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.

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.

ANOTHER COLOSSAL LATERAL MISTAKE

Lateral hires are risky. Even managing partners responding to the Hildebrandt/Citi 2015 Client Advisory’s confidential survey admitted that only about half of their lateral partners are break-even at best — and the respondents had unrestrained discretion to decide what qualified as “break-even.” As Ed Newberry, co-global managing partner of Squire 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….”

Beyond the financial perils, wise firm leaders understand that some lateral partners can have an even greater destructive impact on a firm’s culture. In late 2014, former American Lawyer editor-in-chief Aric Press interviewed Latham’s outgoing chairman Bob Dell, who was retiring after a remarkably successful 20-year run at the top of his firm. Dell explained that he walked away from prospective lateral partners who were not a good cultural fit because they stumbled over Latham’s way of doing things.

Press wrote: “Culture, in Dell’s view, is not a code word for soft or emotional skills. ‘We think we have a high-performance culture,’ he says. ‘We work at that. That’s not soft.'”

Under the Radar and Under the Rug

Most lateral hiring mistakes attract little public attention. Firm leaders have no reason to highlight their errors in judgment. Fellow partners are reluctant to tell their emperors any unpleasant truth. If, as the adage goes, doctors bury their mistakes and lawyers settle theirs, then managing partners pretend that their mistakes never happened and then challenge anyone to prove them wrong. The resulting silence within most partnerships is deafening.

Every once in a while, a lateral hire becomes such a spectacular failure that even the press takes note. When that happens, the leaders of the affected law firm have nowhere to hide. Which takes us to James Woolery, about whom I first wrote five years ago.

Without mentioning Woolery specifically, I discussed a May 28, 2010 Wall Street Journal article naming him was one of several Cravath, Swaine & Moore partners in their late-30s and early-40s taking “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.”

“We’re more aggressive than we used to be,” 41-year-old Cravath partner James Woolery told the Journal. “This is not your grandfather’s Cravath.”

A Serial Lateral

Six months later, it wasn’t Woolery’s Cravath, either. He’d already left to co-head J.P. Morgan Chase’s North American mergers and acquisitions group.

In 2013, only two years after accepting the Chase job, Woolery moved again. With much fanfare, he negotiated a three-year deal guaranteeing him at least eight million dollars annually to join Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. How was the cultural fit? The firm’s chairman, Chris White, described him as “the epitome of the Cadwalader lawyer” who deserved the lucrative pay package that made him the firm’s highest paid partner. A new title created especially for Woolery — deputy chairman — also made clear that he was White’s heir apparent.

To no one’s surprise, in 2014 Cadwalader announced that Woolery would take over as chairman in early 2015. As he prepared to assume the reins of leadership, the firm took a dramatic slide. The current issue of The American Lawyer reports that Cadwalader posted the worst 2014 financial results of any New York firm. Woolery’s guarantee deal looked pretty good as his firm’s average partner profits dropped by more than 15 percent. The firm’s profit margin — 26 percent — placed it 87th among Am Law 100 firms.

On January 19, 2015, the firm’s managing partner, Patrick Quinn, convened a conference call with all Cadwalader partners to convey a stunning one-two punch: Woolery would not become chairman, and he was leaving the firm to start a hedge fund. Woolery was not on the call to explain himself.

Unpleasant Press

No law firm wants this kind of attention. No client wants its outside firm to project uncertainty and instability at the top. No one inside the firm wants to hear about someone who has now been “thrust into the role of designated chairman of the firm,” as The American Lawyer described Patrick Quinn.

Woolery is gone, and so is Chris White, the former Cadwalader chairman who sold fellow partners on Woolery and his stunning guaranteed compensation package. White, age 63, left the firm in November to become co-CEO of Phoenix House, the nation’s largest non-profit addiction rehabilitation center.

