THE CULTURE OF CONTRADICTIONS

In an ironic twist, the latest Client Advisory from the Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group and Hildebrandt Consulting warns: “Law firms discount or ignore firm culture at their peril.” Really?

Law firm management consultants have played central roles in creating the pervasive big law firm culture. But that culture seldom includes “collegiality and a commitment to share profits in a fair and transparent manner,” which Citi and Hildebrandt now suggest are vital. For years, mostly non-lawyer consultants have encouraged managing partners to focus myopically on business school-type metrics that maximize short-term profits. The report reveals the results: the unpleasant culture of most big firms.

Determinants of culture

For example, the report notes, associate ranks have shrunk in an effort to increase their average billable hours. That’s how firms have enhanced what Hildebrandt and CIti continue to misname “productivity.” From the client’s perspective, rewarding total time spent to achieve an outcome is the opposite of true productivity.

Likewise, the report notes that along with the reduction in the percentage of associates, the percentage of income (non-equity) partners has almost doubled since 2001. Hildebrandt and Citi view this development as contributing to the squeeze on partner profits. But income partners have become profit centers for most firms. As a group, they command higher hourly rates, suffer fewer write-offs, and enjoy bigger realizations.

From the standpoint of a firm’s culture, a class of permanent income partners can be a morale buster. That’s especially true where the increase in income partners results from fewer internal promotions to equity partner. Comparing 2007 to 2011, the percentage of new equity partner promotions of home-grown talent dropped by 21 percent.

Lateral culture?

In contrast to the more daunting internal path to equity partnership, laterals have thrived and the income gap within most equity partnerships has grown dramatically. “Lateral hiring is more popular than ever,” the report observes. In contrast to the drop in internal promotions, new equity partner lateral additions increased by 10 percent from 2007 to 2011.

This intense lateral activity is stunning in light of its dubious benefits to the firms involved. The report cites Citi’s 2012 Law Firm Leaders Survey: 40 percent of respondents admitted that their lateral hires were “unsuccessful” or “break even.” The remaining 60 percent characterized the results as “successful” or “very successful,” but for two reasons, that number overstates reality.

First, it typically takes a year or more to determine the net financial impact of a lateral acquisition. Most managing partners have no idea whether the partners they’ve recruited over the past two years have produced positive or negative net economic contributions. For a tutorial on the subject, see Edwin Reeser’s thorough and thoughtful analysis, “Pricing Lateral Hires.”

Second, when is the last time you heard a managing partner of a big firm admit to a mistake of any kind, much less a big error, such as hiring someone whom he or she had previously sold to fellow partners as a superstar lateral hire? These leaders may be lying to themselves, too, but in the process, they’re creating a lateral partner bubble.

Stability?

The Hildebrandt/Citi advisory gives a nod to institutional stability, mostly by observing that it’s disappearing: “The 21-year period of 1987-2007 witnessed 18 significant law firm failures. In recent years, that rate has almost doubled, with eight significant law firms failing in the last five years.” If you count struggling firms that merged to stave off dissolution, the recent number is much higher.

In a Bloomberg interview last October, Citi’s Dan DiPietro, chairman of the bank’s law firm group, said that he maintained a “somewhat robust watch list” of firms in potential trouble, ranging from “very slight concern to oh my God!”

Cognitive dissonance

Here’s a summary:

Culture is important, but associates’ productivity is a function of the hours they bill.

Culture is important, but associates face diminishing chances that years of loyalty to a single firm will result in promotion to equity partnership.

Culture is important, but lateral hiring to achieve revenue growth has become a central business strategy for many, if not most, big firms. It has also exacerbated internal equity partner income gaps.

Culture is important and, if a firm loses it, the resulting instability may cause that firm to disappear.

As you try to reconcile these themes, you’ll understand why, as with other Hildebrandt/Citi client advisories, the report’s final line is my favorite: “As always, we stand ready to assist our clients in meeting the challenges of today’s market.”

BAD NUMBERS REVEALING WORSE TRENDS

By now, everyone interested in the job prospects for new lawyers has seen two recent headline items:

— Nine months after graduation, only 55 percent of the class of 2011 had full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree, and

— The median starting salary for all employed attorneys in the class of 2011 has dropped to $60,000 — from $72,000 only two years earlier.

The New York City Bar Association just formed a task force to wring its hands over the lawyer oversupply crisis — as if it were something new. A closer analysis of the salary data reveals several underlying realities that are even worse than that declining number suggests.

Digging deeper

For example, NALP’s press release about the median salary number came with this concluding sentence: “Salary information was reported for 65% of graduates reported to be working full-time in a position lasting at least one year.” If that means 35 percent of such workers with full-time jobs didn’t report their salary information, then the published median probably overstates the actual number — perhaps by a lot.

more detailed breakdown reveals that for the class of 2011, the $40,000 to $65,000 category accounted for 52 percent of all reported salaries. Compare that to the class of 2009: Two years ago, starting salaries of between $40,000 and $65,000 accounted for 42 percent of reported salaries. Today, more new lawyers are working for less money, but they’re still the lucky ones — law graduates who got full-time jobs.

The trend in law firm starting salaries is more dramatic: The median starting salary for law firms of all sizes dropped from $130,000 in 2009 to $85,000 in 2011.

Whither big law?

Two more bits of information offer some insight into what’s happening in the biggest law firms:

Only eight percent of 2011 graduates landed jobs in big firms of more than 250 attorneys.

— Entry level jobs that paid $160,000 a year accounted for only 16 percent of reported salaries in 2011. Even for the class of 2009 — graduating into the teeth of the Great Recession and widespread big firm layoffs — the $160,000 category accounted for 25 percent of reported salaries. And the 2009 denominator was bigger: 19,513 reported salaries v. 18,630 salaries in 2011. Importantly, the decline hasn’t resulted because big law firms have reduced their starting salaries; most haven’t.

