A STORIED LATERAL HIRE

“Are Laterals Killing Your Firm?” is the provocative title of The American Lawyer‘s February issue. The centerpiece is a thoughtful article, “Of Partners and Peacocks,” by Bill Henderson, professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and Director of the Center on the Global Legal Profession, and Christopher Zorn, professor of political science, sociology, crime, law, and justice at Penn State University.

Henderson and Zorn conclude that “for most law firms there is no statistically significant relationship between more lateral partner hiring and higher profits.” As I observed in last week’s post, most big law managing partners have conceded as much in anonymous surveys. Even so, the drumbeat of lateral hiring to achieve top line revenue growth persists, even in the face of dubious bottom line results.

A timely topic

One lateral hire outcome became particularly fascinating this week. On the way out of the top spot at DLA Piper is global co-chair Tony Angel. You might remember him from one of my earlier articles, “The Ultimate Lateral Hire.”

The American Lawyer 2012 Lateral Report identified Angel as one of the top lateral hires of the year — “a typically bold and iconoclastic play by DLA. For a firm to bring in a former managing partner from another firm is rare,” Am Law Daily reporter Chris Johnson wrote in March 2012. According to the article, the 59-year-old Angel was to receive $3 million a year for a three-year term.

With great fanfare, DLA touted its coup. “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,” boasted then co-chair Frank Burch.

At the time, DLA’s press release was equally effusive: “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.”

Predictably, law firm management consultants also praised the move:  “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,” said Peter Zeughauser. Legal headhunter Jack Zaremski called it a “brave move” that “might very well pay off.”

On second thought…

The current publicity surrounding Angel’s transition is decidedly more subdued. According to a recent Am Law article, Angel and his fellow outgoing global co-chair, Lee Miller, “will remain with the firm in a senior advisory capacity, the details of which will be worked out later this year.”

Two years, plus another 10 months as a lame duck, is a remarkably short period to occupy the top spot of any big firm. Only those who work at DLA Piper can say whether Angel’s brief reign was a success (and why it’s over so soon). Not all of them are likely to provide the same answer.

Separating winners from losers

In 2008, more than three years before Angel’s arrival, the firm’s non-equity partners found themselves on the receiving end of requests for capital contributions. According to Legal Week, “275 partners contributed up to $150,000 each to join the equity.” The move was “intended to motivate partners by granting them a direct share of the firm’s profits, as well as an equal vote in the firm’s decisions.” But it also helped “DLA reduce its bank debt.”

That equitization trend continued during Angel’s tenure. In 2012, the firm’s non-U.S. business reportedly added capital totaling 30 million pounds Sterling “as a result of the move to an all-equity partnership structure.” Again according to Legal Week, the firm’s non-equity partners in the UK, Europe, and Asia Pacific paid on average 61,000 pounds Sterling each to join the equity.”

Perhaps most new equity partners discovered that their mandatory bets became winners. After all, gross profits and average profits for the DLA Piper verein went up in 2012. Then again, averages don’t mean much when the distribution is skewed. According to a Wall Street Journal article three years ago, the internal top-to-bottom spread within DLA Piper was already nine-to-one.

Anyone looking beyond short-term dollars and willing to consider things that matter in the long run could consult associate satisfaction rankings for cultural clues. In the 2013 Am Law Survey of Midlevel Associate Satisfaction, DLA Piper dropped from #53 to #77 (out of 134 firms). That’s still above the firm’s #99 ranking in 2011.

The more things change

Management changes are always about the future. It’s not clear how, if at all, incoming co-chair Roger Meltzer’s vision for DLA Piper diverges from Angel’s. Age differences certainly don’t explain the transition; both men are around 60. Likewise, both have business orientations. Meltzer practices corporate and securities law; Angel joined DLA Piper after serving as executive managing director of Standard & Poor’s in London.

Maybe it’s irrelevant, but Meltzer and Angel also have this in common: Both are high-powered lateral hires. Angel parachuted in from Standard & Poor’s in 2011; Meltzer left Cahill, Gordon & Reindel to join DLA Piper in 2007. It makes you wonder where these guys and DLA Piper will be a few years from now.

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.