Meanwhile, newly designated Cadwalader chairman Quinn says that the firm has no plans to change its strategy, including its reliance on lateral partner hiring. Maybe Chris White can use his new job to help Quinn and other managing partners shake their addiction to laterals. Apparently, first-hand experience with failure isn’t enough.

FROM CRAVATH TO CHASE TO CADWALADER

James Woolery is on the move again. We’ve never met, but I’m beginning to feel as if I know the guy.

Woolery first appeared in my June 3, 2010 post about a policy change at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. The Wall Street Journal featured the then-41-year-old Cravath partner in an article about the firm’s plan to allow lawyers in their 30s and 40s to “make a name for themselves” by taking the lead on client deals. Historically, the WSJ reported, Cravath had reserved that role for partners in their 50s.

Six months later, I wrote about Woolery’s departure from Cravath to become co-head of JP Morgan Chase’s North American mergers and acquisitions group. He told the New York Times that he’d developed a business development focus and the Chase opportunity allowed him to build on those skills. So much for practicing law.

Now, two years after joining Chase, Woolery has become the first firmwide deputy chair of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft — a new position apparently created specially for its prominent lateral hire. The Wall Street Journal suggested that the move “is a big personal bet for Mr. Woolery. He is jumping back to the legal industry when it is still struggling with a shortage of work, and he is leaving J.P.Morgan just as mergers are showing new signs of life.”

Regardless of the particular reasons for Woolery’s various moves, the contrast between where he started (Cravath) and where he has now ended (Cadwalader) is remarkable.

Cravath

Whatever else people may think of Cravath, it has an unrivaled reputation for attracting first-rate attorneys. It is also a partnership in the truest sense of that concept: A single tier with a lock-step compensation system that resists an undue emphasis on short-term thinking. The Cravath model promotes longer run values, such as institutional stability.

For example, a lateral hiring frenzy pervades big law, but it’s a relatively rare event at Cravath. The firm focuses on developing talent internally. Its attorneys work hard, run a challenging gauntlet to equity partnership, and reap rich rewards for success.

In May 2007, an American Lawyer interviewer 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.”

Cadwalader

Cravath’s ethos wouldn’t appeal to attorneys drawn to Cadwalader’s culture. In the mid-1990s, Cadwalader began moving aggressively toward what its new chairman Robert O. Link Jr. called a meritocracy. Others call it “eat-what-you-kill.”

In a February 2007 interview with the American Lawyer, Link expressed an attitude about firm culture that differed dramatically from Chesler’s. “Everyone should wake up in the morning and feel a little vulnerable,” he said.

Link meant it. In 1995, the 268-lawyer Cadwalader firm’s two-tier partnership had 76 equity partners, giving it a leverage ratio of three-and-a-half. By 2005, the firm had nearly doubled in size, but it had only 75 equity partners. Its leverage ratio of seven far exceeded that of all other Am Law 100 firms.

Cadwalader’s asset-backed structured finance practice fueled much of its growth. By 2007, it had 645 lawyers and a stunning leverage ratio of eight-and-a-half. But when the residential housing market cratered and took asset-back structured finance legal work with it, the firm’s fortunes slid badly.

By the end of 2012, Cadwalader had 435 lawyers — down more than 200 from five years earlier. Only 55 of them were equity partners — down 20 from 2007. The good news for the survivors was that by 2012, average equity partner profits had recovered almost completely to their 2007 all-time high of $2.7 million.

Differences that transcend metrics

As Cadwalader became smaller, Cravath maintained average partner profits ranging from $2.5 to $3.2 million, a leverage ratio of approximately four, and moderate growth from 412 to 476 attorneys. Even more to the point, it’s hard to imagine any circumstance short of dissolution that would cause Cravath to shed almost a third of its equity partners, as Cadwalader did from 2007 to 2012.

Back in May 2010, Woolery told the Wall Street Journal, “This is not your grandfather’s Cravath.” It’s not clear what that characterization of his former firm means or if it is correct, but offspring sometimes underestimate the value of a grandfather’s gifts. And offspring sometimes grow up to be grandparents themselves.

