THE NON-EQUITY PARTNER BUBBLE

In May 2009, The American Lawyer reported that Am Law 100 firms had increased the number of non-equity partners threefold since 1999, but the number of equity partners grew by less than one-third. As big law leaders continue to pull up the ladder, what will come from the growing cadre of partners-in-name-only? Other than some short-term money for equity partners, nothing good.

Historically, most two-tier firms employed a simple strategy for non-equity partners: up-or-out. Within a reasonable period of time (for no benign reason, it’s gotten longer), non-equity partners either proved themselves worthy of elevation or moved on. Limited exceptions included specialized niche players who could stay indefinitely.

An article in the February 2012 issue of The American Lawyer, “Crazy Like a Fox,” suggests another option: permanent non-equity partners.

The Economic Case

Authors Edwin B. Reeser and Patrick J. McKenna offer financial justifications for the strategy. First, they say, clients unwilling to pay high hourly rates for first- and second-year associates have an easier time swallowing non-equity partner rates, even though they are much greater.

Sometimes, maybe. But clients are now scrutinizing the match between attorneys and their tasks. Using an unnecessarily expensive non-equity partner to perform associate work is dangerous.

Second, they argue, associate recruitment and training are expensive, with each new associate costing $250,000 to $300,000. As a class, Reeser and McKenna assert, “associates do not make money for the firm until sometime in the end of the third or even the fourth year.”

Maybe. But at current hourly rates and required minimum billables, the payback is probably sooner. (Do the math using an average profit margin of forty percent, which is conservative.) But their larger point is correct: non-equity partners are a source of leverage that for the Am Law 50 has doubled since 1985 — from an average of 1.75 to 3.54.

The Problems

Whatever the debatable short-term economic gain, the long-run cost of expanding the non-equity ranks and making them permanent is far greater.

For starters, such lawyers become second class citizens. They know it. Everyone in the firm knows it. They may be decent, hard-working people. But once they receive the scarlet letter of permanent non-equity status, their morale plummets.

It’s understandable. After all, throughout their lives they succeeded at everything they tried — outstanding college record, good grades at a top law school. They’re intelligent and ambitious, otherwise firms wouldn’t have hired them in the first place. But then, after years of hard work they learn that they won’t reach the next level and never will. Only magical thinking can wish away the demoralizing impact of that message.

Any firm creating a permanent subclass of such attorneys takes an individual problem and makes it an institutional one. For example, if permanent non-equity partners do meaningful and fulfilling work, they’ll deprive younger attorneys of those increasingly scarce opportunities. That expands the morale problem into the senior associate ranks where career satisfaction languishes at historic lows.

Conversely, if the permanent non-equity partners are performing tasks that other attorneys avoid, that creates other difficulties. Reeser and McKenna note that such practitioners sometimes “take on non-billable leadership positions…involving pro bono, diversity, recruiting, training, and professional development.” Unfortunately, there’s no better way to send a message of management’s indifference to such pursuits than by putting the B-team in charge.

Finally, the authors suggest that a non-equity track enables firms to “retain some whiz-bang lawyers who have young children they want to spend more time with or who just want to get off the equity partner treadmill.” Remarkably, no one seems willing to rethink the wisdom of a system that produces that unhappy treadmill in the first place.

The presence of more non-equity partners in big law might simply be a residue of the enormous associate classes hired in earlier years. But for firms using them to create a permanent subclass generating short-term dollars, the strategy makes no long-term sense. Because there’s no metric to capture the downside, big law leaders will ignore it.

But if the trend continues, the non-equity partner bubble will grow and the prevailing big law model will develop another enduring chink in its increasingly fragile armor.

THE LATERAL BUBBLE

Most big law leaders say that they have to keep pushing equity partner profits higher to attract and retain rainmakers. They have repeated that mantra so often and for so long that the rest of the profession has accepted it as an article of faith.

Perhaps it’s true, but two items in the February issue of The American Lawyer prompt this heretical question:

What if the lateral hiring frenzy is creating a bubble?

Victor Li’s “This Time It’s Personal” describes the state of play: lateral hiring is way up. Law firm management consultants, including my friend Jerry Kowalski, predict more of the same for 2012 as firms counter revenue losses from departing partners to prevent the death spiral that can result. Such fear-driven behavior can easily lead to overpayment for so-called hot lateral prospects that turn out to be, well, not so hot.

As I’ve observed previously, the reasons for the lateral explosion have much to do with big law’s evolution. Its currently prevailing business model encourages partners to keep clients in individual silos away from fellow partners, lest they claim a share of billings that determine compensation. Paradoxically, such behavior also maximizes a partner’s lateral options and makes exit more likely. In other words, the institutional wounds are self-inflicted.

But the article quotes several firm leaders who emphasize that, while money was important in motivating some of the partners they acquired, the search for a global platform also mattered. Frank Burch, cochair of DLA Piper, acknowledges that enticing a lateral hire requires that the money offered be comparable. But he also says that his firm “did a lot of hiring from firms that reported higher profits per partner” than DLA Piper. The article cites four: Paul Hastings; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; White & Case; and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

Except “Crazy Like a Fox” by Edwin B. Reeser and Patrick J. McKenna (also in The American Lawyer February issue), makes the correct observation that a firm’s average PPP is not all that informative. The authors’ focus principally on the growing cohort of non-equity partners in a climate where clients are unwilling to pay for first- and second-year associates. But they make a telling point on a seemingly unrelated topic: the income gap within equity partnerships has exploded.

They note that a few years ago the equity partner pay spread was typically three-to-one; some places it’s now ten-to-one or even twelve-to-one:

“Over the last few years there has been a dramatic change in the balance of compensation, to a large degree undisclosed, in which increasing numbers of partners fall below the firm’s reported average profits per equity partner (PPP)…Typically, two-thirds of the equity partners earn less, and some earn only perhaps half, of the average PPP.”

(Trying to justify this trend, some firm leaders have offered silly explanations, such as geographical differences.)

Now apply this learning to Li’s article. A firm’s average PPP isn’t luring high-powered lawyers; the money at the top is. Perhaps the desire to provide clients with a better global platform plays a role in some laterals’ decisions, but most of the firms experiencing the highest number of lateral partner departures in 2011 are already worldwide players. In fact, four firms — DLA Piper, K&L Gates, Jones Day, and SNR Denton — are simultaneously on both the most departures and most hires list.

Consider an example. Last year when Jamie Wareham became big law’s highly public $5 million man, did leaving Paul Hastings for DLA Piper improve his ability to serve clients? Doubtful. But the bubble question is far more important to the firm: Has Wareham been worth it? Only he and his new partners know for sure.

That leads to a final heretical question: Where a lateral bubble develops, what happens when it bursts or, perhaps more pernicious, develops a slow profitability leak? Nothing good. For the answer, ask those who once worked at HowreyHeller Ehrman or one of the many other now-defunct firms whose leaders thought that acquiring high-profile laterals offered only upside.

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.

UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

Today’s “Unfortunate Comment Award” winner is ABA President William (“Bill”) Robinson III, who thinks he has found those responsible for the glut of unemployed, debt-ridden young lawyers: the lawyers themselves.

