THE PERVASIVE AMAZON JUNGLE

Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, hates the recent New York Times article about his company. He says it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know.” Rather, it depicts “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.” He doesn’t think any company adopting such an approach could survive, much less thrive. Anyone working in such a company, he continues, “would be crazy to stay” and he counts himself among those likely departures.

The day after the Times’ article appeared, the front page of the paper carried a seemingly unrelated article, “Work Policies May Be Kinder, But Brutal Competition Isn’t.” It’s not about Amazon; it’s about the top ranks of the legal profession and the corporate world. Both are places where the Times’ version of Amazon’s culture is pervasive — and where such institutions survive and thrive.

The articles have two unstated but common themes: the impact of short-termism on working environments, and how a leader’s view of his company’s culture can diverge from the experience of those outside the leadership circle.

Short-termism: “Rank and Yank”

Bezos is hard-driving and demanding. According to the Times, his 1997 letter to shareholders boasted, “You can work long, hard or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three.”

The Times reports that Amazon weeds out employees on an annual basis: “[T]eam members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year.” Jack Welch pioneered such a “rank and yank” system at General Electric long ago and many companies followed his lead. Likewise, big law firms built associate attrition into their business models.

Theoretically, a “rank and yank” system produces a higher quality workforce. But in recent years, a new generation of business thinkers has challenged that premise. Even GE has abandoned Welch’s brainchild.

As currently applied, the system makes no sense to Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Bob Sutton, who observed, “When you look at the evidence about stack ranking…. The kind of stuff that they were doing [at GE], which was essentially creating a bigger distribution between the haves and the have nots in their workforce, then firing 10% of them, it just amazed me.”

If Amazon uses that system, which focuses on annual short-term evaluations, it’s behind the times, not ahead of the curve.

Haves and Have Nots

Professor Sutton’s comment about creating a bigger gap between the haves and the have nots describes pervasive law firm trends as well. The trend could also explain why Bezos and the Times may both be correct in their contradictory assessments of Amazon’s culture. That’s because any negative cultural consequences of Bezos’ management style probably don’t seem real to him. Bezos is at the top; the view from below is a lot different.

This phenomenon of dramatically divergent perspectives certainly applies to most big law firms. As firms moved from lock-step to eat-what-you-kill partner compensation systems, the gap between those at the top and everyone else exploded. Often, the result has been a small group — a partnership within the partnership — that actually controls the institution.

Those leaders have figured out an easy way to maximize short-term partner profits for themselves: make the road to equity partner twice as difficult than it was for them. As big firm attorney-partner leverage ratios have doubled since 1985, today’s managers are pulling up the ladder on the next generation. It’s no surprise that those leaders view their firms favorably.

Their associates have a decidedly different impression of the work environment. Regular attrition began as a method of quality control. At many firms, it has morphed into something insidious. Leadership’s prime directive now is preserving partner profits, not securing the long-run health of the institution. Short-term leverage calculations — not the quality of a young attorney’s lawyering — govern the determination of whether there is “room” for potential new entrants.

About the Long-Run

Such short-term thinking weakens the institutions that pursue it. As Professor Sutton observes: “We looked at every peer reviewed study we could find, and in every one when there was a bigger difference between the pay at of the people at the bottom and the top there was worse performance.”

That’s understandable. After all, workers behave according to signals that leadership sends down the food chain. Dissent is not a cherished value. Resulting self-censorship means the king and the members of his court hear only what they want to hear. People inside the organization who want to advance become cheerleaders who suppress bad news. Being a team player is the ultimate compliment and the likeliest path to promotion.

One More Thing

Bezos’ letter to his employees about the Times article encourages anyone who knows of any stories “like those reported…to escalate to HR.” He says that he doesn’t recognize the Amazon in the article and “very much hopes you don’t, either.”

One former employee frames Bezos’ unstated conundrum correctly: “How do you possibly convey to your manager the intolerable nature of your working conditions when your manager is the one telling you, point blank, that the impossible hours are simply what’s expected?”

