DEWEY’S RICHARD SHUTRAN — RUNNING THE NUMBERS

This is the fourth of a five-part series profiling Dewey & LeBoeuf’s former leaders. Richard Shutran (Trinity College, B.A., 1974; New York University, J.D., 1978) joined Dewey Ballantine in 1986 and rose to co-chair of the firm’s Corporate Department and Chairman of its Global Finance Practice Group. He left his position on Dewey’s Executive Committee in 2010, but in 2012 became a member of the four-man office of the chairman tasked to save the firm.

The Dewey & LeBoeuf website described Shutran’s transactional practice as “counseling…with respect to leveraged finance and project finance matters, mergers and acquisitions, and restructurings and reorganizations….” That makes him a numbers guy, someone especially well-suited to the challenges facing his firm when it asked him to return to leadership as one of the Gang of Four.

The 2010 bond issuance

Dewey’s 2010 private placement memorandum included Shutran’s biography in its “Senior Management” section. At the time, Bloomberg news reported on the $125 million bond offering for which Shutran said that the bonds’ interest rates were more favorable than the firm’s bank loans. That was true.

As partners were checking out two years later, the Daily Journal reported that Dewey was renegotiating those bank loans: “Richard Shutran, co-chair of Dewey’s corporate department, described the negotiations as standard.” At that point, perhaps they were.

Another “bond” issuance

Meanwhile, the firm was pursuing what fellow Gang of Four member Martin Bienenstock described as “a plan to deal with the shortage of payments to some partners.” In particular, those with guaranteed compensation deals had taken IOUs during earlier years when profits had fallen short of targets. The “plan” was to dedicate six percent of the firm’s income for six or seven years to pay them off, starting in 2014.

In addition to ongoing bank debt, the first wave of 2010 bond payments came due in 2013 and would continue through 2023. Now another debt repayment plan — to a special class of so-called partners — would take another chunk of future partnership earnings from 2014 to 2020.

Funny numbers

At about the same time, Shutran moved to the center of another controversy – also not of his making – relating to his firm’s financial health. He assured a Bloomberg reporter that the departure of Dewey’s elite insurance group “had no impact on our firm’s profitability. That group was break-even at best.” But he also said the firm had earned about $250 million in profits for 2011. The American Lawyer didn’t think that number jibed with what Dewey had provided for the magazine’s annual rankings.

On March 21, 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported The American Lawyer’s retroactive revisions to Dewey & LeBeouf revenue and profits numbers for 2010 and 2011 — by a lot. For example, Dewey’s 2011 average partner profits dropped from $1.8 million to $1.04 million. Shutran suggested methodological differences were to blame:

“‘They’re just not comparable numbers,’ Mr. Shutran said. ‘That’s something people like to pick on.’ Robin Sparkman, the editor-in-chief of the American Lawyer, said Dewey & LeBoeuf’s numbers were given to them by the firm’s management.”

About that bank loan

On April 11, 2012, Dewey identified seven key players essential to the firm’s survival. Shutran wasn’t among them, but he responded to questions about whether the wave of partner defections had triggered bank loan covenants: “It has not had any effect under (the) agreements,” he said. There’s no reason to doubt him.

But the real problem by then wasn’t the bank loans. It was the accumulated amounts owed for annual distributions to partners in excess of the firm’s net income. As Bruce MacEwen’s analysis suggests, whether it’s called mortgaging the future or something worse, the result is the same.

Something went terribly awry at Dewey & LeBoeuf, but here’s the scary part: among big law firms, some of the things that created Dewey’s predicament aren’t unique.

DEWEY’S MORTON PIERCE: ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY

This is the first in a series profiling Dewey & LeBoeuf’s former leaders. Morton Pierce (Yale University, B.A., 1970; University of Pennsylvania, J.D., 1974) is an appropriate place to begin because on May 3, 2012, he told The Wall Street Journal that he hadn’t been actively involved in Dewey’s management for years and had stepped down from the firm’s Executive Committee in 2010.

Pierce is widely acclaimed as one of the country’s top mergers and acquisitions attorneys. He was chairman of Dewey Ballantine when its attempt to merge with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe failed in 2007.

A partnership within a partnership

Pierce was a principal architect of Dewey Ballantine’s merger with LeBoeuf Lamb. Based on Bruce MacEwen’s analysis of the financial data, Dewey got the better end of that deal. As for Pierce himself, The Wall Street Journal reports that he “had negotiated a pay package that guaranteed him $6 million a year for six years, according to a person with direct knowledge of the arrangement.” The subject of my next post, Martin Bienenstock, said that there were many such deals to lock up talent for at least four years after the merger.