“It’s inconceivable to me that someone with a college education, or a graduate-level education, would not know before deciding to go to law school that the economy has declined over the last several years and that the job market out there is not as opportune as it might have been five, six, seven, eight years ago,” he told Reuters during a January 4 interview.

Which year we talkin’ ’bout, Willis?

Recent graduates made the decision to attend law school in the mid-2000s, when the economy was booming. Even most students now in their third year decided to apply by spring 2008 — before the crash — when they registered for the LSAT. Some of those current 3-Ls were undergraduates in the first-ever offering of a course on the legal profession that I still teach at Northwestern. What were they thinking? I’ll tell you.

I’ve written that colleges and law schools still make little effort to bridge a pervasive expectations-reality gap. Anyone investigating law schools in early 2008 saw slick promotional materials that reinforced the pervasive media image of a glamorous legal career.

Jobs? No problem. Prospective students read that for all recent graduates of all law schools, the overall average employment rate was 93 percent. They had no reason to assume that schools self-reported misleading statistics to the ABA, NALP, and the all-powerful U.S. News ranking machine.

But unlike most of their law school-bound peers, my students scrutinized the flawed U.S. News approach. Among other things, they discovered that employment rates based on the ABA’s annual law school questionnaire were cruel jokes. That questionnaire allowed deans to report graduates as employed, even if they were flipping burgers or working for faculty members as temporary research assistants.

Law school websites followed that lead because the U.S. News rankings methodology penalized greater transparency and candor. In his Reuters interview, Robinson suggested that problematic employment statistics afflicted “no more than four” out of 200 accredited institutions, but he’s just plain wrong. Like their prospective students, most deans still obsess over U.S. News rankings as essential elements of their business models.

The beat goes on

With the ABA’s assistance, such law school deception continues today. Only last month — December 2011 — did the Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar finally approve changes in collecting and publishing law graduate placement data: Full- or part-time jobs? Bar passage required? Law school-funded? Some might consider that information relevant to a prospective law student trying to make an informed decision. Until this year, the ABA didn’t. The U.S. News rankings guru, Robert Morse, deferred to the ABA.

The ABA is accelerating the new reporting process so that “the placement data for the class of 2011 will be published during the summer of 2012, not the summer of 2013.” That’s right, even now, a pre-law student looking at ABA-sanctioned employment information won’t find the whole ugly truth. (Notable exceptions include the University of Chicago and Yale.) Consequently, any law school still looks like a decent investment of time and money, but as Professor William Henderson and Rachel Zahorsky note in the January 2012 issue of the ABA Journal, it often isn’t.

Students haven’t been blind to the economy. But bragging about 90+ percent employment rates didn’t (and doesn’t) deter prospective lawyers. Quite the contrary. Law school has long been the last bastion of the liberal arts major who can’t decide what’s next. The promise of a near-certain job in tough times makes that default solution more appealing.

Even the relatively few undergraduates (including the undergraduates in my class) paying close attention to big firm layoffs in 2009 were hopeful. They thought that by the time they came out of law school, the economy and the market for attorneys would improve. So did many smart, informed people. Youthful optimism isn’t a sin.

Which takes me to ABA President Robinson’s most telling comment in the Reuters interview: “We’re not talking about kids who are making these decisions.”

Perhaps we’re not talking about his 20-something offspring, but they’re somebody’s kids. The ABA and most law school deans owed them a better shake than they’ve received.

It’s ironic and unfortunate: one of the most visible spokesmen in a noble profession blames the victims.

EYE OF NEWT

This post is not about politics. It’s about much more.

The Republican Presidential debates have generated many surprising applause lines, but Newt Gingrich delivered this one on December 15 and it should scare all freedom-loving Americans. So should the crowd reaction.

“[T]he courts have become grotesquely dictatorial, far too powerful, and I think, frankly, arrogant in their misreading of the American people,” Gingrich proclaimed in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses. “I taught a short course in this at the University of Georgia Law School. I testified in front of sitting Supreme Court justices at Georgetown Law School. And I warned them: You keep attacking the core base of American exceptionalism, and you are going to find an uprising against you which will rebalance the judiciary.”

[“Testified in front of sitting Supreme Court justices at Georgetown Law School”? Maybe he means “giving testimony” in his newly-found religious sense.]

Anyway, Gingrich — the man who racked up a $500,000 Tiffany’s tab, but decries “elites” — then proceeded to explain exactly how he’d accomplish a “rebalance”: abolish courts that disagreed with his views; subpoena sitting judges for Congressional appearances; ignore Supreme Court decisions that he didn’t like.

For a candidate who fancies himself a historian, ironies abound. For someone who is given to rhetorical flourishes while comparing himself to Winston Churchill and analogizing his adversary’s policies to Nazism, the remarks are astonishing. They’d be funny, too, if they weren’t so frightening.

Newt justice

Stalwart conservatives, including Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and former Bush administration Attorneys General, Alberto Gonzalez and Michael Mukasey, have roundly condemned Gingrich’s assault on the federal judiciary. So did the National Review.

Lest you think that his Iowa remarks were impromptu outbursts, Newt’s October 7, 2011 White Paper, “Bringing the Courts Back under the Constitution,” lays it all out. (Gingrich brags about not being a lawyer; unfortunately for Vince Haley, a 1992 University of Virginia Law School graduate, the White Paper lists him as its senior editor.)

This post considers just one of Newt’s ideas: subpoenaing judges before Congressional committees to explain their reasons for decisions that he doesn’t like. His White Paper describes it this way:

“Judicial Accountability Hearings

Congress can establish procedures for relevant Congressional committees to express their displeasure with certain judicial decisions by holding hearing [sic] and requiring federal judges come [sic] before them to explain their constitutional reasoning in certain decision [sic] and to hear a proper Congressional Constitutional interpretation.”

Problematic grammar aside, the stated rationale is disingenuous. In decisions that matter, federal judges routinely explain their reasoning in written opinions. The losing party may disagree, but the process is transparent. If there’s an appeal, at least three more judges review the case; they usually explain themselves, too. A few reach the Supreme Court, where yet more judicial elucidation occurs.

Unless the purpose is to pursue judicial impeachment — the constitutional remedy for misconduct — anyone who seeks to command a sitting judge’s appearance before Congress has a single goal: winning through intimidation. That takes me to Newt the historian, who sometimes ignores history’s most important lessons.

Precedent

Following World War I, Germany’s Weimar Constitution established an independent judiciary. On August 20, 1942, Adolf Hitler appointed Otto Thierack as Reichminister of Justice. Six weeks later, Thierack issued the first of his “Letters to All Judges.” According to an article from the U S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Letters set forth “the state’s position on political questions and on the legal interpretation of Nazi laws.” German judges understood the importance of following those “suggestions.”

But the article also notes that even Hitler’s SS grasped the potentially explosive implications of Thierack’s intrusions.  The fear of a public backlash led to classifying the Letters as state secrets. In a May 30, 1943 report, the Security Service of the SS declared, “The people want an independent judge. The administration of justice and the state would lose all legitimacy if the people believed judges had to decide in a particular way.”

