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.

A FOOL FOR A CLIENT

Abraham Lincoln often gets credit for the line, but in 1814 clergyman Henry Kett’s collection of proverbs in The Flowers of Wit included, “I hesitate not to pronounce that every man who is his own lawyer has a fool for client.”

More than two centuries later, it’s still true. But don’t tell Stephen DiCarmine, former executive director of the now-defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf. He doesn’t believe it. Recently, he appeared before Acting Justice Robert Stolz and explained that he wants to fire his attorney and represent himself.

Last year, three weeks of deliberation following a three-month trial produced a defense verdict on some counts and a deadlocked jury on the remaining charges against DiCarmine, former firm chairman Steven Davis, and former chief financial officer Joel Sanders. Davis then entered into a deferred prosecution agreement and Justice Stolz dismissed additional counts. Retrial on the remaining charges against DiCarmine and Sanders is set for September.

Judicial Skepticism

“The consequences are very severe in this case,” Justice Stolz told DiCarmine. “You could go to state prison if convicted.”

DiCarmine thinks he knows better. A graduate of California Western School of Law in 1983, he told the judge that he had discussed the issue with several lawyer friends. Their reactions: “Bad idea.”

But DiCarmine heard what he wanted to hear. At least, that’s what he told the judge: “They said if anyone can do it, you can do it.”

The truth is that when incarceration is a potential outcome, no one can do it. And no one should try. Gideon v. Wainwright’s guarantee of a right to counsel in criminal cases exists for a reason. And it doesn’t matter if the defendant is a lawyer.

Justice Stolz warned DiCarmine that he might think he knows what the case is all about because he’s been through it once. “But I assure you,” he urged, “it will be a different jury. It will be a different presentation from the People.”

An Unfortunate Moment

DiCarmine’s current lawyer, Austin Campriello, did a masterful job at the first trial. For good reason, he’s among the most highly respected criminal defense lawyers in New York. Campriello told the court that although his client’s finances were a factor, the motivating reason for DiCarmine’s request related to defense strategy.

DiCarmine then offered an unfortunate comment that unfairly tarred other big firms.

“I’ve run a law firm,” DiCarmine said. “When the client is not paying the bill, the services that are being rendered are not necessarily the same as if he were being paid.”

Nonsense. He displayed a remarkable ignorance of what the lawyers in his firm were actually doing while he was “running” it. Directly, he insulted all former Dewey & LeBoeuf attorneys who worked on pro bono matters. Indirectly, he put a cloud over the noble efforts of big firm lawyers who provide millions of dollars in free legal services to clients every year. Implicit in his remarks are widespread violations of ethical rules to advocate on behalf of all clients with the same seal. Those rules apply to all lawyers.

Natural Consequences

Justice Stolz properly put DiCarmine in his place, saying that Campriello would work to the best of his professional capacity, regardless of DiCarmine’s financial situation. He also told DiCarmine to think long and hard about his pro se request before the next hearing on May 27.

DiCarmine seeks to jettison a great lawyer for someone who, apparently, has been in a courtroom only as a witness or a defendant — that is, himself. It reminds me of the joke that one of my mentors told about the importance of using experienced trial lawyers in important cases.

“A patient goes to a doctor with a serious medical condition for which there is an elaborate surgical cure,” the joke begins. “The doctor describes in great detail how the procedure will go — start to finish. The patient is impressed, but has one more question: ‘How many of these operations have you performed?’ the patient asks. ‘Oh, none,’ says the doctor, ‘But I’ve watch a lot of them.'”

Revise the scenario slightly so that the doctor has observed the procedure only once — and is going to perform it on himself. Now you have a sense of DiCarmine’s plan.

THE LATEST BIG LAW FIRM STRATEGY: PERFECTING ERROR

NOTE: Amazon is running a promotion. The KINDLE version of my novel, The Partnership, is available as a free download from March 30 through April 3, 2016.

