HOWREY’S LESSONS — PART II

I wasn’t going to write another article about Howrey. But then I read chairman Robert Ruyak’s explanations for his firm’s collapse, together with columnist Peggy Noonan’s review of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s new book. The two men have more in common than the first two letters of their last names. Both are at the center of dramatically unfortunate episodes that occurred on their respective watches. Both look for villains and miss the bigger picture.

Former Reagan speechwriter and conservative columnist Noonan opens her review with this: “I found myself flinging his book against the wall in hopes I would break its stupid little spine…You’d expect [Rumsfeld] to be reflective, to be self-questioning, and questioning of others, and to grapple with the ruin…He heard all the conversations. He was in on the decisions. You’d expect him to explain the overall, overarching strategic thinking that guided them. Since those decisions are in the process of turning out badly,…you’d expect him to critique and correct certain mindsets so that [others] will learn.” He doesn’t.

Those words also describe Ruyak’s unsatisfying explanations for Howrey’s failure:

1.  European offices:

“The real problem we ran into in Europe was conflicts of interest…It’s a different analysis in Europe. But we had to apply the U.S. standards across Europe. That made it difficult to grow because we had to forgo a lot of cases…”

Analysis of potential conflicts issues should have anchored any business plan that began with London (2001) and continued with high-powered lateral acquisitions in Brussels (2002), Amsterdam (2003), Paris (2005), Munich (2007), and Madrid (2008). By July 2008, Howrey was Managing Intellectual Property‘s “Top U.S. Firm in Europe” with more than 100 lawyers there and plans for more.

More importantly, firms survive conflicts-related departures. But here, 26 European lawyers (12 partners, 14 associates) in October 2010 supposedly set off a chain reaction that crushed an otherwise healthy, 550-attorney firm that, only a decade earlier, had no European presence.

2.  Document discovery vendors.

“We created a whole portion of the firm to handle [document discovery] efficiently – using staff attorneys and sometimes temporary people, computer systems and facilities.” Along came some companies that were “offering to do this work less expensively at a lower price.”

But in May 2009, Ruyak had attributed part of Howrey’s Am Law 100-leading revenue surge to avoiding “areas that suffered significant downturns,” singling out for praise the firm’s five-year-old document review and electronic discovery center that added $47 million to the top line. So successful was the Falls Church operation that he was considering a second one on the West Coast. (The American Lawyer, May 2009, p.118)

Yet somehow, 75 staff attorneys and 100 temps accounting for 8% of Howrey’s $570 million gross in 2008 became a key contributor to the firm’s demise two years later.

3.  Contingent and alternative fees

“Unlike corporations that operate on an accrual basis, it’s hard to adjust from a cash base on your business to an accrual base where you are deferring significant amounts of revenue into future time periods. Once you make that adjustment, I think it works. But the adjustment period is difficult.”

In other words, partners couldn’t tolerate the deferred gratification associated with contingency fee matters. But they loved the upside. In 2008, Howrey’s average partner profits jumped almost 30% — to $1.3 million. When PPP dropped to $850,000 in 2009, Ruyak said 2008 had been an aberration resulting from $35 million in contingency receipts. (The American Lawyer, May 2010, p. 101)

Perhaps inadvertently, he revealed the real culprit: a revolution of rising expectations among the already rich. Ruyak put it this way: “Partners at major law firms have very little tolerance for change.”

If he’s referring to firms that have lost cohesion and a shared purpose beyond a myopic focus on current profits exceeding the last year’s, he’s right. But that culture exists for a reason. Aggressive lateral growth produces partners who don’t know each other. Firm allegiances become tenuous; the institutions themselves become fragile.

Ruyak’s self-serving explanations avoid accepting personal responsibility, but that’s not their greatest fault. The bigger problem is that other law firm leaders will find false comfort in his litany; it encourages the view that Howrey’s challenges were unique. As I said before, they weren’t.