During the final Iowa debate, Gingrich listed U.S. Supreme Court Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito as his favorites. That endorsement should make them squirm and, as another history lesson confirms, react publicly:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist…”

OCCUPY BIG LAW

The encampments are gone, but Occupy Wall Street leaves behind a slogan that should make any history student shudder and some big law leaders squirm:

“We’re the 99-percenters.”

It’s not a leftist fringe rant. During a recent Commonwealth Club of California appearance, presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer said that, if becoming President turned on the answer to a single question, he’d pose this one to every candidate:

“What are you going to do about the growing disparity of wealth in the United States of America?”

Once-great civilizations collapsed under such weight. A similar internal phenomenon is quietly weakening some mighty law firms.

Destabilizing trends

“Don’t redistribute wealth — that’s class warfare” has become a popular rhetorical rallying cry. (See, for example, the Wall Street Journal‘s lead editorials on December 2  and 7.) But a stealth class war has already produced massive economic redistribution — from the 99-percenters to the one-percenters.

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz writes in Vanity Fair that the top one percent control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth — up from 33 percent 25 years ago. In a recent interview, Jeffrey Winters of Northwestern University notes: “[In America], wealth is two times as concentrated as imperial Rome, which was a slave and farmer society. That’s how huge the gap is.”

Both Winters and Stiglitz suggest that today’s oligarchs use wealth to preserve power. One effective tactic is to encourage the pursuit of dreams that, for most 99-percenters, are largely illusory. My favorite New Yorker cartoon is a bar scene with a scruffy man in a T-shirt telling a well-dressed fellow patron: “As a potential lottery winner, I totally support tax cuts for the wealthy.”

For today’s young attorneys, one largely illusory dream has become the brass ring of a big firm equity partnership atop the leveraged pyramid.

Big law winners

So far, wealthy lawyers have avoided public outrage. But between 1979 and 2005, the top one percent of attorneys doubled their share of America’s income — from 0.61 to 1.22 percent. For the Am Law 50, average equity partner profits soared from $300,000 in 1985 ($630,000 in today’s dollars) to $1.5 million in 2010.

Even so, the really big gap — in society and within large law firms — is inside the ranks of the privileged, and it has been growing. By one estimate, the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans captured half of all gains going to the top one percent. Similarly, management consultant Kristin Stark of Hildebrandt Baker Robbins observes that before the recession, the top-to-bottom ratio within equity partnerships “was typically five-to-one in many firms. Very often today, we’re seeing that spread at 10-to-1, even 12-to-1.”

So what?

Meritocracies are vital and valuable, but for nations as well as for institutions, extreme income inequality reveals something about the culture that produces it. A recent study found that only three nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — Chile, Mexico and Turkey — have greater income inequality than America. Perhaps it’s coincidental, but all OECD countries with less inequality — including Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Germany, Austria, and Britain — likewise surpass the U.S. in almost every quality of life measure.

In big law, exploding inequality is one symptom of a profound ailment: The myopic focus on short-term compensation metrics that reward bad behavior — hoarding clients, demanding more billables, raising leverage ratios. As the prevailing model creates stunning wealth for a few, it encourages attitudes that poison working environments and diminish the profession.

Unlike imperial Rome, today’s large firms won’t fall prey to Huns and Vandals. Rather, modern casualties include mentoring, training, collegiality, community, loyalty, and building institutional connections between clients and young lawyers. Those characteristics once defined the very concept of professional partnership. Today’s business of law makes precious little room for them. Clients who think that these relatively new trends aren’t compromising the quality and cost of their legal services are kidding themselves.

A meaningful Occupy Big Law movement would require that: 1) clients (and courts approving attorneys’ fees petitions) finally say, “Enough!” and 2) would-be protesters stop viewing themselves as future equity partner lottery winners. Meanwhile, senior partners need not worry about disaffected lawyers and staff taking to the streets.

After all, there’s no way to bill that time.

THE ARROGANCE OF OVERCONFIDENCE

Most of us hate admitting our mistakes, especially errors in judgment. Lawyers make lots of judgments, which is why they should pay special attention to two recent and seemingly unrelated NY Times articles.

In the October 23 NYT Magazine, psychologist and economics Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes an early encounter with his own character flaw that led him to research its universality. Assigned to observe a team-buidling exercise, he was so sure of his predictions about the participants’ future prospects that he disregarded incontrovertible data proving him wrong — again, and again, and again.

In subsequent experiments, he discovered that he wasn’t alone. A similar arrogance of overconfidence explains why, for example, individual investors insist on picking their own stocks year after year, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence that their portfolios are worse for it.

In the same Sunday edition of the Times, philosopher Robert P. Crease discusses the two different measurement systems. One relates to traditional notions: how much something weighs or how far a person runs. Representatives from 55 nations met recently to finalize state-of-the-art definitions for basic units of such measurements — the meter, the second, the kilogram, and so forth.

The second system is less susceptible to quantification. Crease notes: “Aristotle…called the truly moral person a ‘measure,’ because our encounters with such a person show us our shortcomings.” Ignoring this second type in favor of numerical assessments gets us into trouble, individually and as a society. Examples include equating intelligence to a single number, such as I.Q. or brain size, or evaluating students (and their teachers) solely by reference to standardized test scores.

Lessons for lawyers — and everyone else

Now consider the intersection of these two phenomena — the arrogance of overconfidence and the reliance on numbers alone to measure value. For example, in recent years, a single metric — partner profits — has come to dominate every internal law firm conversation about attorney worth. Billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios have become the criteria by which most big law leaders judge themselves, fellow partners, their associates, and competitors. They teach to the same test — the one that produces annual Am Law rankings.

The arrogance of overconfidence exacerbates these tendencies. It’s one thing to press onward, as Kahneman concludes most of us do, in the face data proving that we’re moving in the wrong direction. Imagine how bad things can get when a measurement technique appears to validate what are really errors.

I’m not an anarchist. (I offer my advanced degree in economics as modest support.) But the relatively recent notion that there is only one set of law firm measures for defining success — revenues, short-term profits, leverage — has become a plague on our profession. Of course, we’re not alone. According to the Times, during the academic year 2005-2006, one-quarter of the advanced degrees awarded in the United States were MBAs. Business school-type metrics are ubiquitous and, regrettably, often viewed as outcome determinative.

But lawyers know better than to get lost in them, or once upon a time they did. The metrics that most big firm leaders now worship were irrelevant to them as students two or three decades ago. Like today’s undergraduates, they were pursuing a noble calling. Few went to law school seeking a job where their principal missions would be maximizing client billings and this year’s partner profits.

Will the profession’s leaders in the next generation make room for the other kind of measure — the one Aristotle had in mind — that informs the quality of a person’s life, not merely it’s quantitative output? Might they consider the possibility that focusing on short-term metrics imposes long-run costs that aren’t easily measured numerically but are far more profound?

Reviewing the damage that their predecessors’ failures in that regard have inflicted — as measured imprecisely by unsettling levels of career dissatisfaction, substance abuse, depression, and worse — should motivate them to try.

Meanwhile, they’ll have to contend with wealthy senior partners telling them to keep their hours up — a directive that those partners themselves never heard. Good luck to all of us.

THE COST OF DISSATISFACTION

This month began with the publication of The American Lawyer‘s annual Mid-Level Associate Satisfaction Survey results. The dismal descent to historic depths continues. Let’s end it with this question: Why should law firm leaders care?