Early in 2010 — the year Pierce says he left the firm’s Executive Committee — Dewey mortgaged its future with a $125 million bond offering (repayment due from 2013 to 2023). In 2011, the sixty-two-year-old Pierce negotiated a new deal for himself. The Journal continues: “[H]e secured a new, eight-year contract that would pay him $8 million for several years and wind down to $6 million in later years, that person said.”

Dewey’s next gambit: IOUs to the oxymoronic group — guaranteed compensation partners — when the firm didn’t earn enough current income to pay them in full. Committing future profits to make up for prior periods of missed earnings is, at best, a dubious strategy. At worst, it transforms a partnership into something that looks like a Ponzi scheme. It’s difficult to envision an attorney recommending the idea to a client.

A firm leader?

Pierce’s effort to distance himself from management is interesting. He’s featured prominently as part of the firm’s “Executive Office” in the 2010 Private Placement Memorandum for its bonds. Two years later, an April 11 2012 article identified Pierce as “one of seven key lawyers” who determined Dewey’s fate.

Until the day he left in May 2012, the firm’s website still introduced his biographical page as follows:  “Morton Pierce is a Vice Chair of Dewey & LeBoeuf and co-chair of the Mergers and Acquisitions Practice Group. He is also a member of the firm’s global Executive Committee.”

Not my job

From a self-proclaimed distance, Pierce described Dewey’s leaders in the third person. When asked about an April 2012 meeting at which senior partners supposedly recommitted themselves to the firm and its survival, Pierce’s only comment was: “There was a meeting and I was there.”

Three weeks later, he told the Journal, “I think the executive committee did the best job that they could under the circumstances.” That article continued, “Mr. Pierce didn’t assign blame for the firm’s current situation.”

Pierce told the NY Times, “I am sorry about what happened”  — as if some external event or rogue actor was responsible.

The nature of leadership

Even so, Pierce kept his sense of gallows humor while packing up for White & Case. Describing how he’d like to merge all of the wonderful firms that had expressed interest in taking him as Dewey imploded, he told The Wall Street Journal on May 3: “Although looking at the Dewey & LeBoeuf merger, maybe mergers aren’t such a good idea.”

I suspect that most of the 2,000 Dewey lawyers and staffers who once worked at the firm don’t think Pierce has much of a future in comedy. He didn’t mention his other non-joke: that his resignation letter reportedly claimed that the firm owed him $61 million.

If the Dewey spin machine and website description were accurate, Pierce remained at the center of power until the moment he resigned from the firm. If, as he claims, he wasn’t involved in management after 2010, that’s worse. The notion that someone of Pierce’s professional stature would remain on the sidelines as his firm pursued misguided strategies and then would watch it spin into oblivion is stunning.

Senior partners in big firms often complain about young lawyers’ unwillingness to take responsibility for mistakes and their consequences. Perhaps some of the profession’s so-called leaders could set a better example.

DEWEY: PROFILES IN SOMETHING

Some key players in the Dewey & LeBoeuf debacle are also among the profession’s leaders; that makes them role models. Some teach at law schools; that means they’re shaping tomorrow’s attorneys, too. But how do they look and sound without the Dewey spin machine?

Some readers might worry that spotlighting them erodes civility. But civility goes to the nature of discourse; it can never mean turning a blind eye to terrible things that a few powerful people do to innocent victims. Sadly, the personalities and trends that unraveled Dewey aren’t unique to it.

As to former chairman Steven H. Davis, David Lat’s analysis at Above the Law and Peter Lattman’s report at the NY Times  are sufficient; there’s no reason to pile on. Rather, I’ll look at the “Gang of Four” plus one: the men comprising the four-man office of the chairman who replaced Davis as the firm came unglued, and Morton Pierce. Here’s a preview.

Morton Pierce was chairman of Dewey Ballantine when merger discussions with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe failed and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & McRae entered the picture. After spearheading the deal with Davis, Pierce locked in a multi-year $6 million annual contract that he reportedly enhanced in the fall of 2011. In his May 3 resignation later, he reportedly claimed that the firm owed him $61 million.

As he spoke with The Wall Street Journal while packing boxes for White & Case, Pierce said that he hadn’t been actively involved in firm management since 2010. But the Dewey & LeBoeuf website said otherwise: “Morton Pierce is a Vice Chair of Dewey & LeBoeuf and co-chair of the Mergers and Acquisitions Practice Group. He is also a member of the firm’s global Executive Committee.” [UPDATE: Two days after this May 15 post, Pierce’s page on the Dewey & LeBoeuf website finally disappeared. Such are the perils of losing an IT department too early in the unraveling process.] My post on Pierce will be titled “Accepting Responsibility.”

