making today’s decisions. By then, they’ll be long gone.

So What?

Why should clients concern themselves with the culture of the big firms they hire? For one answer, consider two young attorneys.

Associate A joins a big firm that pays well enough to make a dent in six-figure law school loans. But Associate A understands the billable hour regime and the concept of leverage ratios. Associate attrition after five years will exceed 80 percent. Fewer than ten percent of the starting class will survive to become equity partners. Employment at the firm is an arduous, short-term gig. In return for long-hours that overwhelm any effort to achieve a balanced life, Associate A gets decent money but no realistic opportunity for a career at the firm.

Associate B joins one of the few firms that have responded to clients demanding change away from a system that rewards inefficiency. Because billable hours aren’t the lifeblood of partner profits, the firm can afford to promote more associates to equity partner. Associate B joins with a reasonable expectation of a lengthy career at the same firm. Continuity is valued. Senior partners have a stake in mentoring. The prevailing culture encourages clients to develop confidence in younger lawyers. Intergenerational transitions become seamless.

Associate A tolerates the job as a short-term burden from which escape is the goal; Associate B is an enthusiastic participant for the long haul. If you’re a client, who would you want working on your matter?

The Same Old, Same Old

As clients have talked about refusing to pay for first-year associate time on their matters, big firms’ upward profit trends continue. But the real danger for firms and their clients is a big law business model that collapses under its own weight.

As it has for the past eight years, Altman-Weil’s recently released 2016 “Law Firms In Transition” survey confirms again the failure of leadership at the highest levels of the profession. Responses come from almost half of the largest 350 firms in the country. It’s a significant sample size that provides meaningful insight into the combination of incompetence and cognitive dissonance afflicting those at the top of many big firms.

When asked about the willingness of partners within ten years of retirement to “make long-term investments in the firm that will take five years or more to pay off,” fewer than six percent reported their partners’ “high” willingness to make such investments. But at most firms, partners within ten years of retirement are running the place, so the investments aren’t occurring.

Almost 60 percent of firm leaders reported moderate or high concern about their law firms’ “preparedness to deal with retirement and succession of Baby Boomers.” Meanwhile, they resolve to continue pulling up the ladder, observing that “fewer equity partners will be a permanent trend going forward” as “growth in lawyer headcount’ remains a “requirement for their firms’ success.”

Do law firm leaders think they are losing business to non-traditional sources and that the trend will continue? Survey says yes.

Do law firm leaders think clients will continue to demand fundamental change in the delivery of legal services? Survey says yes. (56 percent)

Do law firm leaders think firms “are serious about changing their legal service delivery model to provide greater value to clients (as opposed to simply reducing rates)”? Survey says no. (66 percent)

Do clients think law firms are responding to demands for change? Survey says most emphatically no! (86 percent)

But do law firm leaders have confidence that their firms are “fully prepared to keep pace with the challenges of the new legal marketplace”? Survey says yes! (77 percent)

If cognitive dissonance describes a person who tries to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously, what do you call someone who has three, four or five such irreconcilable notions?

At too many big law firms the answer is managing partner.

LAW SCHOOLS AND THE NEW YORK TIMES

On June 17, Noam Scheiber’s article, “An Expensive Law Degree and No Place to Use It,” appeared in The New York Times. He focused on individual human tragedies resulting from the legal education bubble.

Four days later, Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon countered with his Times column, “Law School Still a Solid Investment, Despite Pay Discrepancies.” Notwithstanding the title, he’s moving in Scheiber’s direction.

Learning from Mistakes

Professor Solomon’s prior ventures into legal education haven’t gone particularly well. In November 2014, he wrote “[T]he decline in enrollment could lead to a shortage of lawyers five years from now.” Highlighting Thomas Jefferson School of Law as one of the marginal schools fighting to remain alive, Solomon suggested, “It may be tempting to shut them in these difficult times, but it can cost tens of millions to open a new one. Better to invest and cut back on expenses for a while and see what happens.”