Answer: Because dissatisfied lawyers are costing them money.

That’s the conclusion of Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile and fellow researcher, Steven Kramer, in The Progress Principle. They reported their findings in the Labor Day edition of the New York TimesAt a time when most workers feel fortunate to have jobs, Amabile and Kramer have a tough sell in convincing employers, including law firm leaders, to worry about the psychological state of their employees.

We all know the mantra: No one is required to accept any job. The market allocates resources. A labor market clears at the point where buyers and sellers agree on a price for services sought and rendered. Workers take into account the factors that matter to them and get paid appropriately for the jobs they’re willing to do. Case closed.

Not quite. Such an analysis makes dubious assumptions about the market. On the employee side, bad or incomplete information can distort outcomes. A prospective law student might hope to emulate popular media images that merge with law school promotional materials promising a secure, well-paying future. Once in school, individual financial imperatives — such as the need to repay staggering educational debt — can constrain post-degree options. Meanwhile, the anticipated job often turns out to be neither secure nor well-paying.

Likewise, employers take false comfort in the misconception that a new hire is simply exercising free will in a free market. A firm assumes that if young attorneys’ experiences diverge from rosier expectations, any resulting psychological distress isn’t its problem. Never mind that the firm’s underlying business model produces behavioral incentives and a culture that exacerbate the disconnect.

“We’re just trying to run a business,” most law firm leaders would say. “There’s no metric for assessing the impact of career dissatisfaction on performance. If I can’t measure it, how can I consider it when making decisions?”

As long as everyone keeps billing hours, the profits beast continues to be fed. As unhappy associates alone bear the burden of their discontent, leaders rationalize their indifference to growing dissatisfaction with a simplistic analysis: if it gets too bad, people can leave and find another job. In the current buyer’s market for associates, boatloads of replacements are waiting in the wings anyway.

The work of Amabile and Kramer offers an intriguing rebuttal to myopic managers who can’t see past next year’s profits. In a longitudinal study encompassing ten years and 238 professionals in seven different companies, they asked people to make daily diary entries about their emotional states. Negative inner work lives resulted in “a profound impact on workers’ creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality.”

The findings challenge the conventional wisdom that pervades many big firm cultures, namely, that pressure enhances performance. According to Amabile and Kramer, the data suggest that the opposite is true: “[W]orkers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do….[O]f all the events that engage people at work, the single most important — by far — is simply making progress in meaningful work.”

The authors note Gallup’s estimate that America’s “disengagement crisis” costs $300 billion annually in lost productivity. They also observe that the vast majority of 669 surveyed managers shared an important incompetence: the managers “failed to recognize that progress in meaningful work is the primary [employee] motivator, well ahead of traditional incentives like raises and bonuses.” The catalysts that enable such progress are worker autonomy, sufficient resources, and learning from problems.

Big firm leaders determine the extent to which their workers experience these three catalysts. The leveraged pyramid and its billable hour regime enslaves associates while inhibiting partners from becoming mentors. In other words, the prevailing big law model cuts the wrong way for everyone. The resulting work environment produces dissatisfaction that’s costing the equity partners money.

How much money? William Bruce Cameron’s observation (sometimes attributed to Einstein) was right: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

COMMENDABLE COMMENT AWARD

Rare candor at the top deserves recognition.

The September issue of The American Lawyer honors the magazine’s 2011 Lifetime Achievers — an impressive group. The list is alphabetical, which made Richard Beattie first. Now 72, he has enjoyed a long and distinguished career since joining Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett in 1968. Complementing a wildly successful big firm transactional practice, he also served the public in many capacities, including general counsel to the former U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare under Secretary Joseph Califano, Jr. in the 1970s.

In 1991, Beattie was elected to Simpson Thacher’s executive committee. He became chairman in 2004. By any measure, he has certainly earned his latest accolade. Yet another — my “Commendable Comment Award” — results from his response to The American Lawyer‘s question about his biggest regret:

“I regret the number of vacations with my family I missed as a result of working on transactions.”

Succeeding in big law requires talent, hard work, sacrifice, and — dare I say it — luck. Only the most reflective of big law leaders credit fortuity to their rise and even fewer discuss the downside — the personal cost that they and their families bear.

Mr. Beattie’s candor comes with a bit of irony. The same issue of the magazine reports this year’s Midlevel Associate Satisfaction survey. Overall, Simpson Thacher is tied for 56th out of 126 firms in the survey. It’s 36th out of 85 Am Law 100 and Global 100 firms. And remember, overall associate satisfaction for the survey group dropped again this year to an all-time low; being in the middle of the pack is, at best, a mediocre finish.

Going behind the numbers, Simpson scores below average in “family friendliness” — 3.47 out of five (the national average is 3.62). The firm is also below average in its associates’ stated likelihood of staying two years (3.44 compared to 3.58 nationally).

One more notable statistic from this year’s 2011 Am Law 100 listing: Simpson Thacher’s 2010 partner profits increased by more than nine percent over 2009. Its average profits per equity partner were $2.64 million — eighth place.

Being a lawyer has always been demanding. That won’t change. There are times when a situation requires sacrifices that only a particular lawyer (and his or her family) can make in responding to a client’s genuine emergency. But when it comes to big firms, clients in such situations rarely require the services of any particular mid-level associate.

In fact, during thirty years of practice, I never heard a client say, “I need associate X to cancel his or her family vacation to meet with me.” The seasoned senior partner may seem indispensable. Even the best midlevel associate? Never.

Which takes me back to Beattie and his firm. He gets high marks for admitting that work impaired his family life, but as a member of Simpson Thacher’s executive committee for two decades and chairman for the past seven years, he’s also had a unique power to shape his firm’s culture. His accomplishments are worthy of The American Lawyer‘s Lifetime Achievement Award, but he and others who set the profession’s tone have a special obligation to foster working environments in which young lawyers avoid what Beattie now describes as his biggest regret. Indeed, if they can’t, who can?

No leader of any big firm can single-handedly reverse the last two decades of unfortunately myopic and often short-sighted trends. But all should consider adopting “The Misery Index” — an informational tool that free market disciples should embrace. Such a metric might influence institutional behavior for the better, even if only marginally. Those willing to try it could, perhaps, improve the profession in ways they never thought possible back when they were missing all of those family vacations. There’s still time to keep others from missing theirs.

Anyone receiving honors recognizing a lifetime of achievement could leave no better legacy than empowering young proteges to avoid regrets similar to their own. Of course, the problem isn’t unique to Beattie or Simpson Thacher. It’s wrapped into the larger question of defining long-term success — a question that every big law leader should ponder for his or her firm. Regrettably, few will. There’s no way to bill a client for the time.

FROM THE SPORTS PAGE

Subtle clues revealing the cause of a fundamental problem confronting the legal profession are everywhere, even in the sports section.

Recently, the New York Times wrote about 26-year-old Josh Satin, who made his major league debut for the New York Mets on Sunday, September 4. This time of year, such stories about minor league ballplayers getting a chance to play for out-of-contention major league teams are common. Regrettably, one of my hometown franchises — the Cubs — affords such opportunities almost every year.