Two months ago in “Big Law Leaders Perpetuating Mistakes,” I outlined evidence of failure that most big law firm leaders ignore. Back in December 2011, I’d covered the topic in “Fed to Death” The recently released trade paperback version of my latest book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis, includes an extensive new afterword that begins, “The more things change…”

The failure is a ubiquitous strategy: aggressive inorganic growth. In response to facts and data, big law firm leaders aren’t stepping back to take a long, hard look at the wisdom of the approach. Instead, they’re tinkering at the margins in the desperate attempt to turn a loser into a winner. To help them, outside consultants — perennial enablers of big law firms’ worst impulses — have developed reassuring and superficially appealing metrics. For anyone who forgot, numbers are the answer to everything.

Broken Promises

One measure of failure is empirical. Financially, many lateral partners aren’t delivering on their promises to bring big client billings with them. Even self-reporting managing partners admit that only about half of their lateral hires are above breakeven (however they measure it), and the percentage has been dropping steadily. In “How to Hire a Home-Run Lateral? Look at Their Stats,” MP McQueen of The American Lawyer writes that the “fix” is underway: more than 20 percent of Am Law 200 firms are now using techniques made famous by the book and movie “Moneyball.”

“Using performance-oriented data, firms try to create profiles of the types of lawyers they need to hire to help boost profits, then search for candidates who fit the profile,” McQueen reports. “They may also use the tools to estimate whether a certain candidate would help the firm’s bottom line.”

There’s an old computer programmer’s maxim: “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Useless Data

Unlike baseball’s immutable data about hits, runs, strikeouts, walks, and errors, assessing attorney talent is far more complicated and far less objective. Ask a prospective lateral partner about his or her billings. Those expecting an honest answer deserve what they get. Ask the partner whether billings actually reflect clients and work that will make the move to a new firm. Even the partner doesn’t know the answer to that one.

Group Dewey Consulting’s Eric Dewey, who is appropriately skeptical about using prescriptive analytics in this process, notes, “An attorney needs to bring roughly 70 percent of their book of business with them within 12 months just to break even.” He also observes that more than one-third bring with them less than 50 percent.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with assessing the likely value that a strategically targeted lateral hire might bring to the firm. And there’s nothing wrong with using data to inform decisions. But that’s different from using flawed numerical results to justify growth for the sake of growth.

Becoming What You Eat

Beyond the numbers is an even more important reality. Partners who might contribute to a firm’s short-term bottom line may have a more important long-term cultural impact. It might even be devastating.

Dewey & LeBoeuf — no relation to Group Dewey Consulting — learned that lesson the hard way. During the years prior to its collapse, the firm hired dozens of lateral rainmakers. But as the firm was coming apart in early 2012, chairman Steven H. Davis was wasting his breath when he told fellow partners there wasn’t enough cash to pay all of them everything they thought they deserved: “I have the sense that we have lost our focus on our culture and what it means to be a Dewey & LeBoeuf partner.”

Half of the partners he was addressing had been lateral hires over the previous five years. Most of them had joined the firm because it promised them more money. They hadn’t lost their focus on culture. They had redefined it.

DEWEY, THE D.A., AND SECRETS

“There aren’t too many secrets in this case,” said Judge Robert Stoltz on December 5. He was referring to the Dewey & LeBoeuf trial over which he presided. The multi-year effort to convict Steven Davis, Stephen DiCarmine, and Joel Sanders produced a raft of acquittals on many charges and a hung jury on the more serious offenses.

Actually, there are two big secrets in the case, but no one is talking about them.

Secret #1: Why Zachary Warren?

Former Dewey chairman Steven H. Davis won’t face a retrial. Assistant DA Peirce Moser has offered him a deferred prosecution agreement. As reported, he will not have to admit guilt and can continue practicing law. When my kids were young, they would have called this a “do-over.”

Judge Stoltz’s reference to secrets was in response to Moser’s suggestion that the retrial of executive director DiCarmine and finance director Sanders should precede the first trial of former low-level staffer Zachary Warren. The longer Warren dangled in a world of uncertainty, the more leverage it would give Moser in his relentless pursuit of someone who never should have been indicted in the first place. Appropriately, the judge denied Moser’s request.

That leads to secret number one: Why is the Manhattan DA’s office squandering its scarce resources to pursue Zachary Warren at all?