Consistent with his area of expertise — financial and securities regulation — Professor Solomon was relying on the market to work. But in legal education, it never gets a chance. Bankruptcy laws and the federal student loan program insulate law schools from accountability for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes.

Waiting to “see what happens” became a triumph of hope over reality. For the Thomas Jefferson class of 2013, the full-time long-term JD-required employment rate nine months after graduation was 29 percent. For the class of 2014, it was 30 percent. Even with an additional month for the class of 2015 to find jobs, the ten-month FTLT-JD-required employment rate was 24 percent. But the school did win that nagging fraud case brought by a recent graduate.

In April 2015, Solomon’s column on legal education and the profession was so riddled with errors that I climbed out of a hospital bed to write a responsive post culminating in this question, “Whatever happened to The New York Times fact-checker?”

Almost There

With all of that carnage in the rearview mirror, Professor Solomon’s June 21 article assumes a more moderate tone. Most importantly, he acknowledges the different legal education markets that exist for new graduates: “[I]t is clear that it is harder out there for the lower-tier law schools and their graduates.”

Noting that some big firms announced starting salary increases to $180,000 for the class of 2016, he cautions, “Only the lucky 17 percent of graduates earn salaries this high. To be in this group, you needed to go to a top 10 school or graduate in the higher ranks of the top quartile of law schools. Things are harder for every other law graduate.”

Solomon also accepts the bimodal distribution of starting salaries that results from the different markets for law graduates: “[W]hile 17 percent of graduates earned median salary of $160,000 in 2014, about half had a median starting salary of $40,000 to $65,000.”

The article could and should have ended with this: “Either way, it is clear that it is harder out there for lower-tier law schools and their graduates.”

In Defense of Fellow Professors?

Four days before Solomon’s article, Noam Scheiber’s Times piece profiled once-hopeful students at Valparaiso University School of Law. They’d incurred massive debt for a JD degree, but couldn’t find jobs requiring one. Scheiber also quoted a professor who recently headed the school’s admissions committee: “If we could go back, I think we should have erred a little more on the side of turning people down.”

Immediately after the publication of Scheiber’s article, social media took over when a law professor complained in an open letter to Scheiber: “Have you seen this line of peer-reviewed research, which estimates the boost to earning from a law degree including the substantial proportion of law graduates who do not practice law?”

The cited “line of peer-reviewed research” consisted of one study, co-authored by that professor in 2013. When Scheiber invited the professor to identify any factual errors in his article, the professor provided six alleged mistakes. For anyone interested in diving into those weeds, Scheiber posted the six items and his response on his Facebook page, including this:

“It’s not worth reviewing the controversy about your work on law graduate earnings here, since the criticisms are well-established. But suffice it to say, I think it’s strange to respond to a claim that the economic prospects of people graduating after the recession have fundamentally changed relative to those who graduated before the recession with a study that only includes people who graduated prior to 2009.”

(UPDATE: On Friday, June 24, the professor responded to Scheiber’s response.)

Among the many other criticisms to which Scheiber refers is the 2013 study’s failure to consider differences among law schools in their graduates’ incomes. In other words, it ignored the actual law school markets.

Nearing the Finish Line

Professor Solomon’s latest article centers on the importance of recognizing those different markets. But he still cites the 2013 study for the proposition that “most law students earned a premium of hundreds of thousands of dollars over what they would have earned had they not gone to law school, even taking into account the debt they accrue.”

Even so, Solomon’s slow walk away from the 2013 study improves on his April 2015 column. There, he relied on it to suggest that an “acceleration in compensation results in a premium of $1 million for lawyers over their lifetime compared with those who did not go to law school.” Now he’s down to “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for “most law students.”