Note to Jeff B: Escalating to HR won’t eliminate embedded cultural attitudes.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong about all of this. On the same day the Times published its piece on the increasingly harsh law firm business model, the Wall Street Journal ran Harvard Law School Professor Mark J. Roe’s op-ed: “The Imaginary Problem of Corporate Short-Termism.”

It’s all imaginary. That should come as a relief to those working inside law firms and businesses that focus myopically on near-term results without regard to the toll it is taking on the young people who comprise our collective future.

THINKING BEYOND THE AM LAW 100 RANKINGS

It’s Am Law 100 time. Every year as May 1 approaches, all eyes turn to Big Law’s definitive rankings — The American Lawyer equivalent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. But behind those numbers, what do law firm leaders think about their institutions and fellow partners?

The 2015 Citibank/Hildebrandt Client Advisory contains some interesting answers to that question. Media summaries of those annual survey results tend to focus on macro trends and numbers. Will demand for legal services increase in the coming months? Are billable hours up? Will equity partner profits continue to rise? Will clients accept hourly rate increases? Or will client discounts reduce realizations?

Those are important topics, but some of the survey’s best nuggets deserve more attention than they get. So as big law firm partners everywhere pore over the annual Am Law 100 numbers, here are five buried treasures from this year’s Citibank/Hildebrandt Client Advisory that will get lost in the obsession over Am Law’s short-term growth and profits metrics. They may reveal more about the state of Big Law than any ranking system can.

Chickens Come Home To Roost

1. “While excess capacity remains an issue, we are hearing from a good number of firms that mid-level associates are in short supply.”

My comment: After 2009, most firms reduced dramatically summer programs and new associate hiring to preserve short-term equity partner profits. That was a shortsighted failure to invest in the future, and it’s still pervasive. See #4 and #5 below.

The Growth Trap

2. “Many [law firm mergers] have tended to be mergers of strong firms with weaker firms, or mergers of firms that are pursuing growth for growth’s sake. On this latter trend, it is our view that these mergers are generally ill-conceived. In our experience, combining separate firm revenues does not necessarily translate into better profit results and long-term success.”

My comment: Regardless of who says it (or how often), many managing partners just don’t believe it.

The Lateral Hiring Ruse

3. “For all the popularity of growth through laterals, the success rate of a firm’s lateral strategy can be quite low. For the past few years, we have asked leaders of large firms to quantify the rate of success of the laterals they hired over the past five years. Each year, the proportion of laterals who they would describe as being above ‘break even’, by their own definition, has fallen. In 2014, the number was just 54 percent of laterals who had joined their firms during 2009-2013.” [Emphasis added]

My comment: Think about that one. The survey allows managing partners to use their own personal, subjective, and undisclosed definition of “success.” Even with that unrestricted discretion to make themselves look good, firm leaders still admit that almost half of their lateral hiring decisions over the past five years have been failures — and that they’re track record has been getting worse! That’s stunning.

Pulling Up The Ladder

4. “We are now seeing [permanent non-partner track associates and other lower cost lawyers] appear among some of the most elite firms. When we ask these firms whether they are concerned that expanding their lawyer base beyond partner-track associates will hurt their brand, their response is simply that this is what their clients, and the market in general demands.”

My comment: At best such managing partner responses are disingenuous; at worst they are lies. Clients aren’t demanding non-partner track attorneys; they’re demanding more value from their outside lawyers. Thoughtful clients understand the importance of motivating the next generation’s best and brightest lawyers with meaningful long-term career opportunities.

Permanent dead-end tracks undermine that objective. So does the continuing trend in many firms to increase overall attorney headcount while keeping the total number of equity partners flat or declining. But rather than accept responsibility for the underlying greed that continues to propel equity partner profits higher, law firm leaders try to blame clients and “the market.” For the truth, they should consult a mirror.

The Real Problem

5. “Leaders of successful firms also talk about getting their partners to adopt a more long-term, ‘investment’ mindset. In an industry where the profits are typically paid out in a short time to partners, rather than being retained for longer term investment, this can be a challenge.”