HOWREY’S LESSONS

If Howrey LLP disappears, most big law leaders will make distinctions; they’ll focus on how their organizations are different from Howrey’s. More interesting are the similarities, especially the universal forces that might render others vulnerable to the highly respected firm’s current plight.

First is the speed with events can overtake seemingly secure institutions — and I’m not referring to the fall of Mubarak in Egypt. On May 19, 2008, the Legal Times hailed Howrey LLP’s chairman Robert Ruyak as one of the profession’s “Visionaries.” He deserved it. During the prior 30 years, his distinguished career enhanced Howrey’s reputation and the business of law in DC. But on February 1, 2011, he and Winston & Strawn’s managing partner Thomas Fitzgerald together urged Howrey partners to act quickly on Winston’s offers to hire about three-quarters of them. The big law world can rapidly take a dramatic and unexpected turn.

Second is the way unprecedented demand for big law services combined with the prevailing business model to create enormous financial paydays that became even larger as firms grew. When Ruyak became chairman in January 2000, Howrey ranked near the middle of the Am Law 100 in average profits per equity partner (PEP — $575,000). It had 325 attorneys (89 equity partners).

Ruyak’s strategy targeted growth in three core practice areas: antitrust, IP, and litigation. As the Legal Times observed, “To achieve that vision, Ruyak knew that the firm had to be bigger, so Howrey went on a merger spree.” It added Houston-based patent firm Arnold, White & Durkee, acquired the antitrust practice of Collier, Shannon, Rill & Scott, and established European offices in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Munich, and Madrid.

By 2006, Howrey had 555 attorneys; its 127 equity partners averaged $1.2 million each. After profits dropped in 2007, they soared by almost 30% in 2008 — the biggest percentage revenue-per-lawyer gain in the Am Law 100. Howrey’s 2008 profits were $1.3 million per equity partner — an all-time high.

Third is the fragility that such financial prosperity created for the fabric of many law firm partnerships. When profits plunged 35% in 2009, Ruyak’s partial explanation was that 2008 had been aberrational. Large contingency receipts accounted for much of that year’s non-recurring spike. The firm was still “figuring out how to do [alternative fee arrangements] well.” (The American Lawyer, May 2010, p. 101)

Unfortunately, the revolution of rising expectations was underway; the short-term bottom-line mentality is an impatient and unforgiving two-edged sword. In 2000, Howrey had a clear identity and average equity partner profits of almost $600,000 — seemingly sufficient to keep partners satisfied and any firm stable. Certainly, that amount far exceeded any current big law equity partner’s wildest financial dreams when entering the profession. A decade later, disappointing projections that the firm might reach only 80-90% of its $940,000 PEP target (or $750,000 to $850,000) fed rumors and a perilous media downdraft.

Heller Ehrman proved that lateral hiring and law firm mergers risk sacrificing firm culture in ways that inflict unexpected damage. I don’t know if that has happened at Howrey, but when cash becomes king, partnership bonds remain only as tight as the glue that next year’s predicted equity partner profits provide, assuming those predictions are believed.

That leads to a final lesson: leadership requires credibility. Only two weeks before the remarkable joint message from Ruyak and Fitzgerald, Howrey spokespersons insisted that all was well: “The amount of costs taken out of the firm at all levels — which includes leases, partners, associates, and the like leaving the firm — have made the firm much more efficient,” vice-chairman Sean Boland said. “It’s done wonders for our cost structure, such that we’re going to see some major advantages in 2011. We’re very encouraged by the cost cutting that we’ve done.”

Likewise, one of its outside consultants said that the firm was “getting back to its strengths… What’s happening at Howrey is largely by design.” Maybe so. But from this distance, the parade of top partner departures and Ruyak’s involvement in Winston’s outstanding offers make the design appear curious, indeed.

In May 2008, the Legal Times, concluded with a senior partner’s observation that Howrey had become “a very exciting place to work.” I suspect that’s still true. As with most things legal, the definition is everything.