Professor Solomon teaches at a top school, UC-Berkeley. He knows that plenty of students at other schools have a tough road ahead. Solomon no longer refers to an overly broad $1 million lifetime premium. He has also added a qualifier (“most law students” — meaning a mere 51 percent) — to whatever he thinks the study proves about the economic benefit of a JD. In other words, he has rendered the 2013 study meaningless to anyone considering law school today.

So why does Professor Solomon continue to cite the study at all? Better not to ask. Accept progress wherever you find it.

 

A DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

The Wall Street Journal’s front page headline tells only part of story: “Legal Fees Cross New Mark: $1500.” The February 9 article lists the range of partner hourly rates at some big firms: Proskauer Rose from $925 to $1475; Ropes & Gray from $895 to $1450; Kirkland & Ellis from $875 to $1445; and so on and so on and so on.

That’s great if you can get it, but most firms can’t. The 2016 Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor “State of the Legal Profession” tells a second part of the story: realization and collection rates have plummeted. How much a firm bills doesn’t matter; what it actually brings in the door does. In 2005, collections totaled 93 percent of standard rates. By the end of 2015, it was down to 83 percent.

The Music Stopped, Almost

Annual standard hourly rate increases have blunted the profit impact of declining collections, but trees stopped growing to the sky about ten years ago. Except in bankruptcy courts. That’s the third element of the story and the profession’s dirty little secret: one of the most lucrative big law practice areas has no client accountability for its fees. Even worse, the process facilitates pricing behavior that spills over into other practice areas.

Take the recent Journal article. Where did the reporters get the detailed hourly rates for the firms it identified? A note at the bottom of the chart reveals the answer: “Source: Bankruptcy court filings.” If managing partners exchanged their firms’ hourly rates privately, it would raise serious antitrust issues. But in bankruptcy, publicly filed fee petitions do all of that work for them.

It gets worse. In bankruptcy, no one forces attorneys into the discounting that produces the current 83 percent overall average collections rate. Remember the infamous “Churn that bill, baby” email involving DLA Piper a few years ago? That was a bankruptcy case. Traditional mechanisms of accountability are ineffective. Unlike a solvent corporate client, a company in trouble has little leverage in dealing with its outside counsel. Until it emerges from a Chapter 11 reorganization, the days of minimizing legal expenses to maximize shareholder value are suspended. If it winds up in Chapter 7 liquidation, those days are gone forever.

At the same, time, the lawyers handling the bankruptcy have little risk. They get paid ahead of everyone else. Lawyers for creditor committees are a theoretical check only. They, too, get paid first and the members of the exclusive club of big law firm attorneys reappear. Their roles may change — debtor’s counsel in one bankruptcy may be creditors’ attorney in another and the liquidating trustee’s lawyer in yet another. In none of those capacities is there any incentive to rock the long-term, “paid-in-full hourly rate” boat.

More Theoretical Accountability

The U.S. Trustee receives all attorneys’ fees petitions before courts approve them. The Trustee can object, but it doesn’t have sufficient resources to analyze detailed line item time and expense entries on the thousands of pages that firms submit. The Trustee issued new guidelines that became effective for cases filed after November 1, 2013. Perhaps they will make a difference. But in the end, they are still guidelines and the final decision on attorneys fees resides with the bankruptcy judge.

As hourly rates have increased to the $1500 level that the Journal highlights, courts have given their rubber stamps of approval to the trend. Rather than challenge the high rates that all firms charge, bankruptcy judges determine merely that they are “reasonable and customary” because, after all, comparable firms are charging them for comparable work. The circularity is as obvious as the resulting payday for the lawyers. Someday, media attention and popular outrage may force meaningful change that has yet to occur.

Worse Than It Seems

Considering the 83 percent collection rate in the context of the nearly 100 percent rate for bankruptcy lawyers yields an insight relevant to the fourth and final part of the larger big law firm story. In particular, the current 83 percent collection rate is deceptively high. If a firm’s average is 83 percent and its bankruptcy lawyers collect close to 100 percent, then firms with large bankruptcy practices have non-bankruptcy clients pushing some practice areas into deep concessions off standard rates.