My comment: Thinking beyond current year profits is the challenge facing the leadership of every big firm. Succeeding at that mission is also the key assumption underlying the Client Advisory’s optimistic conclusion:

“It is clear to us that law firms have the capacity and the talent to adapt to the needs of their clients, and meet the challenges of the future — contrary to those who continually forecast their death.”

I’m not among those forecasting the death of all big firms. In fact, I don’t know anyone who is. That would be silly. But as in 2013 and 2014, some large firms will fail or disappear into “survival mergers.” As that happens, everyone will see that having what the Client Advisory describes as “the capacity and talent to adapt” to the profession’s dramatic transformation is not the same as actually adapting. The difference will separate the winners from the losers.

A MYTH THAT MOTIVATES MERGERS

In a recent interview with The American Lawyer, the chairman of Edwards Wildman, Alan Levin, explained the process that led his firm to combine with Locke Lord. It began with a commissioned study that separated potential merger partners into “tier 1” and “tier 2” firms. The goal was to get bigger.

“Size matters,” he said, “and to be successful today, you really have to be in that Am Law 50.”

When lawyers deal with clients and courts, they focus on evidence. Somehow, that tendency often disappears when they’re evaluating the strategic direction of their own institutions.

Bigger Is…?

There’s no empirical support for the proposition that economies of scale accompany the growth of a law firm. Back in 2003, Altman Weil concluded that 30 years of survey research proved it: “Larger firms almost always spend more per lawyer on staffing, occupancy, equipment, promotion, malpractice and other non-personnel insurance coverages, office supplies and other expenses than do smaller firms.” As firms get bigger, the Altman Weil report continued, maintaining the infrastructure to support continued growth becomes more expensive.

Since 2003, law firms have utilized even more costly ways to grow: multi-year compensation guarantees to overpaid lateral partners. Recently, Ed Newberry, chairman of Patton Boggs, told Forbes, “[L]ateral acquisitions, which many firms are aggressively pursuing now…is a very dangerous strategy because laterals are extremely expensive and have a very low success rate — by some studies lower than 50 percent across firms.”

The Magic of the Am Law 50?

Does success require a place in the Am Law 50? If size is the only measuring stick, then the tautology holds. Big = successful = big. But if something else counts, such as profitability or stability, then the answer is no.

The varied financial performance of firms within the Am Law 50 disproves the “bigger is always better” hypothesis. The profit margins of those firms range from a high of 62 percent (Gibson Dunn) to a low of 14 percent (Squire Sanders — which is in the process of merging with Patton Boggs).

Wachtell has the highest profit margin in the Am Law 100 (64 percent), and it’s not even in the Am Law 50. But that firm’s equity partners aren’t complaining about its 2013 average profits per partner: $4.7 million — good enough for first place on the PPP list. Among the 50 largest firms in gross revenues, 17 have profit margins placing them in the bottom half of the Am Law 100.

Buzzwords Without Meaning

A cottage industry of law firm management consultants has developed special language to reinforce a mindless “size matters” mentality. According to The Legal Intelligencer, Kent Zimmermann of the Zeughauser Group said recently that Morgan Lewis’s contemplated merger with Bingham McCutchen “may be part of a growing crop of law firms that feel they need to be ‘materially larger’ in order to increase brand awareness, [which is] viewed by many of these firms as what it takes to get on the short list for big matters.”

Not so fast. In the Am Law rankings, Morgan Lewis is already 12th in gross revenues and 24th in profit margin (44 percent). It doesn’t need to “increase brand awareness.” That concept might help sell toothpaste; it doesn’t describe the way corporate clients actually select their outside lawyers.

In a recent article, Casey Sullivan and David Ingram at Reuters suggest that Bingham’s twelve-year effort to increase “brand awareness” through an aggressive program of mergers contributed mightily to its current plight. The authors observe that In the early 1990s “[c]onsultants were warning leaders of mid-sized firms that their partnerships would have to merge or die, and [Bingham’s chairman] proved to be a pioneer of the strategy.”

