PUZZLE PIECES – Part 12

[Concluding the imaginary cross-examination of a real senior partner profiled in the April 2010 issue of ABA Journal (http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/not_done_yet) — and connecting the final dots to the ongoing associate compensation squeeze-plays…]

Q: “Adversity tests leadership, doesn’t it?”

Partner: “I agree.”

Q: “And 2009 was a tough year, wasn’t it?”

Partner: “It was a difficult time for many people.”

Q: “For many people — but not for your firm’s equity partners, right?”

Partner: “Wrong. Our revenues were down and the decisions we made to let people go were agonizing.”

Q: “But not so agonizing that they slowed your mission to keep billable hours up and average equity partner profits at $2 million a year, correct?”

Partner: “Some things can’t be measured in dollars.”

Q: “True. But Am Law reported recently that your firm’s 2009 average equity partner profits were just under $2 million, right?”

Partner: “That’s the report.”

Q: “If we return to your earlier comments about free market capitalism, who has borne the owner’s risk to your firm in the current economic downturn, Dechert’s equity partners who on average saw their incomes drop from $2.35 to $2 million a year, or the salaried workers — associates, non-equity partners, and staff — who lost their jobs in 2009?”

Partner: “We shared the pain. But we’re no different from other large, successful law firms. Someone running another big firm made the point three years ago: We have to keep our stock price high.” http://www.mlaglobal.com/articles/JCashmanMayerBrownCutsTrib.pdf; http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2007/03/02/more-on-the-mayer-brown-departures/tab/article/

Q: “When you say other large, successful firms, are you referring to the ones that, according to a NY Times April 1 article  (http://dealbook.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/at-law-firms-reconsidering-the-model-for-associates-pay/), are now developing ways to cut associate salaries?”

Partner: “I can’t speak to what other firms are doing.”

Q: “That article wasn’t an April Fool’s Day joke, was it? Underlying all of those efforts is the mission to preserve equity partners’ seven-figure incomes, isn’t it?”

Partner: “If you say so.”

Q: “And now many people like you — aging senior partners who’ve become accustomed to making millions — don’t know what to do next with your lives, do you?”

Partner: “Speaking for myself, time has crept up on me.”

Q: “You were so focused on pulling up the ladder as a way to protect what you had that you forgot to plan your own exit strategy, didn’t you?”

Partner: No answer.

Q: “Justice can be ironic, can’t it? You don’t have to answer that. No further questions at this time.”

PUZZLE PIECES – Part 11

[The imaginary cross-examination of a real biglaw senior partner continues…]

Q: “By the way, when Am Law reports a firm’s average equity partner profits, that doesn’t tell us anything about the range, does it?”

Partner: “An average is an average. A range is a range.”

Q: “In some big firms, the range can be pretty substantial, can’t it?”

Partner: “Sure.”

Q: “In fact, at the top of elite firms like yours, the equity partners typically earn several million dollars a year more than the average, right?”

Partner: “We don’t comment on such matters.”

Q: “The point is, when you say ‘everything is relative,’ that’s true even within the equity partnership, right?”

Partner: “What’s your point?”

Q: “Even among the select group of winners who make it into the equity partnership, the even fewer who go on to become firm leaders — as you did — are the real success stories, aren’t they?”

Partner: “That’s the American way, isn’t it? A successful business depends on leaders and the market rewards us accordingly. In that sense, we all become products of the decisions we make.”

PUZZLE PIECES – Part 10

[Continuing the imaginary cross-examination of a real senior partner profiled in the April 2010 issue of the ABA Journal(http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/not_done_yet)]

Q: “All right. Let’s look at 2009. In February, your firm cut 19 attorneys from its U.S offices and, a few weeks later, another 10 staffers?”

Partner: “We weren’t alone. Surely, you remember Black Thursday of that month — 800 biglaw attorneys and staff fired in a single day; over 1100 attorneys for the week.”