BONUS TIME – 2012

It’s always interesting when two respected legal writers approach the same story in different ways. That happened in the coverage of recently announced associate bonuses.

Ashby Jones at the Wall Street Journal penned an article in the November 27 print edition of the paper that ran under this headline:

“Cravath Sends Cheer — Law Firm Lifts Bonuses for Some Associates as Much as 60%”

As always, Jones accurately reports what is true, namely, that Cravath, Swaine & Moore led this year’s associate bonus announcements with an increase over last year’s base bonus levels. Five paragraphs in, he acknowledges that this significant bump still leaves associates well below the 2007 pay scale. The highest associate bonuses this year are $60,000, compared to $110,000 for combined regular and special bonuses in 2007.

Meanwhile, at the New York Times…

On the same day that Ashby Jones’s article ran in the WSJ, Peter Lattman at the New York Times was a bit more circumspect. In that paper’s print edition, the bold line that ran in the middle of the story reads:

“[Cravath’s] year-end awards set the bar for others, and the payouts are up a bit in 2012.”

Like Jones, Lattman observes that base bonus amounts are substantially higher than previously. But he correctly notes that “when spring bonuses are added to the equation, there has been little increase for Cravath’s associates over the last two years. The law firm did not award spring bonuses in 2012, but last year paid its associates a small stipend in addition to a year-end award. When 2011’s spring bonuses and year-end bonuses are added together, total bonus compensation actually exceeds this year’s level.”

Both Jones and Lattman report that Cravath had $3.1 million in average partner profits for 2011. For perspective, that’s slightly above the $3.05 average for 2006, and not all that far from the $3.3 million all-time high in 2007. Needless to say, associate bonuses haven’t enjoyed a similar recovery. But depending on what happens in the spring, they still could, which leads to a final point.

Who’s right?

The answer is Elie Mystal over at Above the Law. Mystal observes that spring bonuses more properly belong in the analysis of total compensation for the immediately preceding calendar year. That is, a bonus paid in early 2011 is really compensation for 2010.

The analysis is straightforward. Big law firms waiting for more complete information on how the fiscal year will end preserve flexibility by lowballing the November bonus numbers. Evidently, Cravath concluded that its $3.1 million average partner profits for 2011 were inadequate to justify any significant spring bonus for associates in early 2012.

The fate of the “special” bonus

The question now is whether spring bonuses are gone forever. After all, they first appeared as “special bonuses” — meaning that they came with this implied caveat: don’t build those dollars into next year’s expectations. Of course, that message has landed on deaf ears. But it gives firm leaders a way to convince themselves that it’s fair to leave associate compensation far below 2007 levels, even though average partner profits have recovered almost completely to those lofty heights. Indeed, some firms have even bested their pre-recession records.

In all of this, two things are working against associates who dream of a return to the good old days (of 2007). First, the glut of attorneys grows as the demand for new associates shrinks. Second, most law firm leaders are dealing with a revolution of rising expectations among senior equity partners. The potential loss of a rainmaker strikes fear in the hearts of many firm leaders.

But here’s a reason to hope. True visionaries seeking long-term institutional stability let such troublemakers walk. They promote cultural values that transcend the impact on the current year’s income statement. They let resulting gains in client service and attorney morale produce ample financial and non-financial rewards for all.

And all of this reveals itself in how partners at the top of a firm treat associates at the bottom — a place where too many seem to have forgotten that they themselves once stood.

HAPPINESS IS…CRAVATH?

Big law’s future has become big news. On September 25, The New York Times published a special section that included several articles on large firms; two are particularly interesting.

Culture Keeps Firms Together in Trying Times” discusses the handful of large firms that have shunned the widespread eat-what-you-kill approach to partner compensation. It focuses on three firms, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Debevoise & Plimpton, and Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, all of which have retained lock-step compensation systems. For any class of associates, those who survive to partner continue advancing together throughout their careers.