This line of the Satin article caught my eye:

“After graduating as a political science major from Cal, Satin was selected by the Mets in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. And like any number of 20-somethings with a liberal arts degree and nebulous career prospects, he kept law school applications at the ready.”

Satin was drafted the  same year I began offering an advanced undergraduate course that targeted students like him. For many juniors and seniors who can’t decide what to do next, law school becomes a default solution that buys them more time. Sometimes it works out okay; for too many others, it’s a place where dreams go to die.

Bad information bears much of the blame for the problem of poor career choices that, in turn, contribute to widespread attorney dissatisfaction. Law schools skirting the outer limits of candor to fill their classrooms have made the problem worse. So has the transformation of big firms from a profession to a collection of short-term profit-maximizing businesses that use misguided metrics to drive decisions.

As a consequence, some not-so-funny things happened to many of those who went to law school for the wrong reasons. For starters, the promise of a secure future at a well-paying job turned out to be illusory. The persistent problem of lawyer oversupply rose to crisis levels during what would have been Satin’s first year of law school, if he’d gone. Since then, the market for new talent has gotten worse.

But even many who found decent legal jobs have been unpleasantly surprised. Popular images of dynamic lawyers engaged in courtroom battles widen the gap between student expectations and the reality they’ll encounter; that eventually makes for some very unhappy attorneys. By the time the truth hits, many find themselves burdened with educational debt equal to a home mortgage, albeit without the house.

That doesn’t mean no one should go to law school. The law is a great and noble pursuit in many ways. In fact, even the most pessimistic assessments suggest that about half of all attorneys enjoy satisfying careers. I sure did.

Nor does it mean that everyone who dreams of playing major league baseball — or any other high-profile job that the media infuses with irresistible glamour — should give it a shot. Everyone enjoys watching extraordinarily talented celebrities ply their trades, but for most of us, being a spectator is our highest and best use at such events. In his address to the Northwestern graduating class of 2011, Stephen Colbert referred to commencement speakers who tell college graduates to follow their dreams and asked, “What if it’s a stupid dream?”

But acknowledging the stupidity of a dream shouldn’t make law school the fallback answer to one of life’s most important questions, “Now what?”

I don’t know if Josh Satin will remain a major league ballplayer. If he doesn’t, I don’t know what he’ll do after that. But meanwhile, give him credit for having the courage to pursue passions for which he obviously has talent. It’s a safe bet that he’s happier than his college classmates “with a liberal arts degree and nebulous career prospects [who] kept law school applications at the ready,” sent them in, and pursued legal careers for which they had incomplete knowledge, limited enthusiasm, or both. Compounding the difficulties with which they began law school, they’re now having trouble finding the secure, well-paying and exciting work that they thought would be waiting for them when they graduated.

It turns out that for most of the nation’s 50,000 annual graduates, those particular jobs were never there at all.

SUFFERING IN SILENCE

The 2011 Am Law associate survey is out. Billable hours continue moving up; morale continues moving down. As I explain in “Suffering in Silence” (appearing in the September 2011 print edition of The American Lawyer), those who get to participate in the survey are the lucky ones.

It’s especially appropriate for Labor Day.

LAW SCHOOL NON-LEADERSHIP

Disenchanted alumni have filed two more class actions against their law schools. In addition to Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Thomas M. Cooley Law School and New York Law School are now defending their former students’ fraud claims. NYLS said the claims were without merit and would defend against them in court. Cooley, the largest law school in the country, is pursuing a more aggressive strategy that earns it this closer look.

Cooley was founded in 1972 by now-retired Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas E. Brennan. In 1996, dissatisfied with the subjectivity of U.S. News rankings methodology that, coincidentally, placed Cooley in its unranked lower tiers, Brennan began publishing his own recompilation of the ABA’s data. The latest edition appears on the school’s website. In it, Cooley’s overall ranking is #2. Harvard is #1; Yale is #10; Stanford is #30; and the University of Chicago is #41. (Exploring the different subjective judgments that underlie Brennan’s alternative system must await another day.)

Cooley’s 2010 graduate employment rate was 78.8% — 181st out of 193 accredited law schools on Justice Brennan’s latest list. The question that has morphed into litigation is what that rate means.

Kurzon Strauss LLP represents the plaintiffs in both of the latest suits. According to the Wall Street JournalCooley recently sued that firm “for propagating purportedly defamatory ads on the websites Cragislist and Facebook about the school. The postings were part of the law firm’s investigation into how law schools report employment statistics, according to firm partner Jesse Strauss.” Cooley also filed a separate defamation suit against four anonymous bloggers.

But escalation can amplify unwanted publicity; publicity creates the potential for visible missteps. Based on the Journal‘s report, I think Cooley made one:

“Jim Thelen, Cooley’s general counsel, said that if any of the plaintiffs or their attorneys has issue with how law schools report employment numbers, then they ought to take it up with the American Bar Association, which helps set criteria for collecting data, or even the Department of Education — but not with individual law schools. ‘These are nothing other than attempts to bring public attention to this issue,’ Mr. Thelen said.”

Actually, this is a double misstep, proving that sometimes the best comment is none at all. First, using the answers that Cooley and every other school provide to the ABA’s annual law school questionnaire may be today’s catchy sound bite, but it’s tomorrow’s dubious long-term strategy. The ABA doesn’t cash students’ tuition checks; their law schools do. Telling the world that unemployed graduates should take their concerns about the quality of post-graduation employment data elsewhere should send an unsettling message to any pre-law student who is listening.

Second, many litigants seek publicity; calling them out isn’t a defense — or particularly attractive. Attorneys tend to forget that lay audiences quickly develop a “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” reaction to lawyers’ public relations efforts. In fact, a non-lawyer who hears Thelen’s remarks could well wonder, “Well, why are they trying to bring public attention to the issue? Is there a problem?”

The underlying concern — assessing the quality of graduate employment rate data  — isn’t unique to Cooley. Deans who understand the serious flaws in the ABA-required reporting methodology should have exposed them long ago, just as the NY Times finally did earlier this year. That most awaited the ABA’s recent directive on this topic evidences a pervasive failure of leadership. The ABA’s annual questionnaire has never prevented any school from doing more to inform prospective students, such as telling them who among their reportedly employed graduates have full-time jobs or positions requiring a legal degree.

Then again, lawyers and former judges run law schools. Sure, disgruntled students who incur enormous educational debt to get their degrees may claim to have been misled. But the defenses will always be many and the odds against certifying consumer fraud claims will forever be daunting. Beat the class and the case usually goes away.

On the other hand, if Dr. King was right that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” some law schools may discover that their public comments ring hollow and their short-term victories are pyrrhic.

IT’S THE MODEL

[Thanks, readers. My big law novel — The Partnership — has been on the Amazon e-book “Legal Thrillers Best-Seller List” for more than a month. Last weekend, it was #7. Also available for iPadNook, and in paperback.]

Returning from vacation means tackling a pile of accumulated newspapers in a single sitting. That sounds like a chore, but it allows the mind to connect news items that otherwise might seem completely unrelated.

Consider these three from the Wall Street Journal on August 1, 2, and 3.