Q: “In March 2009, you said good-bye to 125 people — 63 attorneys and other time keepers and 62 adminsitrative staff?”

Partner: “With markets crashing, the firm couldn’t keep unproductive people on the payroll.”

Q: “And firms like yours couldn’t let their billable hours drop below 2,000 a  year, could they?”

Partner: “I don’t agree with that.”

Q: “Your firm’s responses for the NALP Directory said its minimum billable hours expectation for associates in 2008 was 1,950 in Philadelphia and 2,000 in New York, right?”

Partner: “So what? That’s not unique. Our press release explained that we’ve tried to match our resources with our projected needs.”

Q: “That press release came in July 2009, when your firm reportedly terminated another 25 associates along with staff and paralegal positions, right?”

Partner: “You’re citing Law.com and Above The Law.” 

Q: “And you’ve been shrinking your summer associate programs — in your Philadelphia headquarters, for example, from 37 in 2008 to 23 in 2009 to 13 in 2010, according to your NALP report?”

Partner: “If you say so.”

Q: “And in New York from 25 in 2009 to 12 this year?”

Partner: “Whatever the report says.”

Q: “Did your firm ever worry that it might be throwing its furniture into the fireplace in an effort to keep the house warm?”

Partner: “We’re keeping the best people. I’m not concerned.”

Q: “And you’re trying to keep the billable time of those survivors above 2,000 hours annually, aren’t you?

Partner: “That’s your characterization and conclusion, not mine.”

Q: “When you joined the firm in the early 1970’s, there’s wasn’t as much discussion about billable hours, which for most big firms in those days averaged around 1,700 a year, right?”

Partner: “It was a less important metric then. Times have changed.”

Q: “And another metric — leverage — now dictates that associates work eight years at your firm before receiving even non-equity partner consideration, right?”

Partner: “That’s what our NALP submission states.”

Q: “And the only thing your NALP submission says about the prospects for advancement to equity partnership thereafter is ‘CBC’ — case-by-case, right?”

Partner: “I don’t think we’re unusual in that respect. There are exceptions, but the pyramid is the prevailing large firm business model today. It endures because it works.”

PUZZLE PIECES – Part 9

Q: “That’s a good way to put it. ‘Everything is relative,’ as you say. In the case of your firm, keeping average equity partner profits above $2 million required you to take a number of cost-cutting actions in 2008, right?”

Partner: “Yes.”

Q: “According to Law.com, in March 2008, you laid off 13 associates in the finance and real estate practice and then later gave them the option of taking temporary positions in other practice groups?”

Partner: “That was the report.”

Q: “In December 2008, you cut 72 U.S. adminsitrative positions and started the termination process for another 15 staff positions in London?”

Partner: “That was the report.”

Q: “And you managed to stay above $2 million in average equity partner profits for 2008, didn’t you?”

Partner: “That’s what the American Lawyer  reported. But look at 2009 if you want to understand the challenges we faced in trying to keep our position in the Am Law 100 rankings.”

PUZZLE PIECES – Part 8

Recession? What recession?

On Monday, April 12, 2010, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the non-profit group that officially marks the beginning and end of economic downturns, announced that the recession — which started in December 2007 — is not yet over. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/13/business/economy/13recession.html

With the DOW Industrials back above 11,000 for the first time since September 2008 and most economists generally bullish on the future, how does biglaw view the situation?

Across the board, attorney hiring remains way down. Many firms that offered full-time jobs to new graduates deferred starting dates into 2011; a few even withdrew offers. Some firms abandoned altogether the second-year student summer programs that have anchored big firm recruiting for more than 40 years. The surviving programs for summer 2010 are a fraction of their 2007 sizes. Pretty bleak, right?

Maybe not for everyone. For a peek inside, consider the ongoing fictional cross-examination of the very real Dechert LLP senior partner profiled in the April ABA Journal (“Not Done Yet”).

(By the way, the data in the questions are real. As Yogi Berra would say, “You can look it up” in the cited sources.)