Rather, as NALP’s Executive Director James Leipold explains, “[T]he downward shift in salaries is not, for the most part, the result of individual legal employers paying new graduates less than they paid them in the past. Although some firms have lowered their starting salaries, and we are starting to see a measurable impact from lower-paying non-partnership track lawyer jobs at large law firms, aggregate starting salaries have fallen over the last two years because graduates found fewer jobs with the highest-paying large law firms and many more jobs with lower-paying small law firms.”

Big law firms’ self-inflicted wounds

Surely, things are better than they were during the cataclysmic days of early 2009; equity partner profits have returned to pre-2008 peaks. So what’s happening? One answer is that large firms are increasing the ranks of non-equity partners. According to The American Lawyerthe number of non-equity partners grew by almost six percent in 2011. They now comprise fifteen percent of all attorneys in Am Law 100 firms.

As The American Lawyer’s editor in chief Robin Sparkman explains, “Some firms deequitized partners and pushed them into this holding pen. Other firms expanded the practice of moving potential equity partners (either homegrown or laterals) into this category — both to keep their PPP high and to give the lawyers a little breathing room before they face the rainmaking pressures of equity partnership.” I’d add one more category: some firms have increased the ranks of permanent non-equity partners.

Perilous short-termism

Edwin Reeser and Patrick McKenna have described how non-equity partners are profit centers. Keeping them around longer makes more money for equity partners, but creating that non-equity partner bubble comes at significant institutional costs. One is blockage.

For any firm, there’s only so much work to go around. Ultimately, the burgeoning ranks of non-equity partners has an adverse trickle down impact on those seeking to enter the big firm pipeline. Whether new graduates should have that aspiration is a different question, but the larger implications for the affected firms are clear: There’s less room for today’s brightest young law graduates.

Some leaders have decided that maximizing current equity partner profits is more important than securing, training and developing a future generation of talent for their law firms. Sooner than they realize, their firms will suffer the tragic consequences of that mistake.

THE NON-EQUITY PARTNER BUBBLE

In May 2009, The American Lawyer reported that Am Law 100 firms had increased the number of non-equity partners threefold since 1999, but the number of equity partners grew by less than one-third. As big law leaders continue to pull up the ladder, what will come from the growing cadre of partners-in-name-only? Other than some short-term money for equity partners, nothing good.

Historically, most two-tier firms employed a simple strategy for non-equity partners: up-or-out. Within a reasonable period of time (for no benign reason, it’s gotten longer), non-equity partners either proved themselves worthy of elevation or moved on. Limited exceptions included specialized niche players who could stay indefinitely.

An article in the February 2012 issue of The American Lawyer, “Crazy Like a Fox,” suggests another option: permanent non-equity partners.

The Economic Case

Authors Edwin B. Reeser and Patrick J. McKenna offer financial justifications for the strategy. First, they say, clients unwilling to pay high hourly rates for first- and second-year associates have an easier time swallowing non-equity partner rates, even though they are much greater.

Sometimes, maybe. But clients are now scrutinizing the match between attorneys and their tasks. Using an unnecessarily expensive non-equity partner to perform associate work is dangerous.

Second, they argue, associate recruitment and training are expensive, with each new associate costing $250,000 to $300,000. As a class, Reeser and McKenna assert, “associates do not make money for the firm until sometime in the end of the third or even the fourth year.”

Maybe. But at current hourly rates and required minimum billables, the payback is probably sooner. (Do the math using an average profit margin of forty percent, which is conservative.) But their larger point is correct: non-equity partners are a source of leverage that for the Am Law 50 has doubled since 1985 — from an average of 1.75 to 3.54.

The Problems

Whatever the debatable short-term economic gain, the long-run cost of expanding the non-equity ranks and making them permanent is far greater.

For starters, such lawyers become second class citizens. They know it. Everyone in the firm knows it. They may be decent, hard-working people. But once they receive the scarlet letter of permanent non-equity status, their morale plummets.

It’s understandable. After all, throughout their lives they succeeded at everything they tried — outstanding college record, good grades at a top law school. They’re intelligent and ambitious, otherwise firms wouldn’t have hired them in the first place. But then, after years of hard work they learn that they won’t reach the next level and never will. Only magical thinking can wish away the demoralizing impact of that message.

Any firm creating a permanent subclass of such attorneys takes an individual problem and makes it an institutional one. For example, if permanent non-equity partners do meaningful and fulfilling work, they’ll deprive younger attorneys of those increasingly scarce opportunities. That expands the morale problem into the senior associate ranks where career satisfaction languishes at historic lows.

Conversely, if the permanent non-equity partners are performing tasks that other attorneys avoid, that creates other difficulties. Reeser and McKenna note that such practitioners sometimes “take on non-billable leadership positions…involving pro bono, diversity, recruiting, training, and professional development.” Unfortunately, there’s no better way to send a message of management’s indifference to such pursuits than by putting the B-team in charge.

Finally, the authors suggest that a non-equity track enables firms to “retain some whiz-bang lawyers who have young children they want to spend more time with or who just want to get off the equity partner treadmill.” Remarkably, no one seems willing to rethink the wisdom of a system that produces that unhappy treadmill in the first place.

The presence of more non-equity partners in big law might simply be a residue of the enormous associate classes hired in earlier years. But for firms using them to create a permanent subclass generating short-term dollars, the strategy makes no long-term sense. Because there’s no metric to capture the downside, big law leaders will ignore it.

But if the trend continues, the non-equity partner bubble will grow and the prevailing big law model will develop another enduring chink in its increasingly fragile armor.