In “With Oracle and Dodgers Waiting, Boies Not Ready to Retire,” the Journal  interviewed David Boies — 70-year-old former Cravath partner who started his own firm. He represented Al Gore in the 2000 election fight, plaintiffs challenging California’s law banning gay marriage, the NFL in its litigation with players, and a long string of high-profile litigants. Boies explains why more than half of his firm’s cases have a potential success fee:

“Hourly rate billing is bad for the client and I believe bad for the firm. It sets up a conflict between what’s good for the lawyer and what’s good for the client.”

Enter the client with the will to resist the hourly billing regime. On August 2, the WSJ‘s “Pricing Tactic Spooks Lawyers” describes clients countering high big law fees with on line reverse auctions that pit firms against each other in bidding for business. The result: cost reduction.

But economizing can be dangerous. An article in the next day’s WSJ should make every big firm attorney squirm. “Objection! Lawsuit Slams Temp Lawyers” reports that J-M Manufacturing is suing its former law firm, McDermott, Will & Emery LLP, claiming that the firm didn’t supervise adequately the work of contract attorneys from a third-party vendor. McDermott denies wrongdoing:

“J-M…keeps changing its story. Now [it]…claims that McDermott failed to supervise the contract lawyers that J-M retained….”

According to the article, J-M alleges that it paid McDermott attorneys rates as high as $925 an hour, compared to $61 an hour to the firm supplying the temps. In other words and regardless of who retained them, using contract lawyers helped shave J-M’s outside legal bills.

Here’s the common thread. In the first article, Boies just says what everyone knows: the billable hour regime is a nightmare. The second reflects ongoing client efforts to reduce resulting legal costs. The third identifies a potential peril for law firms that attempt to oblige: a malpractice suit — the ultimate conflict with a client.

I don’t know if McDermott did anything wrong, but clients should realize that putting the squeeze on outside lawyers is tricky. For example, cutting fees is one thing; expecting large firm equity partners to do the obvious — reduce their own stunning income levels to help the cause — is something else, and it isn’t happening.

Amid corporate belt-tightening that targeted outside legal costs, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 actually rose during the last two years. They’re now back to pre-Great Recession levels of $1.4 million a year and it’s a safe bet that next year’s profits will be even higher. If I were a client, I’d ask, “How did that happen?”

“It’s the successful model at work,” most firm leaders would say without reflection or hesitation. “Growing equity partner earnings are essential to retain and attract top talent. Firms have become more efficient, so it’s a win-win for clients and partners.”

Clients should consider the untoward implications of austerity measures that don’t dent equity partners’ pocketbooks. Increased efficiency? Operating with fewer secretaries and putting locks on supply room cabinets don’t account for the extraordinary profits wave that big law continues to ride.

Here’s another explanation. The prevailing model requires increases in billable hours — big law’s distorted definition of productivity — to offset fee reductions that clients demand. Concerned about attorney fatigue that compromises morale and work product? Too bad; the model ignores it.

Clients can and should seek lower big law fees, but they should be careful what they wish for, scrutinize what they get, and wonder why equity partners’ eye-popping profits keep growing along the way. The prevailing model rewards big law equity partners handsomely, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s working for their clients or anyone else.

 

TRUTHINESS IN NUMBERS

Two recent developments here and across the pond share a common theme: ongoing confusion about young attorneys’ prospects. But the big picture seems clear to me.

Last month, I doubted predictions that the UK might be on the verge of a lawyer shortage. I expressed even greater skepticism that it presaged a similar shortfall in the United States. In particular, College of Law issued a report suggesting that an attorney shortage could exist as early as late 2011 and “may jump considerably in 2011-2012.”

This came as a surprise because the UK’s Law Society has warned repeatedly about the oversupply of lawyers in that country. Why such dramatically different views of the future?

Some commenters to an article about the College of Law report suggested that perhaps the study hadn’t taken into account the existing backlog of earlier graduates who, along with young solicitors laid off in 2008 and 2009, were still looking for work.

Another explanation may be that the College of Law and its private competitors, including Kaplan Education’s British arm, wants to recruit students to their legal training programs. Sound familiar?

The following is from the College of Law website:

“84% of our LPC graduates were in legal work just months after graduation.*”

But mind the asterisk: “*Based on known records of students successfully completing their studies in 2010.”

I wonder who among their students isn’t “known.” As for “legal work,” a recent former UK bar chairman observed that the oversupply of attorneys in that country has driven many recent LPC graduates into the ranks of the paralegals. Digging deeper into the College of Law’s 84 percent number yields the following: 62 percent lawyers; 22 percent paralegals “or other law related.” At least the College appears to be more straightforward than American law schools compiling employment stats for their U.S. News rankings.

That takes me to the recent ABA committee recommendation concerning employment data here. U.S. News rankings guru Robert Morse has joined the ABA in assuring us that help is on the way for those who never dreamed that law schools reporting employment after graduation might include working as a greeter at Wal-Mart. Morse insists that if the schools give him better data, he’ll use it.

It’s too little, too late. Employment rate deception is the tip of an ugly iceberg comprising the methodological flaws in the rankings. For example, employment at nine-months accounts for 14 percent of a school’s score; take a look at the absurd peer and lawyer/judges assessment criteria, which count for 40 percent. Res ipsa loquitur, as we lawyers say.

Frankly, I’m skeptical about the prospects for progress even on the employment data front. Until an independent third-party audits the numbers that law schools submit in the first place, their self-reporting remains suspect. No one in a position of real professional power is pushing that solution.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, Allen & Overy — a very large firm — announced its “second round of cuts on number of entry level lawyers hired” — from the current 105 London training contracts down to 90 for those applying this November.  The article concluded:

“The news comes after the latest statistical report from the Law Society highlighted the oversupply of legal education places compared with the number of training contracts in the UK legal market. The number of training contract places available fell by 16% last year to 4,874 and by 23% from a 2007-08 peak of 6,303.”

So much for the College of Law’s predictive powers. Prospective lawyers in the UK are probably as confused as their American counterparts when it comes to getting reliable information about their professional prospects. Most students everywhere assume that educational institutions have their best interests at heart.

If only wishing could make it so.

AGING GRACEFULLY — OR NOT

A recent NY Times article revealed the baby boomer’s dilemma: await marginalization or hog opportunities. It has profound implications for big law attorneys of all ages.

“[I]n my experience, it is much harder for older partners to maintain their position if their billable hours decline,” an employment lawyer told the Times.

So a law firm consultant suggested this strategy: “Very few people are so skilled that they can’t be replaced by a younger, more current practitioner. You’ve got to be so connected to important clients that the firm is going to fear your departure.”

That’s unfortunate advice, but not surprising. Most elders don’t mentor talented proteges to assume increasing responsibilities, persuade clients that others can do equally first-rate work, or institutionalize relationships so that the firm weathers senior partner departures and prospers over the long run. Instead, they create silos — self-contained practice groups of clients and attorneys who will give them leverage in the internal battles to retain money, power, and status. (See, e.g., The Partnership) Rather than waste time gaining fellow partners’ respect, the prevailing big law model prefers fear — or, more precisely, fear of a senior partner’s lost billings.