Consultants have given big firms plenty of other bad advice, but that’s a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that Bingham’s subsequent mergers got it into the Am Law 50. However, that didn’t protect the firm from double-digit declines in 2013 revenue and profits, or from a plethora of partner departures in 2014.

In his Legal Intelligencer interview, Kent Zimmermann of Zeughauser also said that he has “seen firms with new leadership in place look to undertake a transformative endeavor like this [Morgan Lewis-Bingham] merger would be.” If Zimmermann’s overall observation about firms with new leadership is true, such leaders should be asking themselves: transform to what? Acting on empty buzzwords risks a “transformative endeavor” to institutional instability.

Soundbites

In contrast to Alan Levin’s “size matters” sound bite, here’s another. A year ago, IBM’s general counsel, Robert Weber, told the Wall Street Journal“I’m pretty skeptical about the value these big mergers give to clients…I don’t know why it’s better to use a bigger firm.”

Weber should know because he spent 30 years at Jones Day before joining IBM. But is anyone listening? IBM’s long-time outside counsel Cravath, Swaine & Moore probably is. Based on size and gross revenues, Cravath doesn’t qualify for the Am Law 50, but its clients and partners don’t care.

Uncertain Outcomes

Does becoming a legal behemoth add client value? Does it increase institutional nimbleness in a changing environment? Does it enhance morale, collegiality, and long-run firm stability? Do profit margins improve or worsen? Why are many big firm corporate clients — H-P, eBay, Abbott Labs, ConocoPhilllips, Time Warner, DuPont, and Procter & Gamble, among a long list — moving in the opposite direction, namely, toward disaggregation that increases flexibility?

Wearing their “size alone matters” blinders, some firm leaders aren’t even asking those questions. If they don’t, fellow partners should. After all, their skin is in this game, too.

DANGEROUS ADVICE FOR LAW FIRM LEADERS

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 Crisisopens 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.

THE ILLUSION OF LEISURE TIME

Back in January, newspaper headlines reported a dramatic development in investment banking. Bank of America Merrill Lynch and others announced a reprieve from 80-hour workweeks.

According to the New York TimesGoldman Sachs “instructed junior bankers to stay out of the office on Saturdays.” A Goldman task force recommended that analysts be able to take weekends off whenever possible. Likewise, JP Morgan Chase gave its analysts the option of taking one protected weekend — Saturday and Sunday — each month.

“It’s a generational shift,” a former analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch told the Times in January. “Does it really make sense for me to do something I really don’t love and don’t really care about, working 90 hours a week? It really doesn’t make sense. Banks are starting to realize that.”

The Fine Print

There was only one problem with the noble rhetoric that accompanied such trailblazing initiatives: At most of these places, individual employee workloads didn’t change. Recently, one analyst complained to the Times that taking advantage of the new JP Morgan Chase “protected weekend” policy requires an employee to schedule it four weeks in advance.

Likewise, a junior banker at Deutsche Bank commented on the net effect of taking Saturdays off: “If you have 80 hours of work to do in a week, you’re going to have 80 hours of work to do in a week, regardless of whether you’re working Saturdays or not. That work is going to be pushed to Sundays or Friday nights.”

How About Lawyers?

An online comment to the recent Times article observed:

“I work for a major NY law firm. I have worked every day since New Year’s Eve, and billed over 900 hours in 3 months. Setting aside one day a week as ‘sacred’ would be nice, but as these bankers point out, the workload just shifts to other days. The attrition and burnout rate is insane but as long as law school and MBAs cost $100K+, there will be people to fill these roles.”

As the legal profession morphed from a profession to a business, managing partners in many big law firms have become investment banker wannabes. In light of the financial sector’s contribution to the country’s most recent economic collapse, one might reasonably ask why that is still true. The answer is money.

To that end, law firms adopted investment banking-type metrics to maximize partner profits. For example, leverage is the numerical ratio of the firm’s non-owners (consisting of associates, counsel, and income partners) to its owners (equity partners). Goldman Sachs has always had relatively few partners and a stunning leverage ratio.