Martin Bienenstock, one of the Gang of Four, was an early big name hire for the newly formed Dewey & LeBoeuf. In November 2007, he left Weil, Gotshal & Manges after 30 years there. He got a guaranteed compensation deal and sat on the Executive Committee as his new firm careened toward disaster. As Dewey & LeBoeuf’s end neared, he maintained a consistent position throughout: “There are no plans to file bankruptcy. And anyone who says differently doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

No one asked if he had a realistic plan for the firm’s survival. Ten days later, he and members of his bankruptcy group were on the way to Proskauer Rose. The title of my upcoming post on Pierce could work for Bienenstock, too. But because he teaches at Harvard Law School, I’m going to call it “Partnership, Professionalism, and What To Tell the Kids.”

Jeffrey Kessler, another of the Gang of Four, was also a lateral hire from Weil, Gotshal & Manges. He joined Dewey Ballantine in 2003. As a member of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Executive Committee, he became a vocal proponent of the firm’s star system that gave top producers multi-year, multimillion-dollar contracts — one of which was his.

A sports law expert, Kessler analogized big-name attorneys to top athletes: “The value for the stars has gone up, while the value of service partners has gone down.” The title of my post on Kessler will be “Stars In Their Eyes.”

Richard Shutran, the third of the Gang of Four, was a Dewey Ballantine partner before the 2007 merger. He became co-chair of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Corporate Department and Chairman of its Global Finance Practice Group. At the time of the firm’s $125 million bond offering in 2010, he told Bloomberg News that the bonds’ interest rates were more favorable than those from the firm’s bank. In March 2012, he said Dewey was in routine negotiations with lenders over its credit line. He also dismissed The American Lawyer’s retroactive revision of Dewey’s 2010 and 2011 financial performance numbers as much ado about nothing. My post on Shutran will be “Running the Numbers.”

L. Charles Landgraf, the last of the four, began his career at LeBoeuf Lamb 34 years ago. I don’t know him (or any of  the others), but my hunch is that Charley (as people call him) is a decent guy. My post on him will be called “The Plight of the Loyal Company Man.”

In future installments, we’ll take a closer look at each of them. Sometimes it won’t be pretty, but neither is what some of them personify about the profession’s evolution.

DEWEY: WHEN PARTNERS AREN’T REALLY PARTNERS

Lost in the haze of battle over Dewey & LeBoeuf’s struggle is a remark that former chairman Steven H. Davis made in his March 22 Fortune magazine interview. That was Dewey’s first public relations initiative after it began squandering money on a crisis management/public relations expert. But it offered this kernel of inadvertent insight:

“One fundamental change in the way the firm has operated since the merger is that they moved away from the traditional lockstep compensation approach — where partners are basically paid in terms of tenure — and toward a star system in which the top moneymakers can out-earn their colleagues by a ratio of up to 10-to-1. Davis says the extremes shouldn’t define the system, though, and that the more ‘normal’ band is about 6-to-1. Still, it must chafe to be the guy who’s earning the ‘1’ and knows it. Hard to see oneself as a ‘partner’ of the ‘6s,’ let alone the ’10s.'”

In The Wall Street Journal story that the Manhattan district attorney had opened an investigation into Davis, this sentence offered a poignant flashback to his March 22 interview:

“While some junior partners made as little as $300,000 a year, other partners were pulling down $6 million or $7 million, according to former and current partners.”

That’s a twenty-to-one spread within a so-called partnership. And some of the biggest winners had multi-year guaranteed compensation deals.

There’s an asterisk. According to The American Lawyer‘s definitions, Dewey & LeBoeuf has equity and non-equity partners. Everyone knows that with respect to the internal power dynamics of two-tier firms, management pays no attention to non-equity partners. But the real kicker is that most equity partners don’t have much influence with senior leaders, either.

The growing non-equity partner bubble

Start with the non-equity partners. In January 2000, predecessor firm Dewey Ballantine had 118 equity partners and 21 non-equity partners. At the time, its eventual merger partner, LeBoeuf Lamb, had a similar ratio: 187 equity partners and 33 non-equity partners. Between them, they had 305 equity partners and 54 non-equity partners.

As of January 1, 2012, Dewey & LeBoeuf had 190 equity partners (one-third fewer than the separate firms’ combined total in 2000) and 114 non-equity partners (twice as many as in 2000).