“The only way a partner does better is if the firm does better,” says Debevoise presiding partner Michael W. Blair describing the behavior that follows such structural incentives.

Lock-step is a sharp contrast to most other big firms, which follow what Dewey & LeBoeuf’s management called the “barbell” system: Lots of service partners on one side of the barbell balance out a handful of star partners on the other side. Then-Dewey partner Jeffrey Kessler rationalized the yawning equity partner compensation gaps that this approach creates: “The value for the stars has gone up, while the value of service partners has gone down.”

Not worth it

The Times quotes Cleary managing partner Mark Leddy’s answer to the Kesslers of the world: “People who want to be a star and make $10 million a year don’t fit in here…Breaking the lock-step system for them would be an unacceptable cost to our culture.”

Why does culture matter? There are many answers, but Major, Lindsey & Africa’s recent compensation survey may have identified an important one. Almost eighty percent of partners in lock-step compensation systems are satisfied or very satisfied with their work. A closer look at the MLA survey reveals that the combined group of satisfied and very satisfied partners is about the same for lock-step as for non-lock-step firms. But the lock-step firms’ have a big advantage in the very satisfied group — fifty-five percent compared to only twenty-six percent for non-lock-step firms.

Satisfied versus very satisfied

That leads to James B. Stewart’s observations about Cravath, where he was an associate in the 1970s. In “A Law Firm Where Money Seemed Secondary,” Stewart notes that all attorneys in his firm were intelligent, well-credentialed and hard working, but those advancing to partner had something else in common: They loved their work. It gave them a huge competitive advantage over those who didn’t. Returning to the MLA survey, I think Stewart may have captured a significant difference between the lawyers who are very satisfied and those who are merely satisfied: Attitudes about work affect performance.

Stewart also notes that “of the 20 or so associates hired each year, one or two might be chosen to be a partner.” He concludes that “over the ensuing decades, Cravath doesn’t seem to have changed much.” He’s right.

But the rest of the large law firm segment of the profession has. In fact, many have modeled themselves after the Cravath attrition-and-leverage model, but they added an unfortunate twist away from lock-step compensation: Partners eat what they kill, so every year’s compensation review is a new self-justification exercise. That incentive structure produces a much different culture; most of it is ugly and little of it enhances a firm’s long-run stability.

About the associates…

Before getting too misty-eyed over life at Cravath, it’s worth pausing on one more data point. In the most recent Am Law Survey of Midlevel Associate Satisfaction, Cravath placed 119 out of 129 firms — down from 111 in 2011. The firm has been dropping steadily on that list since 2010, when it placed 84th out of 137. (Both Cleary Gottlieb and Debevoise did much better.)

A closer analysis suggests that Cravath associates do, indeed, enjoy their work. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to enjoy it enough to offset the things that place the firm near the bottom of the satisfaction survey.

Cravath scored above the all-firm averages in work-related subcategories, including quality of work assigned, opportunities to work with partners, and level of responsibility. But it received low marks in other subcategories, including likelihood of staying two years, morale, communication about partnership prospects, and family-friendliness. Lock-step partner compensation isn’t a panacea, but imagine how much worse a place like Cravath would be without it.

Following the money

Perhaps the most telling comment about the interaction between compensation and firm culture comes from former Dewey & LeBoeuf partner Ralph Ferrara who spent twenty-three years at lock-step Debevoise before making what he describes as “an imprudent decision” in leaving: “In my heart, I never left Debevoise; it’s a place that I still love to this day.”

If the bankruptcy judge approves the proposed former partners compensation plan, Ferrara will pay almost $3.4 million to help fund repayments to Dewey’s creditors. Even so, given the amounts he reportedly made at Dewey, his move in 2005 was probably advantageous financially. I wonder if the additional money was worth it to him — and how his heirs will spend it.