Over time, intergenerational antagonisms result. Older partners become blockage because the leveraged pyramid that pervades big law requires adherence to short-term metrics. Artificial constraints block the promotion of well-qualified candidates who’ve given years of personal sacrifice. If there’s not economic room at equity partner decision time, their efforts will have been for naught; they’re left behind.

Meanwhile, young attorneys learn by example. “Firm” clients cease to exist; they’re absorbed into jealously guarded fiefdoms that become transportable business units. Traditional partnership principles of mutual respect and support yield to unrestrained self-interest.

Eventually, everyone loses. Young attorneys resent elders; wealthy equity partners erect futile defenses against their own inevitable decline to an unhappy place; firms lose the stability that comes with loyal clients.

For some aging big law partners, greed never retires. But for many others, hanging on isn’t about the money. As mortality rears its head, their real quest is for continuing relevance — the belief that they still have something to offer and are making a difference.

Another Times article suggested a possible way out of big law’s conundrum: encouraging partners to redirect their skills. The New York Legal Aid Society program, Second Acts, taps into the growing army of retired lawyers:

“The point is not to have distinct phases of working life and after-working life, but to meld the two by having pro bono work be part of a lawyer’s career. Therefore, when lawyers retire, they can somewhat seamlessly slip into meaningful volunteer work, said Miriam Buhl, pro bono counsel at…Weil, Gotshal & Manges.”

The article described 68-year-old Steven B. Rosenfield, a former Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison partner who traded his commercial securities practice for work in juvenile rights.

Behavior follows embedded economic structures and the incentives they create. In big law, the myopic emphasis on a handful of short-term profit-maximizing metics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios — has produced blinding wealth for a few. But sometimes those metrics become less satisfying as organizing principles of life.

Firm demands have left all lawyers with little time to reflect on what their lives after big law might be. Someday, most successful big law partners will pay the price and need help finding a path that reshapes self-identity while preserving dignity. The challenge is to permit disengagement with honor.

Firms could do a great service — and improve their own long-term stability in the process — if they relieved the stigma of economic decline in ways that encouraged aging colleagues to do the right thing. But it requires thinking beyond today’s metrics that determine a partner’s current year compensation. It requires valuing what can’t be easily measured and embedding it in a firm’s culture so that reaching retirement age isn’t a shock, it’s a blessing. It requires empathy, compassion, and — most of all — leadership.

In short, it requires things that are, tragically, in very short supply throughout big law.

FAMILY FRIENDLY?

Lawyers know that definitions dictate outcomes. That’s why the Yale Law Women’s latest list of the “Top Ten Family Friendly Firms” includes some surprising names. At least, some surprised me.

It turns out that the YLW’s definition of family friendly is more restrictive than the plain meaning of the words. According to the survey methodology, it’s mostly a function of firms’ attention to particular issues relating primarily to women. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it shouldn’t be confused with what really undermines the family-friendliness of any big firm — its devotion to billable hours and billings as metrics that determine success. That problem isn’t gender-specific.

To compile the annual list, YLW surveyed the Vault Top 100 Law Firms. What would happen if they included all of the NLJ 250 or an even larger group that included small firms? I don’t know, but I’ll bet the list would look a lot different.

Now consider the survey categories and YLW commentary:

— Percentage of female attorneys: “Although YLW found that, on average, 45% of associates at responding law firms are women, women make up only 17% of equity partners and 18% of firm executive management committees. Additionally, on average, women made up just 27% of newly promoted partners in 2010.”

— Access to and use of parental leave: Virtually all firms have them. Big deal.

— Emergency and on-site child care: I understand the advantages, but how much family friendly credit should a firm get for providing a place where young lawyers can leave their babies and pre-schoolers while they work all day?

— Part-time and flex-time work policies: “98% offer a flex-time option, in which attorneys bill full-time hours while regularly working outside the office.” So what? I know senior partners without families who’ve done that for years.

— Usage of part-time and flex-time policies: “On average, 7% of attorneys at these firms were working part-time in 2010.” Will they become equity partners? “Of the 7% of attorneys working part-time, only 11% were partners, a number that may also include partners approaching retirement. Only 5% of the partners promoted in 2010 had worked part-time in the past, on average, and only 4% were working part-time when they were promoted.”

— Billable hours and compensation practices: “[I]t remains to be seen whether it is truly possible to work part-time at all. Our statistics indicate that while part-time attorneys appear to be fairly compensated, many may work more hours than originally planned. Most firms (93%) provide additional compensation if part-time attorneys work more than the planned number of hours or make part-time attorneys eligible for bonuses (96%). However, part-time attorneys received bonuses at higher rates than full-time attorneys (25% compared to 23% on average), suggesting that many part-time schedules may ultimately morph into full-time hours over the course of a year.”

— Alternative career programs: What’s that? Outplacement support?

All of this gets weighted according to another survey of Yale Law School alumni who ranked the relative importance of the surveyed policies and practices.

Continuing efforts to achieve greater big law transparency are laudable. But one problem with lists and rankings is that they take on a life of their own, wholly apart from methodological limitations and the caveats accompanying the results. (See, e.g., U.S. News rankings). Here, the YLW cautioned that it “remains concerned about the low rates of retention for women, the dearth of women in leadership positions, the gender gap in those who take advantage of family friendly policies, and the possibility that part-time work can derail an otherwise successful career.”

The honored firms will gloss over that warning, issue press releases, and delude themselves into believing that they are something they’re not. Someone truly interested in whether a place is family friendly should find out where it ranks on the “Misery Index.” Partners won’t tell you, but that metric would reveal a firm’s true commitment to the long-term health and welfare of its attorneys and their families.

If you really love someone, you should set them free — even if it’s only every other weekend.

A NEW LAW SCHOOL MISSION

What ails the profession and is there a cure?

If you haven’t already seen it, you might want to take a look at Part I of my article, “Great Expectations Meet Painful Realities,” in the Spring 2011 issue of Circuit Rider. My latest contribution to the debate on the profession’s growing crisis begins on page 24 of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association’s semi-annual publication.

Part II begins at page 26 of the December 2011 issue.

IMPROVING PROSPECTS — BUT FOR WHOM?

Life is just a matter of perspective. For example, here’s some apparently good news:

— The legal sector added 1,500 jobs in April.

— Ashby Jones at the Wall Street Journal Law Blog cited a recent article in The Guardian for the proposition that the U.K. might actually have a shortage of lawyers next year. Could the U.S. be far behind?

— NALP’s Executive Director James Leipold noted that, along with an overall attorney employment rate of 88.3% for the class of 2009, “the most recent recruitment cycle showed signs of a small bounce in the recruiting activity of law firms, a sign that better economic times likely lie ahead.”

Now consider each headline a bit differently:

— “Legal sector” isn’t limited to attorneys; more than 44,000 new law school graduates hit the market every year.

The Guardian article relies solely on a report from the College of Law that has an interest in encouraging applications to its program for prospective solicitors. More than one comment to the initial report expressed angry skepticism about the College’s short-term motives. Where have I heard that before?

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that, for the entire ten-year period from 2008 to 2018, net U.S. attorney employment will increase by only 100,000. Even if all aging attorneys retired as they turned 65, there aren’t enough of them to make room for all the newbies. In 1970, for example, law schools awarded only about one-third of the number of JDs conferred in 2010.

