THE LATERAL BUBBLE

Most big law leaders say that they have to keep pushing equity partner profits higher to attract and retain rainmakers. They have repeated that mantra so often and for so long that the rest of the profession has accepted it as an article of faith.

Perhaps it’s true, but two items in the February issue of The American Lawyer prompt this heretical question:

What if the lateral hiring frenzy is creating a bubble?

Victor Li’s “This Time It’s Personal” describes the state of play: lateral hiring is way up. Law firm management consultants, including my friend Jerry Kowalski, predict more of the same for 2012 as firms counter revenue losses from departing partners to prevent the death spiral that can result. Such fear-driven behavior can easily lead to overpayment for so-called hot lateral prospects that turn out to be, well, not so hot.

As I’ve observed previously, the reasons for the lateral explosion have much to do with big law’s evolution. Its currently prevailing business model encourages partners to keep clients in individual silos away from fellow partners, lest they claim a share of billings that determine compensation. Paradoxically, such behavior also maximizes a partner’s lateral options and makes exit more likely. In other words, the institutional wounds are self-inflicted.

But the article quotes several firm leaders who emphasize that, while money was important in motivating some of the partners they acquired, the search for a global platform also mattered. Frank Burch, cochair of DLA Piper, acknowledges that enticing a lateral hire requires that the money offered be comparable. But he also says that his firm “did a lot of hiring from firms that reported higher profits per partner” than DLA Piper. The article cites four: Paul Hastings; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; White & Case; and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

Except “Crazy Like a Fox” by Edwin B. Reeser and Patrick J. McKenna (also in The American Lawyer February issue), makes the correct observation that a firm’s average PPP is not all that informative. The authors’ focus principally on the growing cohort of non-equity partners in a climate where clients are unwilling to pay for first- and second-year associates. But they make a telling point on a seemingly unrelated topic: the income gap within equity partnerships has exploded.

They note that a few years ago the equity partner pay spread was typically three-to-one; some places it’s now ten-to-one or even twelve-to-one:

“Over the last few years there has been a dramatic change in the balance of compensation, to a large degree undisclosed, in which increasing numbers of partners fall below the firm’s reported average profits per equity partner (PPP)…Typically, two-thirds of the equity partners earn less, and some earn only perhaps half, of the average PPP.”

(Trying to justify this trend, some firm leaders have offered silly explanations, such as geographical differences.)

Now apply this learning to Li’s article. A firm’s average PPP isn’t luring high-powered lawyers; the money at the top is. Perhaps the desire to provide clients with a better global platform plays a role in some laterals’ decisions, but most of the firms experiencing the highest number of lateral partner departures in 2011 are already worldwide players. In fact, four firms — DLA Piper, K&L Gates, Jones Day, and SNR Denton — are simultaneously on both the most departures and most hires list.

Consider an example. Last year when Jamie Wareham became big law’s highly public $5 million man, did leaving Paul Hastings for DLA Piper improve his ability to serve clients? Doubtful. But the bubble question is far more important to the firm: Has Wareham been worth it? Only he and his new partners know for sure.

That leads to a final heretical question: Where a lateral bubble develops, what happens when it bursts or, perhaps more pernicious, develops a slow profitability leak? Nothing good. For the answer, ask those who once worked at HowreyHeller Ehrman or one of the many other now-defunct firms whose leaders thought that acquiring high-profile laterals offered only upside.

THE ULTIMATE LATERAL HIRE

Among 2011’s “Lateral Partner All-Stars,” Tony Angel’s symbolic importance seems unrivaled. As I write, I don’t know who will make The American Lawyer‘s annual February list. But when Angel became DLA Piper’s leader, his new firm became the definitive poster child for big law’s transformation. Celebrate at your peril.

Whither goest thou?

DLA Piper resulted from the combination of several large firms comprised of once-independent enterprises: DLA’s three U.K. components were Dibb Lupton Broomhead, Alsop Stevens, and Wilkinson Kimbers; Piper Rudnick’s predecessors included Baltimore-based Piper & Marbury, Chicago-based Rudnick & Wolfe, and San Diego-based Gray, Cary, Ware & Freidenrich.

According to its website, DLA Piper grew from 2700 lawyers in January 2005 to 4200 today. The attorneys it added during that period would comprise one of the 20 largest firms in the world — eclipsing Kirkland & Ellis, Weil Gotshal & Manges, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

But is it really a law firm? K&L Gates chairman Peter Kalis makes the telling point that, as a verein, it may be more like a confederation of different firms that share a common name, but not profit pools. Still, adding 1500 attorneys in six years makes any observer wonder about DLA Piper’s global partner conferences. The 2010 meeting took place in Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. There’s a metaphor in there someplace.

Ascertaining shared values and visions

According to Am Law Daily, the whirlwind courtship between Angel and DLA Piper began with a May 2011 breakfast meeting that included Frank Burch and others on the leadership team. The idea of naming him global co-chair gained momentum as Angel lined up partner support from the firm’s 76 offices. On November 7, he got the top spot. How?

“He’s got great values and he believes in what we’re trying to do and he shares our view of what’s going on in the world,” said Burch, who now shares DLA Piper’s global chair with Tony Angel. “So, we didn’t hesitate for a second and worry about the fact that the guy was not in the firm.”

Didn’t hesitate for a second? Didn’t worry about the fact that the guy was not in the firm? Why not? When Burch said that Angel has “great values,” “believes in what we’re trying to do,” and “shares our view,” what did he mean?

DLA Piper’s press release offered a hint:

“Tony will work with the senior leadership on the refinement and execution of DLA Piper’s global strategy with a principal focus on improving financial performance and developing capability in key markets.”

Translation: Get bigger and make surviving equity partners richer.

Consultant Peter Zeughauser said that Angel is a hot property: “It’s hard to get a guy that talented. There just aren’t that many people out there who have done what he has done.”

Zeughauser was referring to Angel’s management of Linklaters from 1998 to 2007. When he left, it had a global presence and average partner profits of $2.4 million. Although DLA Piper’s 2010 average partner profits exceeded $1 million in 2010, Angel’s job is to take them even higher.

Ignored in the financial shorthand are questions no one asks:

— Most big firms prospered wildly during big law’s go-go years. Does the person at the top deserve all the credit? The partners who bring in clients, orchestrate deals, and win trials don’t think so.

— Conversely, according to Am Law‘s Global 100, by 2010 Linklater’s 2010 average profits per partner slipped to $1.8 million. Does anyone think that happened because Angel left three years earlier? Not likely.

— What gets sacrificed in the myopic quest for growth and short-term profits? That’s becoming clearer: things that aren’t easily quantified, including a sense of community and a culture that mentors home-grown talent from which a firm’s future leaders can emerge.

Rather than consider the heresy implicit in such questions, the spin zone focuses on what legal headhunter Jack Zaremski called a “brave move” that “might very well pay off.”

Pay off, indeed. In the latest Am Law Mid-level Associates Survey, DLA Piper ranked 99th out of 126 firms. In reviewing their shared values and vision, did Angel and his new DLA Piper partners discuss the rewards that might come with addressing the firm’s attorney morale problems?

Probably not. After all, Linklaters ranked 108th.