I’ve written extensively about Warren’s plight. At age 24, he worked at Dewey & LeBoeuf for about a year from mid-2008 to mid-2009 as a client relations specialist. His principal job was to pester Dewey & LeBoeuf partners into making sure clients paid their bills.

Apparently, his mistake of a lifetime came on December 30, 2008. That’s when he accepted an invitation to join 29-year-old finance director Frank Canellas and 53-year-old chief financial officer Sanders for dinner at Del Frisco’s steakhouse. There he allegedly witnessed the creation of what the DA’s office called a master plan of accounting fraud. As his price for that free dinner, Warren would get indicted five years later.

When Zachary Warren left Dewey & LeBoeuf in June 2009, did anyone in the world think that the firm was unlikely to repay its bills, much less collapse — ever? No.

In 2010, was Warren even at the firm as others worked on the bond offering at the center of the DA’s case? No, he was a one-L at Georgetown.

Even if obtained, would a conviction of Warren result in anything positive for anyone inside or outside our justice system? No.

Warren’s indictment was a travesty. The jury’s rejection of the DA’s case against his superiors is reason alone to drop the effort to prosecute him.

Unsatisfying Answers

So why is Moser so determined to try Zach Warren? One possibility is that the same phenomena contributing to Dewey & LeBoeuf’s downfall infects the DA’s office: hubris, ego, lack of accountability for mistakes, and an unwillingness to admit errors that would prompt thoughtful individuals to change course. Maybe it’s a lawyer personality thing.

Another possibility is the public servant manifestation of greed: the DA wants to put a Dewey & Le Boeuf notch — any Dewey & LeBoeuf notch — on its convictions holster. After Cyrus Vance, Jr. personally announced the indictments in a circus-like press conference on March 6, 2014, Moser suffered unambiguous defeat. In fact, even the plea agreements that the DA’s office squeezed from former firm staffers who later testified at trial now look silly. Unfortunately, the resulting penalties aren’t silly for those who are stuck with them.

To put the DA’s pursuit of Zachary Warren in context consider this. According to published reports, assistant DA Peirce Moser has offered him a plea deal, too. But it is more onerous than the DA’s deferred prosecution agreement with Davis.

There is no just world in which that makes any sense.

Secret #2: Where is the Money?

Prosecutors told the jury that it would not see a “smoking gun.” That’s because the DA didn’t know how to look for or describe it. But the gun was there. It was pervasive, insidious, and hiding in plain sight. It was the environment that caused staffers to fear for their jobs if powerful partners weren’t happy. That meant making sure they received millions more than the firm had available to distribute, even if it came from bank credit lines and outside investors in the firm’s 2010 bond offering.

That leads to secret number two: Why didn’t the DA follow the money?

The public could have reasonably expected Vance to direct the power of his office toward the most egregious offenders and offenses. That didn’t happen. Sure, Davis had a major responsibility for the strategy that brought the firm down. But the executive committee consisted of top partners who were supposed to be fiduciaries in running the firm for the benefit of all partners and the institution. Likewise, as most of the firm’s so-called leaders walked away with millions — far more than Davis, DiCarimine, Sanders, or Warren received — bankruptcy creditors got between five and fifteen cents for every dollar the firm owed them.

In a November 2012 bankruptcy court filing, Davis himself teed up what should have been the central issue in any attempt to assign blame for the firm’s problems:

“While ‘greed’ is a theme…, the litigation that eventually ensues will address the question of whose greed.”

The DA’s office never pursued that question.

Just Rewards

Shortly after Vance’s March 2014 press conference, assistant district attorney Peirce Moser received a promotion. He became chief of the tax crimes unit. The DA’s office announced that Moser’s new position would not preclude him from continuing to run the Dewey & LeBoeuf case. Based on his prominence at the most recent court hearing, it’s still Moser’s case.

If no good deed goes unpunished, sometimes it seems that no bad deed goes unrewarded.

DEWEY: 10 LESSONS LOST

biglaw-450

National news organizations began working on stories about the verdicts in the Dewey & LeBoeuf case long before the jury’s deliberations ended.

“What are the lessons?” several reporters asked me.