Likewise, combining this fact with two conclusions from the Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report produces ominous implications for such firms:

— “Demand for law firm services…was essentially flat in 2015,” and

— Bankruptcy experienced the largest negative growth rate in demand by practice area.

Unless the country heads into a recession that few economists expect, the continuing reduction in bankruptcies will drive overall average collections dramatically lower. That’s bad news for big law firms with significant bankruptcy practices.

Back in 2011, an icon of the bankruptcy bar, the late Harvey Miller of Weil, Gotshal and Manges, defended his firm’s approach to legal fees: “The underlying principle is, if you can get it, get it.”

Miller isn’t around anymore, but his unfortunate credo for a noble profession survives — for now.

[NOTE: The trade paperback edition of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books) — complete with an extensive new AFTERWORD — will be released on March 8, 2016 and is now available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.]

A FIRM TO WATCH

Something worth watching could be happening at King & Wood Mallesons, one of the world’s largest law firms. It has an interesting history, a challenging present and, perhaps, an even more challenging future.

Past

Beijing-based King & Wood came into existence in 1993. If you look for photos or other information about either name partner, you won’t find them. Neither person ever existed. China doesn’t have U.S.-type ethics rules requiring that law firms carry the names of lawyers who work there (or did before retirement or death). The distinctly non-Chinese names are a branding exercise aimed at reaching a global audience.

In 2012, King & Wood merged with Australian-based Mallesons Stephen Jacques. In 2013, it added London-based SJ Berwin and now has 2,700 lawyers scattered across 30 offices around the world. It operates as a verein, meaning that the constituent firms are legally separate and don’t share profits. (Whether any verein is a real law firm is a subject for another day.)

Present

In July 2015, King & Wood Malleson’s Europe and the Middle East announced “rocketing” results.  Profits per equity partner had soared by 39 percent. During the year, the firm hired 15 lateral partners, including attorneys from Fried Frank, Linklaters, and Eversheds.

As London-based (and newly named) managing partner William Boss boasted, “This is an exciting time for our region….”

Maybe a bit too exciting, even for Boss.

Two days later, The Lawyer offered a potentially relevant footnote to the “rocketing” 39 percent jump in partner profits reported only two days earlier: “A number of insiders have questioned the large jump in PEP, attributing the growth to an exceptionally big and anomalous recovery for the firm on one piece of litigation.”

At about the same time, the firm revealed that it had completed its “partnership review” resulting in an almost 10 percent reduction in its London office equity ranks, according to The Lawyer. In addition, the firm lost some “big hitters.”

On January 15, 2016, William Boss resigned as managing partner — more than a year before his term was set to expire in May 2017. The firm said that he would remain in the position until April while the search for his replacement occurred.

Future

On January 20, The Lawyer reported that the firm had “launched a review of its capital contributions structure in order to ease cashflow, stop repeated delays to profit distributions and stem the flow of exits by ‘frustrated’ partners.”

What does that mean? Time will tell. But story in The Lawyer included these nuggets:

— “A number of sources close to KWM have accused the firm of withholding profit distributions over the last five years in order to keep up with tax bills, leading to a raft of senior exits last year.”

— “One source close to KWM said the firm had ‘only just’ paid out the full distributions due in August 2015, having previously paid just half the money owed in that quarter. Another said they had only been paid 25 per cent of their distributions for 2014/15, despite it being nine months into the financial year.”

— “Complaints about delayed profit payments follow a good year financially for the firm in the UK, Europe and Middle East, adding to the frustration of a number of partners, a source said. ‘It’s been a so-called record year for the firm but partners just aren’t getting paid,’ they added.”

— “The review could see its UK partners being asked to pay higher contributions to the firm in return for more units in the LLP.”

If the last item comes to pass, partners who write checks to the firm might want to understand exactly what they are buying and why.