As most big law firms have played follow-the-investment-banking-leader, overall leverage for the Am Law 50 has doubled since 1985 — from 1.76 to 3.52. In other words, it’s twice as difficult to become an equity partner as it was for those who now run such places. Are their children that much less qualified than they were?

Billables

Likewise, law firms use another business-type metric — billable hours — as a measure of productivity. But billables aren’t an output; they’re an input to achieve client results. Adding time to complete a project without regard to its impact on the outcome is anathema to any consideration of true productivity. A firm’s billable hours might reveal something about utilization, but that’s about it.

Imposing mandatory minimum billables as a prerequisite for an associate’s bonus does accomplishes this feat: Early in his or her career, every young attorney begins to live with the enduring ethical conflict that Scott Turow wrote about seven years ago in “The Billable Hour Must Die.” Specifically, the billable hour fee system pits an attorney’s financial self-interest against the client’s.

The Unmeasured Costs

Using billables as a distorted gauge of productivity also eats away at lawyers’ lives. Economists analyzing the enormous gains in worker productivity since the 1990s cite technology as a key contributor. But they ignore an insidious aspect of that surge: Technology has facilitated a massive conversion of leisure time to working hours — after dinner, after the kids are in bed, weekends, and while on what some people still call a vacation, but isn’t.

Here’s one way to test that hypothesis: The next time you’re away from the office, see how long you can go without checking your smartphone. Now imagine a time when that technological marvel didn’t exist. Welcome to 1998.

When you return to 2014, read messages, and return missed calls, be sure to bill the time.

Failure of Leadership

The American Lawyer’s annual leaders survey reveals that most law firm managing partners are living in denial. When the changing world intrudes in ways that they can no longer ignore, another psychological state — cognitive dissonance — sets in as they try simultaneously to hold contradictory ideas in their heads. As a consequence, what is happening today at the top of most big firms is the antithesis of leadership.

Denial

In the Am Law leaders survey, 70 percent of respondents said that the sluggish demand for legal services in 2013 would continue through 2014. That’s not surprising. In 2012, only a fourth quarter surge saved many firms from the abyss. The unusual circumstances producing that phenomenon aren’t present this year.

If 2014 will be more of the same as firms compete for business in a zero-sum game, how do individual managing partners size up their situations? Unrealistically. Two-thirds of the 105 leaders responding to the survey of Am Law 200 firms were “somewhat optimistic” about the prospects for their firms in 2014. Another ten percent were “very optimistic.”

More than 80 percent expect profits per partner to grow in 2014 — and one-fourth of those expect growth to exceed five percent. They’ll use the same old model — 98 percent expect billable hour increases, even though three-fourths of respondents said their realization rates for 2013 are 90% or worse. They also said that only 18 percent of their matters include an alternative fee arrangement.

Cognitive dissonance

They can’t all be right about 2014 — for which an overwhelming majority say that “things will be tough for almost everyone else, but my firm will thrive.” More importantly, most of them won’t be right. So what are today’s leaders doing to prepare their firms for more of the harsh reality that they’ve already experienced for the past several years? Not much.

A staggering 85 percent of managing partners said they were somewhat worried (61 percent) or very worried (24 percent) about partners who are not billing enough hours. Almost 70 percent are concerned that some partners are staying on too long before retirement.

An Altman Weil Survey found similar results last summer. Seventy percent of law firm leaders said that older partners were hanging on too long. In the process, they are hoarding clients, billings, and opportunities in ways that impede the transition of firm business to younger lawyers. Yet the drive to maximize short-term profits led 80 percent of firm leaders to admit that they planned to respond to current pressures by tightening equity partner admission standards. Pulling up the ladder on the next generation is not the way to motivate the young talent needed to solve the transition problem.

Morale

All of this may be working well for some partners at the top of what remains a leveraged pyramid business model. But even among the partners, all is not well. The Altman Weil Survey reported that 40 percent of law firm leaders thought partner morale was lower than it had been in 2008. In other words, deequitizations and partnership purges during the Great Recession haven’t produced greater happiness in the survivor cohort.