Many firms have adopted and expanded two-tier partnership structures. That has many unfortunate consequences for the firms that create a permanent sub-class of such individuals. But non-equity partners are profit centers and most big law leaders say that ever-increasing profits are necessary to attract and retain top talent.

The equity partner income gap

That leads to a second point. Whether it’s Davis’s earlier “10-to-1” spread, the more recently reported “20-to-1,” or something in between, the income gap within equity partnerships has exploded throughout big law. That’s destabilizing.

The gap results from and reinforces a failing a business model. In the relentless pursuit of high-profile lateral hires, law firms bid up the price. Many laterals never justify their outsized compensation packages; some become serial laterals moving from firm to firm.

Even when the subsequent economic contributions of hot prospects seem to validate their worth on paper, aggressive lateral hiring erodes partnership values. The prevailing business model has no metric for collegiality, a shared sense of purpose, or the willingness to weather tough times. How badly frayed have partnership bonds become when, as at Dewey, some partners ask a district attorney to prosecute the firm’s most recent chairman? That’s the definition of bottoming-out.

It’s easy to identify the ways that Dewey’s problems were unique, such as guaranteeing partner compensation and issuing bonds. Leaders of other firms could benefit from a different exercise: assessing how their own institutions are similar to what Dewey & LeBoeuf became after their 2007 merger. Growing partnership inequality is pervasive and its implications are profound.

Legal consultant Peter Zeughauser told The Wall Street Journal, “It’s not your mother’s legal industry anymore. It’s a tougher business.” Implicit in that observation lies a deeper truth: partnerships aren’t really partnerships anymore.

They’re businesses, only worse. Those at the top of most big law firms function with far greater independence than corporate CEOs who must answer to a board of directors and shareholders. In many big firms, a growing internal wealth gap reinforces the hubris of senior leaders who answer to no one — except each other. With Dewey’s disintegration, we’re seeing where that can lead.

UNFORTUNATE (AND IRONIC) COMMENT AWARD

If Dewey & LeBeouf has so-called friends like its former partner John Altorelli…well, you know the rest.

Altorelli’s recent comments to Am Law Daily include so many candidates for my Unfortunate Comment Award that it’s difficult to choose just one. So let’s go with the most ironic. In discussing whether Dewey could have done a better job managing information — presumably referring to publicity about attorney layoffs, partner departures and financial results — Altorelli said:

“In most law firms, I think, as good as the lawyers are at advising clients, they’re not as good at taking their own advice. They are surprisingly obtuse when it comes to their own situation.”

He then proceeded to reveal himself as someone surprisingly obtuse about his own situation. Before listing those inadvertent revelations, consider how Altorelli himself embodies the lateral partner hiring phenomenon that has overtaken much of big law as a dominant business strategy.

The revolving lateral door

After  graduating from Cornell Law School in 1993, Altorelli made his way through four law firms in only fourteen years — LeBeouf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, Paul Hastings, Reed Smith, and Dewey Ballantine (shortly after the collapse of Dewey’s merger talks with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and a few months before its October 2007 merger with his original firm, LeBeouf Lamb). Such a journey is not likely to produce deep institutional loyalties anywhere.

He’s not unique. For example, as I composed this post The Wall Street Journal reported that Brette Simon had left Jones Day to join Bryan Cave. Since graduating in 1994, she’s also worked at O’Melveney & Myers, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton.

Still, Altorelli’s book of business apparently qualified him for a place on Dewey & LeBeouf’s executive committee. He says former chairman Steven H. Davis will “take the axe” for whatever is going wrong now, but surely the firm’s executive committee wasn’t a collection of potted plants. It seems improbable that Davis alone could have forged and executed Dewey initiatives that issued bonds and used guaranteed multi-year compensation contracts to lure prominent lateral partners.

But now Altorelli says: “The only people who need contracts are those who are not so secure. I feel bad that firms have to go that way, in competition for laterals and the like.”

Not my fault

Then again, Altorelli also suggests that management hasn’t contributed to Dewey’s current problems. Rather, it was just “bad timing” of a long recession that didn’t allow the firm to burn off expenses associated with the Dewey-LeBeouf merger: “We kept thinking it’ll get better tomorrow, then it doesn’t get better. The next thing you know it’s been four years.”

Magical thinking rarely results in a winning strategic plan. Curiously, Altorelli also notes that during that same period while he was at the firm, he and Dewey prospered: “I had five of the best years of my career.”

