SPINNING DEWEY’S HEROES

Dewey & LeBoeuf’s latest designated savior is Martin J. Bienenstock. The NY Times says that he faces “perhaps the most challenging assignment of his career: the restructuring of his own law firm.”

According to the Times, his challenges include bank negotiations to restructure Dewey’s outstanding loans, consideration of reorganization options, and avoiding liquidation. Given the complex array of fiduciary duties accompanying such a job description — as a partner to his fellow partners while also acting as counsel to the partnership as a whole without favoring any individual partner or group of partners — it’s a daunting task.

Last month’s star was Steven H. Davis, whose assurances during an interview for Fortune magazine produced an article titled “Dewey & LeBoeuf: Partner exodus is no big deal.” Right — Dewey started the year with 300 partners; 30 were gone by the time of Davis’s interview; 40 more have left since then. Among his least prescient remarks: “If the direction we’re taking the firm in was somehow disapproved of, then the reality is that there ought to be a change in management. But I don’t sense that.”

The more things change…

Less than a week later, a five-man executive committee replaced Davis. One member of the new “office of the chairman” is Bienenstock. It’s ironic because he exemplifies Dewey’s business strategies that may have worked well in his case, but less so in others’, namely, lateral hiring and compensation guarantees. Prior to joining Dewey & Leboeuf in November 2007 (a month after the merger creating it), he’d spent 30 years at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. While he sat on Dewey’s management committee that Davis chaired, his new firm became one of the top-10 in 2011 lateral partner hiring.

According to The Lawyer, Bienenstock was reportedly among those who recently agreed to cap personal earnings at $2.5 million. That’s a start, but the article also said that some partners’ deferred income took the form of promissory notes due in 2014. It’s interesting that a firm already on a $125 million hook for something that law firms rarely do — offering bonds that begin to come due in April 2013 — would add even more short-term debt to its balance sheet. Add it to the list of unexpected complications that accompany partnership compensation guarantees.

The real Dewey heroes

This rotating focus on a handful of lawyers at the top obfuscates the importance of everyone else. Rainmakers come and go — and their seven-figure incomes survive. Bienenstock is an example. So are the many former Dewey management committee members who have already left, including John Altorelli, whose parting words showed little compassion for his former partners, associates, paralegals and staff. Even top partners who managed firms that went bust seem to land on their feet. After Howrey failed, its former vice chairman, Henry Bunsow, got a reported multi-million guaranteed compensation deal at Dewey in January 2011. Welcome to the lateral partner bubble.

Lost in the headlines about the stars are the worker bees with limited options and real fears. An Above the Law post from a seasoned Dewey paralegal captures the angst:

“I know these facts do not necessarily make for sexy headlines but I do ask that you report on the following. While some laugh and play their lyre as the city of Rome burns, it will be well over one thousand staff members who will also be gainfully unemployed.”

Add the nearly one thousand Dewey lawyers who have been watching quietly at the unfolding public relations nightmare since Davis’s bizarre interview. As Dewey’s publicity machine pumps out celebrity saviors of the moment, each has drawn more unwanted attention to the firm’s plight than the last. Martin Bienenstock’s appearance in the Times along with the proffered “pre-packaged bankruptcy” option is the latest example.

If Dewey survives the current crisis, Bienenstock’s suddenly magical touch won’t be the reason. Rather, it will survive because an entire law firm —  partners, associates and staff — kept noses to the grindstone. The real heroes didn’t go looking for more media coverage of a troubled situation.

Perhaps Dewey’s leaders thought that better press could solve the firm’s crisis. But that approach reverses the relationship between public relations and crisis management, which is simple: manage a crisis properly and the resulting story will write itself.

Here’s the obvious corollary: manage the firm properly and there is no crisis to manage.

UNFORTUNATE (AND IRONIC) COMMENT AWARD

If Dewey & LeBeouf has so-called friends like its former partner John Altorelli…well, you know the rest.

Altorelli’s recent comments to Am Law Daily include so many candidates for my Unfortunate Comment Award that it’s difficult to choose just one. So let’s go with the most ironic. In discussing whether Dewey could have done a better job managing information — presumably referring to publicity about attorney layoffs, partner departures and financial results — Altorelli said:

“In most law firms, I think, as good as the lawyers are at advising clients, they’re not as good at taking their own advice. They are surprisingly obtuse when it comes to their own situation.”

He then proceeded to reveal himself as someone surprisingly obtuse about his own situation. Before listing those inadvertent revelations, consider how Altorelli himself embodies the lateral partner hiring phenomenon that has overtaken much of big law as a dominant business strategy.

The revolving lateral door

After  graduating from Cornell Law School in 1993, Altorelli made his way through four law firms in only fourteen years — LeBeouf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, Paul Hastings, Reed Smith, and Dewey Ballantine (shortly after the collapse of Dewey’s merger talks with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and a few months before its October 2007 merger with his original firm, LeBeouf Lamb). Such a journey is not likely to produce deep institutional loyalties anywhere.

He’s not unique. For example, as I composed this post The Wall Street Journal reported that Brette Simon had left Jones Day to join Bryan Cave. Since graduating in 1994, she’s also worked at O’Melveney & Myers, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton.

Still, Altorelli’s book of business apparently qualified him for a place on Dewey & LeBeouf’s executive committee. He says former chairman Steven H. Davis will “take the axe” for whatever is going wrong now, but surely the firm’s executive committee wasn’t a collection of potted plants. It seems improbable that Davis alone could have forged and executed Dewey initiatives that issued bonds and used guaranteed multi-year compensation contracts to lure prominent lateral partners.

But now Altorelli says: “The only people who need contracts are those who are not so secure. I feel bad that firms have to go that way, in competition for laterals and the like.”

Not my fault

Then again, Altorelli also suggests that management hasn’t contributed to Dewey’s current problems. Rather, it was just “bad timing” of a long recession that didn’t allow the firm to burn off expenses associated with the Dewey-LeBeouf merger: “We kept thinking it’ll get better tomorrow, then it doesn’t get better. The next thing you know it’s been four years.”

Magical thinking rarely results in a winning strategic plan. Curiously, Altorelli also notes that during that same period while he was at the firm, he and Dewey prospered: “I had five of the best years of my career.”

As he headed for his fifth big firm in nineteen years, Altorelli offered several additional insights that qualify for stand alone Unfortunate Comment Awards, especially coming from one of the firm’s recent executive committee members who professes continuing hope for Dewey’s future:

— “I’m not sure how they can weather the departures.”

— “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say, I don’t know how many more they can suffer.”

— “[There] could be a survival path for a smaller Dewey. I don’t know how that would work. They seem to have a strategy. Or the firm will be busted up into a bunch of little pieces and survive in the hearts and souls of a lot of good people.”

Yet perhaps the unkindest cut of all came in contrasting his professional life at Dewey with things that will be better at DLA Piper, where he will serve on its executive committee:

“Altorelli says he was drawn to his new firm by the chance to help change the way he practices law. Altorelli…says the firm is experimenting with ways to ‘try to get back to more of an intellectual pursuit, rather than just grinding out the paper.'”

If Altorelli’s interview had appeared five days earlier, I would have looked for this concluding line: “April Fool!”

Just delete “April.”