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.

THE BINGHAM CASE STUDY: PART II

Starting with the introduction, Harvard Law Professor Ashish Nanda’s case study on Bingham McCutchen depicts Jay Zimmerman as the architect of the firm’s evolution “from a ‘middle-of-the-road-downtown-pack’ Boston law firm in the early 1990s to a preeminent international law firm by 2010”:

“Zimmerman was elected chairman in 1994. Over the next 15 years, he shepherded the firm through 10 mergers, or ‘combinations’ in the Bingham lexicon, the establishment of 11 new offices, and a ten-fold increase in the firm’s revenues to $800 million… Given its impressive expansion, [journalist Jeffrey] Klineman said, ‘Bingham McCutchen has shown it could probably open an office on the moon.'” (p. 1)

Harvard published the study in September 2011.

Another Case Study

Ten months later, Nanda released another case study, “The Demise of Howrey” — a firm that was dying as he considered Bingham. Interestingly, several footnotes in the Howrey study refer to articles explaining how aggressive inorganic growth compromised that firm’s cohesiveness and hastened its collapse. (E.g., “Howrey’s Lessons” by me, ““Why Howrey Law Firm Could Not Hold It Together”, by the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein, and “The Fall of Howrey,” by the American Lawyer’s Julie Triedman) But Nanda’s 15-page narrative of Howrey barely mentions that topic.

Instead, he invites consideration of “the alternative paths Howrey, and managing partner Robert Ruyak, might have taken to avoid dissolution of the firm” after that growth had occurred. The abstract concludes with these suggested discussion points:

“What could Howrey have done differently as clients demanded contingency payment plans and deep discounts? Should Ruyak have been more transparent about the financial difficulties the firm faced? Should he have consulted with a group of senior partners instead of relying on the counsel of outside consultants? Is a litigation-focused firm at a disadvantage when it comes to leadership, as compared to a corporate practice? Participants will reflect on the leadership structure of Howrey while discussing issues related to crisis management.”

With all due respect, those inquiries don’t reach a key lesson of Howrey’s (and now Bingham’s) collapse. The following sentence in the study does, but it goes unexplored:

“Howrey continued to add laterals over the concerns of some partners that increased lateral expansion might detract from the firm’s strategic focus and weaken its cultural glue.” (p. 6)

The Metrics Trap

Nanda’s case studies report that at Howrey. as at Bingham, a few key metrics suggested short-term success: revenues soared, equity partner profits increased, and Am Law rankings went up. But beneath those superficially appealing trends was a long-term danger that such metrics didn’t capture: institutional instability. When Howrey’s projected average partner profits dipped to $850,000 in 2009, many ran for the exits and the death spiral accelerated.

Likewise, Bingham’s record high equity partner profits in 2012 of $1.7 million dropped by 13 percent — far less than Howrey’s 2009 decline of 35 percent — to $1.5 million in 2013. But a steady stream of partner departures led to destabilization and a speedy end.

Balancing the Presentation

According to the final sentence of the Bingham case study abstract, “The case allows participants to explore the positives and negatives of following a strategy of inorganic growth in professional service firms….”

The negatives now dwarf the positives. No one should fault Nanda for failing to predict Bingham’s collapse two years later. The most spectacular law firm failures have come as surprises, even to many insiders at such firms. But the Bingham study emphasizes how Zimmerman conquered the challenges of an aggressive growth strategy, with little consideration to whether the overall strategy itself was wise over the long run.

For example:

— The study notes that after Bingham’s 2002 merger with 300-attorney McCutchen Doyle, “Cultural differences…loomed over the combined organization….” But the study goes on to observe, “[T]hese issues did not slow the firm’s growth on the West Coast.” (p. 11) By 2006, “Bingham had achieved remarkable success and unprecedented growth.” (p. 14)

— The study reports that the firm’s American Lawyer associate satisfaction ranking improved from 107 in 2007 to 79 in 2008, which Bingham’s chief human resources officer attributed to “an appreciation for the leadership of the firm. People have confidence in Jay’s competence.” (p. 17). The study doesn’t mention that the firm’s associate satisfaction ranking dropped to 100 in 2009 and to 106 (out of 137) in 2010. (American Lawyer, Sept. 2010, p. 78)

— “Our management committee has people from all over,” the study quotes Zimmerman. “You don’t have to have been at Bingham Dana forever to lead at the firm.” (p. 15) But the study doesn’t consider how too many laterals parachuting into the top of a firm can produce a concentration of power and a problematic distribution of partner compensation. When Bingham began to unravel, the spread between its highest and lowest paid partners was 12:1.

— Bingham’s final acquisition — McKee Nelson — was the largest law firm combination of 2009. The study doesn’t discuss the destructive impact of accompanying multi-year compensation guarantees that put some McKee Nelson partners at the very top of the Bingham McCutchen pay scale. To be fair, Nanda probably didn’t know about the guarantees, but the omission reveals the limitations of his investigation. The guarantees came to light publicly when the American Lawyer spoke recently with former partners who said that “the size and scope of the McKee Nelson guarantees led to internal fissures…that caused at least some partners to leave the firm.”