As he headed for his fifth big firm in nineteen years, Altorelli offered several additional insights that qualify for stand alone Unfortunate Comment Awards, especially coming from one of the firm’s recent executive committee members who professes continuing hope for Dewey’s future:

— “I’m not sure how they can weather the departures.”

— “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say, I don’t know how many more they can suffer.”

— “[There] could be a survival path for a smaller Dewey. I don’t know how that would work. They seem to have a strategy. Or the firm will be busted up into a bunch of little pieces and survive in the hearts and souls of a lot of good people.”

Yet perhaps the unkindest cut of all came in contrasting his professional life at Dewey with things that will be better at DLA Piper, where he will serve on its executive committee:

“Altorelli says he was drawn to his new firm by the chance to help change the way he practices law. Altorelli…says the firm is experimenting with ways to ‘try to get back to more of an intellectual pursuit, rather than just grinding out the paper.'”

If Altorelli’s interview had appeared five days earlier, I would have looked for this concluding line: “April Fool!”

Just delete “April.”

DEWEY’S DILEMMA

Dewey & LeBoeuf has talented lawyers, great clients, and 2011 average equity partner profits exceeding $1.7 million. So what required a March 2 firmwide memo from Chairman Steven H. Davis in response to “press stories on U.S. legal blogs”? If the firm paid some media relations consultant to advise him on the missive, it should demand a refund.

Lessons about communicating

Davis says that he planned to outline cost-cutting and other measures when he “knew exactly how they would impact individual offices and departments, but given the press attention,” he advanced his timetable. There’s the first lesson to learn from his approach: When management makes decisions, it shouldn’t attribute the timing of announcements to outside media influences, even if they are a factor.

The second lesson is to avoid firmwide memoranda on sensitive issues. That’s not because transparency is bad (although sometimes less is more). Rather, it’s because difficult news should be communicated in a way that best serves the institution, its people, and its clients.

In the age of global mega-firms, it’s difficult to bring all personnel — or even all partners — together for a candid conversation about what’s happening and why. But there’s no better use for all of that fancy videoconferencing technology than promoting the right narrative, rallying the troops, and instructing partners to inform clients and staff directly about internal firm situations that generate press.

Mixed messages

The substance of the memo presents other issues. Davis starts with the “many successes last year” and “improved financial performance” in 2011 that continued during the first two months of 2012. The problem, he suggests, is a “significant increase in our cost base.” Taking “proactive steps to align the firm’s resources with anticipated demand,” he notes that “[s]ome recent departures have been consistent with the firm’s strategic planning for 2012, and we expect some additional partners to leave.”

That leads to a third lesson about these situations. If a firm is pushing some partners out, don’t make a big deal about it while also touting the firm’s improved financial performance. As they’re losing their jobs, let subpar performers who were once valued firm assets keep their dignity. In fact, public characterizations invite scrutiny. For example, attrition and pruning are one thing, but did the firm’s strategic plan really contemplate losing current and former practice group leaders?

Then comes the punch line: the firm will reduce another five percent of attorneys and six percent of staff. Perhaps, as Davis suggests, the firm does “very much regret the impact” on affected colleagues, but with average equity partner earnings well above the million dollar mark, describing layoffs of 50 to 60 lawyers as “necessary to ensure the firm’s competitiveness” seems disingenuous to most observers.

Misleading metric?

Underlying all of this could be the fact that a key firm metric — average equity partner profits — is misleading. Perhaps, like many big firm trends, the real story is the internal gap between the highest and lowest equity partners.

According to the February issue of The American Lawyer, “Davis says that the firm resisted making mass lateral hires for three years after it was created in October 2007 through the merger of Dewey Ballantine and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, choosing to focus on integration first. ‘Now, we’re moving into a new part of the cycle….'”

One new part of the cycle is lateral partner hiring, for which Dewey was among the top ten firms in 2011. Some of its newest partners were probably expensive, such as former chairs of their previous firms’ practice areas. In 2009, Davis said that the firm rewarded superior performance and denied giving compensation guarantees to rainmakers. If, as recent reports suggest, that policy changed, guarantees could present risks. When a lateral bubble pops, it can inflict significant collateral damage.

Even so, Dewey remains a great firm. On the strength of its ranking surge from 33 to 14 in the Midlevel Associate Satisfaction survey, together with its numerous awards for diversity and pro bono initatives, the firm made the 2011 Am Law “A-list.” That requires decent people creating a culture worth preserving. Hopefully, “moving to the new part of the cycle” hasn’t taken the firm in an errant direction — or, alternatively, any detour is temporary.