CRAVATH SURVIVES

Partner defections from Cravath, Swaine & Moore are so rare that when they happen, it’s major news. Without exception, such events generate predictions that the firm’s lockstep compensation structure is doomed. Scott Barshay’s move to Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison provides the latest fodder for such false prophets.

From The Wall Street Journal“The move raises questions about the ability of law firms that tie partner compensation to seniority to retain top talent during an M&A boom.”

From The American LawyerThe move “casts new doubts on the viability of Cravath’s pure lock-step model of compensation, an outlier in a market where rivals have a freer hand to invest in top talent.”

As Yogi Berra said, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

In 2010, Barshay Was a “Young Gun”

Six years ago, I wrote about three young partners featured prominently in The Wall Street Journal. In their late-30s and early-40s, they had “taken a more pro-active approach, building new relationships and handling much of the work that historically would have been taken on by partners in their 50s.”

This week, I went back and read the Journal article again. One of those partners was Scott Barshay, then 44-years-old.

“In the current big law world,” I wrote in June 2010, “Cravath’s experiment is risky. Will young partners remain loyal or use their newly gained client power to pursue financial self-interest elsewhere? Will Cravath be forced to modify or abandon lock-step so that it can retain young partners controlling clients and billings?”

“I don’t know. Equally significant, I suspect those most directly affected by what the article characterizes as a ‘sea change at one of the best-known and most conservative of white-shoe law firms’ don’t know, either.”

Six Years Later

Well, now there’s a record: no sea change yet. Cravath gave Barshay an opportunity to develop clients and a reputation. He’s now a “go-to” corporate dealmaker. And he’s picking up his marbles — if he can — and “going to” Paul Weiss.

“More significant, say legal experts, is the prospect that Barshay’s departure will weaken Cravath’s much-vaunted cultural ‘glue’,” reports The American Lawyer’s Julie Triedman.

Who are these “legal experts,” anyway? Probably the same consultants and headhunters who benefit most from two pervasive and dubious big law firm strategies: growth for the sake of growth and aggressive lateral partner hiring.

More Data to Come

The reports that Barshay’s move could affect Cravath’s compensation structure assume that he left for more money. Paul Weiss’s chairman fueled those rumors by describing his firm’s system as modified lockstep that provides “flexibility at the upper end for star performers.” At Cravath, the upper end of the pay structure is reportedly $4 million. Barshay will probably make more at Paul Weiss. But at some point, does the answer to how much is enough always have to be “more”?

Headhunters offer predictable analyses. According to The American Lawyer, Sharon Mahn, “a longtime legal recruiter and founder of Mahn Consulting in New York who frequently places top partners at elite firms,” said Barshay’s defection “really sends a message that no firm is immune, that old-school firms can no longer rest on their laurels. This is a game-changing move.”

Those words might scare some big law firm leaders. After all, the warning is a twofer: it feeds their fears along with their confirmation bias. But it won’t faze Cravath. Departures like Barshay’s are rare, but the firm has seen them before.

As Cravath’s current presiding partner C. Allen Parker noted, “Partners are in lockstep systems because they believe it’s the best system for their clients and provides the most satisfying partnership environment.”

The “Deja Vu” Part

In May 2007, a reporter for The  American Lawyer asked Cravath’s then-presiding partner Evan R. Chesler whether partners would stick around if the firm made less money.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “I think there is more glue than just money.”

We now know the answer. Most will stick around and the firm properly ignores the rest. Barshay wasn’t the first “young gun” featured in the May 2010 Wall Street Journal article to leave the firm. That distinction went to James Woolery. In January 2011, he went to JP Morgan Chase as a senior dealmaker.

Two years after that, Woolery negotiated a huge three-year pay package to join Cadwalader, Wickerhsam & Taft as the chairman’s heir apparent. On the eve of his elevation to the top spot, Woolery left to co-found an activist hedge fund. According to the Journal, Paul Weiss agreed to jettison its activist investor representations to make room for Barshay. So maybe the two Cravath young guns will meet again — on opposite sides of the table.

Motives and Outcomes

Only Barshay knows for sure why he left Cravath. According to Thomson Reuters, It ranked second worldwide in announced deals for 2015. Paul Weiss was nineteenth. Barshay offered the standard “great opportunity” rhetoric that always accompanies such moves.

“This was such an amazing opportunity for me and for our clients that I couldn’t say no,” Mr. Barshay told The New York Times. “Joining Paul, Weiss was like getting an invitation to join the dream team.”

Most of corporate America thought he was already on one. At Paul Weiss, he’ll have to develop his own — a task far more daunting than fielding the clients gravitating to Cravath. Talent can create value, but underestimating the value of a franchise is a big mistake.

The Cravath glue remains.

CRAVATH GETS IT RIGHT, AGAIN

 

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

#1: Top Priority — Client Service

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

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

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

#2: Mandatory Retirement Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#3: Strategic Thinking

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

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

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