My initial inclination was to state the obvious: Until the jury renders its decision, who can say? But that would be an unfortunately limited way of viewing the tragedy that befell a once noble law firm. In fact, the trial obscured the most important lessons to be learned from the collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Lesson #1: You Are What You Eat

During the twelve months prior to the firms’ October 2007 merger, Dewey Ballantine hired 30 lateral partners; LeBoeuf Lamb hired 19. The combined firm continued that trend as Dewey & LeBoeuf became one of the top 10 firms in lateral recruiting. By 2011, 50 percent of the firm’s partners were post-2005 laterals into Dewey & LeBoeuf or its predecessors.

A partnership of relative strangers is not well-positioned to withstand adversity.

Lesson #2: Mind the Gap

To accomplish aggressive lateral hiring often means overpaying for talent and offering multi-year compensation promises. By 2012, Dewey & LeBoeuf’s ratio of highest-to-lowest paid equity partners was 20-to-1.

A lopsided, eat-what-you-kill partnership of haves and have-nots has difficulty adhering to a common mission.

Lesson #3: Not All Partners Are Partners

One corollary to a vast income gap within the equity ranks is the resulting partnership-within-a-partnership. As those at the top focus on the short-term interests of a select few, the long-run health of the institution suffers.

A partnership within a partnership can be a dangerous management structure.

Lesson #4: The Perils of Confirmation Bias

Firm leaders and their fellow partners are vulnerable to the same psychological tendencies that afflict us all. When former Dewey chairman Steven H. Davis held fast to his perennial view that better times were just around the corner, fellow partners wanted to believe him.

Magical thinking is not a business strategy.

Lesson #5: Short-termism Can Be Lethal

Short-term thinking dominates our society, even for people who view themselves as long-term strategists. At Dewey, the need to maximize current year partner profits and distribute cash to some partners overwhelmed any long-term vision that Davis sought to pursue.

In the not-so-long run, a firm can die.

Lesson #6: Behavior Follows Incentive Structures

Most firms hire lateral partners because they will add clients and billings. To prove their worth, laterals build client silos to prevent others from developing relationships with “their clients.” Similarly, there’s no incentive for partners in “eat-what-you-kill” firms to mentor young attorneys or facilitate the smooth intergenerational transition of client relationships.

Over time, the whole can become far less than the sum of its parts.

Lesson #7: Disaster Is Closer Than You Think

When the central feature of a firm’s culture is ever-increasing partner profits, even small dips become magnified. Incomes that are staggering to ordinary workers become insufficient to keep restless partners from finding a new place to work.

Death spirals accelerate.

Lesson #8: Underlings Beware

On cross-examination, some of the prosecution’s witnesses testified that at the time they made various accounting adjustments to Dewey’s books, they didn’t think they’d done anything wrong. But now they are parties to plea agreements that could produce prison time.

Deciding that something isn’t wrong is not always the same as determining that it’s right.

Lesson #9: Greed Governs

Who among the Dewey partners received the $150 million in bond proceeds from the firm’s 2010 bond offering? I posed that question a year ago and we still don’t know the answer. During the first five months of 2012 — as the firm was in its death throes — a small group of 25 partners received $21 million while the firm drew down its bank credit lines. Who masterminded that strategy?

In a November 2012 filing with the Dewey bankruptcy court, Steven Davis explained why Dewey collapsed: “While ‘greed’ is a theme…, the litigation that eventually ensues will address the question of whose greed.” (Docket #654) He was referring to some of his former partners who ignored the role that fortuity had played in creating their personal wealth.

Hubris is a powerfully destructive force.

Lesson #10: Superficial Differences Don’t Change Outcomes

For the three years that Dewey has been in the news, many big law firm leaders have been performing the task at which attorneys excel: distinguishing adverse precedent. In great detail, they explain all of the ways that their firms are nothing like Dewey. But they fail to consider the more significant ways in which their firms are similar.

A walk past the graveyard is easier when you whistle. Louder is better. Extremely loud and running is best.

