During the past 25 years, law firm management consulting has grown from cottage industry to big business. In a recent Am Law Daily article, “What Critics of Lateral Hiring Get Wrong,” Brad Hildebrandt, one of its pioneers, provides a comforting message to his constituents:
“Large law firms are weathering the storm of the past five years and continue to transform their businesses to operate with efficiency and agility amid a new set of client expectations.”
Hildebrandt v. Altman Weil
Hildebrandt correctly notes that painting all large firms with a single brush is a mistake. But his general description of most firms today is at odds with the results of Altman Weil’s recent survey, “2014: Law Firms in Transition.” The summary of responses from 803 law firm leaders (including 42 percent of the nation’s largest 350 firms) offers these highlights:
— “The Survey shows clear consensus among law firm leaders on the changing nature of the legal market…. [But] law firms are proceeding without an apparent sense of urgency.”
— “Less than half of the law firms surveyed are responding to the pressures of the current market by significantly changing elements of their traditional business model.”
— “Most firms are not making current investments in a future they acknowledge will be different – and different in seemingly predictable ways.”
— “Only 5.3 percent of firms are routinely looking farther than five years out in their planning.”
Altman Weil’s conclusions comport with its October 2013 Chief Legal Officer Survey. When clients rated outside law firms’ seriousness about changing legal service delivery models to provide greater value, the median score was three out of ten — for the fifth straight year.
Hildebrandt v. Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor and Henderson
So what are most big firms doing? Growth through aggressive lateral hiring. Hildebrandt responds to “academics, journalists, former practicing attorneys, and countless legal bloggers” who question that strategy. Count me among them.
Acquiring a well-vetted lateral partner to fill a specific strategic need is wise. But trouble arises when laterals become little more than portable books of business whose principal purpose is to enhance an acquiring firm’s top line revenues.
“Growth for growth’s sake is not a viable strategy in today’s market,” the 2014 Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report on the State of the Legal Market observes. Nevertheless, the report notes, most firms are pursuing exactly that approach: “[Growth] masks a bigger problem — the continuing failure of most firms to focus on strategic issues that are more important….”
Professor William Henderson has done extensive empirical work on this subject. “Is Reliance on Lateral Hiring Destabilizing Law Firms?” concludes: “[T]he data is telling us that for most law firms there is no statistically significant relationship between more lateral partner hiring and higher profits.”
Hildebrandt v. Citi/Hildebrandt
Big law partners acknowledge the truth behind Henderson’s data. According to the 2014 Citi/Hildebrandt Client Advisory, only 57 percent of law firm leaders describe their lateral recruits during 2008-2012 as successful, down from 60 percent last year. If those responsible for their firms’ aggressive lateral hiring strategies acknowledge an almost 50 percent failure rate, imagine how much worse the reality must be. Nevertheless, the lateral hiring frenzy continues, often to the detriment of institutional morale and firm culture.
With respect to culture and morale, Hildebrandt rejects the claim that lateral partner hiring crowds out homegrown associate talent. But the 2013 Citi/Hildebrandt Client Advisory suggests that it does: Comparing “the percentages of new equity partners attributable to lateral hires vs. internal promotions in 2007…with percentages in 2011 reveals a marked shift in favor of laterals” — a 21 percent decrease in associate promotions versus a 10 percent increase in lateral partner additions.
Nevertheless, Hildebrandt offers this assessment:
“In the six years prior to the recession, many firms admitted far too many partners—some into equity partnership, many into income partnership. A driving factor in the number of partners in the lateral marketplace is that firms are coming to grips with the mistakes of the past. Lax admissions standards have been a far greater issue than mistakes made on laterals.”
When I read that passage, it seemed familiar. In fact, Chapter 5 of my latest book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis, opens with this quotation:
“The real problem of the 1980s was the lax admission standards of associates of all firms to partnerships. The way to fix that now is to make it harder to become a partner. The associate track is longer and more difficult.”
Those were Brad Hildebrandt’s words in September 1996. (“The NLJ 250 Annual Survey of the Nation’s Largest Law Firms: A Special Supplement — More Lawyers Than Ever In 250 Largest Firms,” National Law Journal)
“Fool Me Once, Shame On You…”
Evidently, most firms followed Hildebrandt’s advice in the 1990s because the overall leverage ratio in big law firms has doubled since then. His recent suggestion that “lax admission standards” caused firms to make “far too many” equity partners during the six years prior to the Great Recession of 2008-2009 is particularly puzzling. In the May 2008 issue of American Lawyer, Aric Press noted that during the “Law Firm Golden Age” from 2003 to 2007, “Partners reaped the benefits of hard work — and of pulling up the ladder behind them. Stoking these gains has been a dramatic slowdown in the naming of new equity partners.”
Meanwhile, the swelling ranks of income partners reflect a different strategy: using the non-equity partner tier as a profit center. The strategy is misguided, but pursuing it has been intentional, not a “mistake.” (Take a look at the American Lawyer article, “Crazy Like a Fox,” by Edwin Reeser and Patrick McKenna.)
Even so, Hildebrandt’s words reassure firms that are recruiting laterals for all the wrong reasons and/or tightening the equity partner admission screws. Tough love might better serve the profession.