The Am Law Survey confirms that this downward trend continues. In 2012, 63 percent of managing partners characterized the morale of their partners as “somewhat optimistic.” In 2013, it dropped to 56 percent — near the 2009 nadir of 54 percent.

Leadership lemmings

Every survey reveals that most big firm leaders have their eyes on a single mission: growth. Whether through aggressive lateral hiring or mergers and acquisitions, some managing partners are cobbling together entities that aren’t really law firm partnerships. They’ve forgotten that a sense of community and common purpose is essential to maintaining organizational morale. They’ve also forgotten that no law firm is better than the quality of its people.

Most leaders also acknowledge that a myopic growth strategy imposes significant financial and other costs on their institutions — overpaying for so-called rainmakers who are less than advertised; sacrificing the stability that comes from a cohesive culture in exchange for current top line revenues; incentivizing partners to hoard clients because billings determine compensation and client silos facilitate lateral exits; discouraging the development of talent that should comprise the future of the firm.

As managing partners build empires that they hope will be too big to fail, they might spend a little time considering whether their denial and cognitive dissonance are producing entities that are too big to succeed.

THE NEWEST BIG LAW PARTNERS SPEAK

A recent survey of associates who became partners in their Am Law 200 firms between 2010 and 2013 produced some startling results. The headline in The American Lawyer proclaims that new partners “feel well-prepped and well-paid.” But other conclusions are troubling.

More than half (59 percent) of the 469 attorneys responding to the survey were non-equity partners. That’s significant because for them the real hurdle has yet to come. Most won’t advance to equity partnership in their firms. But even the combined results paint an unattractive portrait of the prevailing big law firm business model.

Lateral progress

It should surprise no one that institutional loyalty continues to suffer as the leveraged big law pyramid continues to depend on staggering associate attrition rates. According to the survey, almost half of new partners said that “making partner is nearly impossible.”

It’s toughest for home grown talent. Forty-seven percent of new partners switched firms before their promotions, most within the previous four years. An earlier survey of 50 Am Law 200 firms made the point even more dramatically: 59 percent of those who made partner in 2013 began their careers elsewhere. Long ago, a lot of older partners became wise to this gambit. They learned to hoard opportunities and preserve client silos as the way to move up and/or acquire tickets into the lucrative lateral partner market.

Somewhat paradoxically in light of their lateral paths into the partnership, 90 percent of new partners thought that commitment to their firms was of great or some importance as a factor in their promotion to partner. Yet almost 60 percent said that, since making partner, their commitment to the firm had decreased or only stayed the same.

Why don’t they feel like winners?

More than 80 percent of respondents thought that the “ability to develop and cultivate new clients” was “of great or some importance” in their promotion to partner. Yet more than half of new partners said that they received no formal training in business development.

Other results also suggest that a big law partnership has become an increasingly mixed bag. Almost eight out of ten said their business development efforts had increased since making partner. How did they make room for those activities in their already full workdays as “on-track-for-partner associates”? Eighty-three percent reported that time with their family “had decreased or stayed the same.” More than half said that control of their schedules had decreased or stayed the same. Making partner doesn’t seem to help attorneys achieve the kind of autonomy that contributes to career satisfaction and overall happiness.

The meaning of it all

More than 60 percent of new partners were satisfied or very satisfied with their compensation. Maybe money alone will continue to draw the best law graduates into big firms. A more important question is whether they will stay.

Most partners running today’s big firms assume that every associate has the same ambition that they had: to become an equity partner. Meanwhile, they’ve been pulling up the ladder on the next generation. Leverage ratios in big firms have doubled since 1985; making equity partner is now twice as difficult as it was then. Does anyone really believe that the current generation of young attorneys contains only half the talent of its predecessors?

The law is a service business. People are its only stock in trade. For today’s leaders who fail to retain and nurture young lawyers, the future of their institutions will become grim indeed. As that unfortunate story unfolds, they will have only themselves to blame. Then again, if these aging senior partners’ temporal scopes extend only to the day they retire, perhaps they don’t care.