Q: “You said that the enormous increases since 1995 in equity partner incomes at your firm and others like it reflect ‘free market capitalism’ at work, right?”

Partner: “Yes. Any business enterprise maximizes profits.”

Q: “In capitalism, does the owner bear any risks?”

Partner: “Sure. The owner bears the ultimate risks of the enterprise. If the business fails, the owner’s investment is wiped out.”

Q: “The owner bears the risk of economic setbacks during downswings in the business cycle, right?”

Partner: “Yes.”

Q: “But in the most recent economic collapse, your firm’s owners  — the equity partners — bore very little of that risk, didn’t they?”

A: “I don’t agree. Even the Am Law data show otherwise.”

Q: “Let’s take a look. Am Law reported Dechert’s average equity partner earnings went from an all-time high of $2.35 million in 2007 to $2.145 million in 2008. Is that what you’re referring to?”

Partner: “That’s a decline of almost 9%!”

Q: “A decline to levels that remain astronomical, right?”

Partner: “Everything is relative. 2009 was even worse.”

PUZZLE PIECES – Part 7

With the added context of David Brooks’ article on leadership, “The Humble Hound,” (NY Times, April 9, 2010) (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/09/opinion/09brooks.html), we resume the imaginary cross-examination of a very real senior partner profiled in “Not Done Yet” (ABA Journal, April 2010) (http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/not_done_yet)  

Partner: “If you’re asking me whether we have very talented attorneys who don’t progress to equity partnership, my answer is yes.”

Q: “Compared to you and those who rose those through the ranks with you, it’s a lot of very talented attorneys, isn’t it?”

Partner: “Sure.'”

Q: “That’s because today’s big firm business model requires leverage — lots of non-equity attorneys and other time-billers for every equity partner, right?”

Partner: “Look, big law firms have become businesses. I didn’t make it that way and I can’t ignore the marketplace. If we don’t maintain high equity partner profits through appropriate leverage ratios and other means, we’ll lose our ability to attract and retain the best people. If that happens, the entire institution will be at risk and we’ll endanger the jobs of everyone who works there. It’s called free market capitalism and I didn’t invent it.”

Q: “You didn’t invent the phrase, ‘pulling up the ladder,’ either, did you?”

AND HUBRIS, too

David Brooks is right on this one — and the legal profession is Exhibit A.

Before resuming my imagined cross-examination of a distressingly real biglaw senior partner in “PUZZLE PIECES,” I want to pause on Brooks’ April 9 NY Times column. He makes my point in a broader context: the pervasive absence of thoughtful reflection that passes for leadership is not unique to big law firms.

Looking at corporate America, he asks, “Who’s in charge?”

Then he answers his own question: “They are superconfident, forceful and charismatic.”

To these characteristics, I would add another: hubris.

Having navigated internal politics to reach the pinnacle of power in their organizations, they don’t revisit their guiding principles. Armed with an MBA (or at least, the equivalent mentality of misguided metrics), they validate their governance using the same criteria that swept them to the top.

As a result, attorneys who enjoyed every advantage as they rose through the ranks have now tied themselves to a mypoic view that encourages them to pull up the ladder on their kids’ generation. Compared to the growing national debt that preoccupies many with concern for our progeny’s well-being, baby boomer greed is wreaking far more enduring havoc.

Brooks argues in favor of an alternative style: the humble hound — a leader who combines “extreme personal humility with intense professional will” and “thinks less about her mental strengths than about her weaknesses…She understands she is too quick to grasp pseudo-ojective models and confident projections that give the illusion of control.”

To save them from themselves, big law firms need more such leaders. But who will mentor candidates through the daunting journey into equity partnerships and then upward?

Certainly not 64-year-old senior partners who don’t think about their own retirements until they receive lists of firm nominees for their management committees, only to find that because of advancing age their names aren’t on them.

What can you say about a leader for whom the approach of a 65th birthday comes as a surprise?