THE DEWEY TRIAL: FOUR EXAMPLES OF NOT-SO-FUNNY COMIC RELIEF

The ongoing criminal trial against three former leaders of Dewey & LeBoeuf has consumed six weeks. Time flies when you’re having fun. For example:

#1: Funny, If It Weren’t So Sad

For a bunch of smart people, some senior partners did some dumb things. One of the prosecution’s first witnesses was a former member of Dewey’s executive committee who retired at the end of 2010. She had contributed more than $600,000 in capital to the firm and, upon retirement, expected to get it back. Although the partnership agreement permitted the firm to spread the payments to her over three annual installments, she testified that chairman Steve Davis had discretion to accelerate them.

Davis declined her request to do so. Instead, he encouraged her to get a bank loan from Barclays for the full amount and told her that over the subsequent three years the firm would repay the loan for her. She followed his recommendation and borrowed the money.

The firm failed to repay the Barclays loan. She remained on the hook and paid the full amount herself. Adding insult to injury, she lost again when the firm filed for bankruptcy and her $175,000 annual pension disappeared.

#2: Funny, If You Were Not a Fellow Partner

For a bunch of high-powered former Dewey partners who rose to the very top of the firm, titles typically associated with power didn’t mean leadership. Likewise, becoming a member of the firm’s governing structure apparently didn’t result in any duties or responsibilities that involved actual knowledge of the firm’s finances or operations.

For example, during the fifth week of trial, Ralph Ferrara testified that even though he had no equity stake in the firm, he held an impressive title — vice chairman — and had an agreement whereby the firm paid him a salary around $5 million a year. He told the jury that former chairman Steven Davis’ announcement that Ferrara would assume the vice-chairmanship became an offer that he couldn’t refuse.

“I’m embarrassed to say, my ego overcame my good judgment,” Ferrara, a former general counsel of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, said on the witness stand.

That line could describe leaders of big law firms everywhere. But it’s a flimsy excuse for abdicating responsibilities that come with power. So is another of Ferrara’s quoted lines: “I’m a practicing lawyer. I’m not a law firm administrator.”

Dewey’s other vice-chairman was Mort Pierce. As the firm was failing and Pierce was jumping ship in 2012, he similarly disclaimed any leadership responsibilities associated with his title and position.

#3: Funny, For a Lawyer

For a bunch of lawyers who make a lot of money advising clients not to write stupid stuff, some of them sure wrote stupid stuff. As the trial plodded through its fifth week, the jury saw these colorful messages from former Dewey partner Alexander Dye:

“Fellas: Time to start spending Momma LeBoeuf’s money like its water.”

“Steve DiCarmine, if you are reading this, I’ll have your f-cking head on a stick.”

During week six, one former executive committee member, Richard Shutran, testified about his internal firm emails, including these nuggets:

“I spend most days bulls–ing people…”

“Do what I do. Work out a lot and do drugs…”

“If he calls me, I’ll kill him…”

A defense attorney for Dewey’s former chief financial officer Joel Sanders had Shutran explain that these were all jokes. Apparently, the strategy is to convince the jury that Shutran’s email jests were part of a culture producing defendants’ supposed email “jokes” about finding “a clueless auditor” and using “fake income” in crafting the firm’s financial statements. Good luck with that one.

#4: Funny, If You’re Not A Juror

At the end of week six, jurors listened as the presiding trial judge, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Robert Stoltz, interrupted Stephen DiCarmine’s defense counsel in mid-question. He wanted counsel to explain a term he was using in cross-examining Dewey’s former budget and planning director:

“What does the phrase ‘unreconciled expense write-off’ mean?”

Riveting.

Only three more months to go.

THE DEWEY TRIAL: TRUTH, JUSTICE, OR NEITHER?

[NOTE: My recent post, “Cravath Gets It Right, Again,” was a BigLaw Pick of the Week.]

***

“Not all the evidence that you hear and see will be riveting,” said Steve Pilnyak last Tuesday as he opened the prosecution’s case against three former leaders of the now-defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf. The judge warned jurors that they will probably be there past Labor Day. The antagonists will present dueling views of what the New York Times called “arcane accounting treatments and year-end adjustments” three years before Dewey’s collapse. As you read between the yawns, watch to see if the trial leaves the most important questions about the final days of a storied firm unanswered.