No Regrets

Looking to the future, Zimmerman told the Harvard researchers, “[W]e’re competing with the best every day. We know we are among the best.” (p. 19)

I wonder if he would now offer the same self-assessment of his leadership that Robert Ruyak provided to the American Lawyer at the time of Howrey’s bankruptcy, namely, “I don’t have any regrets.” Nanda’s case study on Howrey’s demise concludes with “Ruyak’s Reflections.” The “no regrets” line could lead to interesting classroom discussions about accepting responsibility, but it doesn’t appear in the Howrey study. Ruyak’s explanations for the firm’s failure do.

One explanation that receives no serious attention in the case study is Ruyak’s observation that the partnership lacked patience and loyalty to the firm: “The longer-term Howrey people realized that our profitability jumped around a bit,” he said. “The people who were laterals, maybe, did not.” (p. 15)

Perhaps the potential for institutional instability that can accompany aggressive inorganic law firm growth receives greater emphasis in classroom discussions of Howrey and Bingham than it does in Nanda’s written materials. In that respect, both firms are case studies in management failure that is regrettably pervasive: a wrongheaded vision of success and a reliance on misguided metrics by which to measure it.

THE BINGHAM CASE STUDY — PART I

“For the first time since I’ve been in this job, we have all the pieces we need to do our job.”

That was former Bingham McCutchen chairman Jay Zimmerman’s penultimate line in the September 2011 Harvard Law School Case Study of his firm.

Oops.

Harvard Law School Professor Ashish Nanda and a research fellow developed the study for classroom use. According to the abstract, it’s a textbook example of successful management. It demonstrates how a firm could evolve “from a ‘middle-of-the-downtown pack’ Boston law firm in the early 1990s to a preeminent international law firm by 2010.”

Oops, again.

Familiar Plaudits

At the time of Nanda’s study, the profession had already witnessed a string of recent big firm failures. He should have taken a closer look at them. In fact, only seven months before publication of the Harvard Study, Howrey LLP was in the highly publicized death throes of what was a preview Bingham’s unfortunate fate.

Bingham’s Zimmerman and Howrey’s last chairman, Robert Ruyak, had several things in common, including accolades for their leadership. Just as Nanda highlighted Zimmerman’s tenure in his study, two years before Howrey’s collapse, Legal Times honored Ruyak as one of the profession’s Visionaries. Along similar lines, less than a month after publication of the Harvard study, Dewey & LeBeouf’s unraveling began as partners learned in October 2011 that the firm was not meeting its revenue projections for the year. But Dewey chairman Steven Davis continued to receive leadership awards.

Perhaps such public acclaim for a senior partner is the big firm equivalent of the Sports Illustrated curse. Being on the cover of that magazine seems to assure disaster down the road. (According to one analyst, the SI curse isn’t the worst in sports history. That distinction belongs to the Chicago Cubs and the Billy Goat hex. But hey, anyone can have a bad century.)

Underlying Behavior

The Lawyer Bubble investigates Howrey, Dewey, and other recent failures of large law firms. The purpose is not to identify what distinguishes them from each other, but to expose common themes that contributed to their demise. With the next printing of the book, I’m going to add an afterword that includes Bingham.

If Nanda had considered those larger themes, he might have viewed Bingham’s evolution much differently from the conclusions set forth in his study. He certainly would have backed away from what he thought was the key development proving Bingham’s success, namely, aggressive growth through law firm mergers and lateral hiring. He might even have considered that such a strategy could contribute to Bingham’s subsequent failure — which it did.

To find those recent precedents, he need not have looked very far. Similar trends undermined Howrey, Dewey, and others dating back to Finley Kumble in 1988. As a profession, we don’t seem to learn much from our mistakes.

The MBA Mentality Strikes Again

What caused Professor Nanda to line up with those who had missed the fault lines that had undone similar firms embracing the “bigger is always better” approach? One answer could be that he’s not a lawyer.

Nanda has a Ph.D in economics from Harvard Business School, where he taught for 13 years before becoming a professor of practice, faculty director of executive education, and research director at the program on the legal profession at Harvard Law School. Before getting his doctorate, he spent five years at the Tata group of companies as an administrative services officer. He co-authored a case book on “Professional Services” and advises law firms and corporate inside counsel.

It’s obvious that Nanda is intelligent. But it seems equally clear that his business orientation focused him on the enticing short-term metrics that have become ubiquitous measures of success. They can also be traps for the unwary.

In Part II of this series, I’ll review some of those traps. Nanda fell into them. As a consequence, he missed clues that should have led him to pause before joining the Bingham cheerleading squad.

Meanwhile, through December 6, Amazon is offering a special deal on my novel, The Partnership: It’s FREE as an ebook download. I’m currently negotiating a sale of the film rights to the book.

A MYTH THAT MOTIVATES MERGERS

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

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

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

Bigger Is…?

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

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

The Magic of the Am Law 50?

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

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

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

Buzzwords Without Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

Soundbites

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

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

Uncertain Outcomes

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

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