Victims?

The prosecution’s case requires victims. It settled on insurance companies who bought the firm’s bonds in 2010 and big banks that lent the firm money for years. We’ll see how that plays, but it’s difficult to imagine aggrieved parties that would generate less juror sympathy than insurers and Wall Street bankers. Then again, rich lawyers aren’t exactly the most desirable defendants, either.

The prosecution’s cooperating witnesses will take the stand to explain what it calls a “Master Plan” of accounting adjustments that are the centerpiece of the case. The battle of experts over those adjustments is more likely to induce sleep than courtroom fireworks.

Villains?

If you think former firm chairman Steven Davis and his two co-defendants, Stephen DiCarmine and Joel Sanders, are the only villains in this saga, you’re allowing the trees to obscure a view of the forest. In that respect, the trial will fail at its most fundamental level if it doesn’t address a central question in the search for justice among Dewey’s ruins: Who actually received — and kept — the hundreds of millions of dollars that entered the firm’s coffers as a result of the allegedly fraudulent bond offering and bank loans?

As the firm collapsed in early 2012, it drew down tens of millions of dollars from bank credit lines while simultaneously distributing millions to Dewey partners. As I’ve reported previously, during the five months from January to May 2012 alone, a mere 25 Dewey partners received a combined $21 million. Are they all defendants in the Manhattan District Attorney’s criminal case? Nope. Will we learn the identity of those 25 partners, as well was the others who received all of that borrowed money? I hope so.

Shortly after those 2012 distributions, Wall Street Journal reporters asked former Dewey partner Martin Bienenstock whether the firm used those bank loans to fund partner distributions. Bienenstock replied, “Look, money is fungible.”

It sounds like his answer to the question was yes.

Unwitting Accomplices?

With respect to the proceeds from Dewey’s $150 million bond offering, the picture is murkier, thanks to protective cover from the bankruptcy court. When Judge Martin Glenn approved a Partner Contribution Plan, he capped each participating partner’s potential financial obligation to Dewey’s creditors at a level so low that unsecured creditors had a likely a recovery of only 15 cents for every dollar the firm owed them. That was a pretty good deal for Dewey’s partners.

But here’s the more important point. As it approved that deal, the court did not require the firm to reveal who among Dewey’s partners received the $150 million bond money. In calculating each partner’s required contribution to the PCP, only distributions after January 1, 2011 counted. The PCP excluded consideration of any amounts that partners received in 2010, including the bond money. That meant they could keep all of it.

In light of the bankruptcy code‘s two-year “look back” period, that seemed to be a peculiar outcome. Under the “look back” rule, a debtor’s asset transfers to others within two years of its bankruptcy filing are subject to special scrutiny that is supposed to protect against fraudulent transfers.

Dewey filed for bankruptcy on May 28, 2012. The “look back” period would have extended all the way to May 28, 2010 — thereby including distributions of the bond proceeds to partners. Which partners received that money and how much did they get? We don’t know.

Connecting Dots

As the firm’s death spiral became apparent, a four-man office of the chairman — one of whom was Bienenstock — took the leadership reins from Steven Davis in March 2012. A month later, it fired him. In an October 12, 2012 Wall Street Journal interview, Bienenstock described himself as part of a team that, even before the firm filed for bankruptcy, came up with the idea that became the PCP. He called it an “insurance policy” for partners.

Taking Bienenstock’s “money is fungible” and “insurance policy” comments together leads to an intriguing hypothetical. Suppose that a major management objective during the firm’s final months was to protect distributions that top partners had received from the 2010 bond offering. Suppose further that in early 2012 some of those partners also received distributions that the firm’s bank loans made possible. Finally, suppose that those partners used their bank loan-funded distributions to make their contributions to the PCP — the “insurance policy” that absolved them of Dewey’s obligations to creditors.

When the complete story of Dewey gets told, the end game could be its climax. It could reveal that a relatively few partners at the top of the firm won; far more partners, associates, staff, and creditors lost.

Or maybe I’m wrong and the only villains in this sad saga are the three defendants currently on trial. But I don’t think so.