— To his credit, NALP’s Leipold went behind the 88% employment rate for the class of 2009. The resulting caveats are significant.

First, the percentage employed are graduates “for whom employment status was known.” Who’s excluded? Who knows?

Second, nearly 25 percent of all reported jobs were temporary; more than 10 percent were part-time.

Third, only 70 percent “held jobs for which a J.D. was required.” Unfortunately, law schools don’t offer tuition refunds (or relief from student loans) for education that was unnecessary for their graduates’ actual employment opportunities. That doesn’t surprise me. (See “Law School Deception.”)

Finally, more than 20 percent of employed graduates from the class of 2009 “were still looking for work.” Beneath the veneer of superficially good news — having a job — career dissatisfaction continues to eat away at too many of the profession’s best and brightest in yet another generation.

That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t go to law school. It means that they should think carefully about it first, starting with this question: why do I want to be a lawyer and will the reality of the job match my expectations?

Turning the employment subject toward big law leads to one more lesson on perspective.

A day after the Ashby Jones and James Leipold articles, the WSJ‘s Nathan Koppel summarized big law’s continuing job-shedding: the NLJ 250 lost another 3,000 in 2010, bringing their total decrease since 2008 to 9,500. They may be hiring some new associates, but they’re getting rid of many more.

NALP expects to release its 2010 employment data in May. But every big law leader knows that May’s true importance lies in a much more significant event: annual publication of the Am Law 100. For some partners, pre-release anxiety is palpable, if not paralyzing.

This year, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 went up by over 8% — to almost $1.4 million. For context, that surpasses 2007, which was the peak of an uninterrupted five-year PPP run-up. Pretty stunning for an economy that remains difficult for so many. Gross revenues increased as overall headcount dropped by almost 3%. More revenues from fewer attorneys meant more billables — mislabeled as higher “productivity” in big law terms — for the chosen. (See “The Misery Index.”) As jobs remained scarce and associate hours climbed, equity partner earnings continued their ascent.

How much is enough? For some people, the answer will always be more; short-term metrics that maximize current PPP guide their way. Life is easy when deceptively objective numbers make solutions simple, reflection unnecessary, and the long-term someone else’s problem. It’s just a matter of perspective.

BIG LAW INCIVILITY

Attorney incivility is nothing new. Noting that the problem dated to the nineteenth century, Chief Justice Warren Burger addressed it in 1971 remarks to the American Law Institute. He criticized the lawyer who equated zealous advocacy with “how loud he can shout or how close he can come to insulting all those he encounters.” (“The Necessity for Civility,” 52 FRD 211, 213 (1971))

Here’s a more recent example from a deposition, cited in Judge Marvin E. Aspen’s oft-quoted 1998 article on the erosion of civility:

Mr. V: Please don’t throw it at me.

Mr. A: Take it.

Mr. V: Don’t throw it at me.

Mr. A: Don’t be a child, [Mr. V]. You look like a slob the way you’re dressed, but you don’t have to act like a slob….

Mr. V: Stop yelling at me. Let’s get on with it.

Mr. A: You deny I have given you a copy of every document?

Mr. V: You just refused to give it to me.

Mr. A: Do you deny it?

Mr. V: Eventually you threw it at me.

Mr. A: Oh, [Mr. V], you’re about as childish as you can get. You look like a slob, you act like a slob.

Mr. V: Keep it up.

Mr. A: Your mind belongs in the gutter.

Evidence of incivility among adversaries is largely anecdotal; the best examples don’t lend themselves to statistical analysis. A recent Above the Law post led me to ponder this question: does the prevailing big law business model contribute to incivility?

Mark Herrmann, a former big law partner, writes “Inside Straight” from his relatively new vantage point as in-house counsel. “How to Be a Crappy Partner” isn’t about civility, but some of his readers’ comments led me to this observation: when lawyers inside a law firm treat each other poorly, no one should expect their behavior to improve for outside opponents.

Unpleasant personalities are everywhere. Big firm lawyers as a group may be no worse than those in other practice settings; jerks exist across the spectrum. Likewise, drawing conclusions from any potpourri of Above the Law comments is dangerous. Even so, the most coherent “Crappy Partner” reactions fall into the following categories, each of which has a counterpart in external incivility:

— Disrespect for People’s Time

“Give me 10 minutes as an associate in a world without Blackberrys–please.” Other examples: delaying assignments until they conflict with an associate’s long-planned (and widely known) vacation; imposing tight deadlines only to let the completed work sit undisturbed on the assigning partner’s desk for two weeks; Friday night forwarding of a client’s earlier request for answers by the following Monday with a message revealing that the partner sat on the client’s request for five days.

Incivility counterpart: Fighting over inconsequential scheduling matters; taking actions, such as so-called emergency motions, solely to disrupt opponents’ personal lives.

— Flagrant Misbehavior

“Believe it or not, I’m on your side.” Examples: partners who yell, scream, and act in ways that most parents wouldn’t tolerate from a two-year-old; verbal abuse; sexist comments; narcissism.

Incivility counterpart: Ad hominem attacks.

— Lack of Candor About the Big Law Model

“I’m smart; that’s why you hired me. I can do the math.” Examples: pretending that associates don’t notice as fewer than ten percent of earlier new hires advance to equity partner after years of 2,000+ billables; bragging about the firm’s tenth year of increasing partner profits while laying off associates and staff; giving lip-service to mentoring and professional development when short-term profits drive decisions based on metrics that exclude such considerations.

Incivility counterpart: Lawyers believing their own press releases–and acting the role.

Send the purveyors (and victims) of such hubris into the world and what do you expect? More than most occupations, lawyers learn from role models and mentors. The culture that undermines morale at many large firms isn’t self-limiting. The prevailing business model often rewards “crappy partner” behavior and rarely penalizes it. External incivility is one byproduct of that internal ethos.

Large firms aren’t solely to blame for incivility; far from it. But for good and ill, they exert vastly disproportionate influence over the profession. Among other failings, the prevailing big law business model isn’t helping the cause of civility. Tellingly, here’s one commenter’s sad advice on how to avoid becoming a crappy partner:

“Please say please and thank you.”

I wonder what their mothers would say.

A NEW METRIC: THE MISERY INDEX

Let’s call it what it is.

Large law firms and their management consultants have redefined a word — productivity — to contradict its true meaning. Recent reports from Hildebrandt and Citi measure it as everyone does: average billable hours per attorney.

No one questions this perversion because the prevailing business model’s primary goal is maximizing partner profits. Billables times hourly rates produce gross revenues. More is better and the misnomer — productivity — persists.

The Business Dictionary defines productivity as the “relative measure of the efficiency of a person [or] system…in converting inputs into useful outputs.” But the relevant output for an attorney shouldn’t be total hours spent on tasks; it’s useful work product that meets client needs. Total elapsed time without regard to the quality of the result reveals nothing about a worker’s value. More hours often mean the opposite of true productivity.

Common sense says that effort on the fourteenth hour of a day can’t be as valuable as that exerted during hour six. Fatigue compromises effectiveness. That’s why the Department of Transportation imposes rest periods after interstate truckers’ prolonged stints behind the wheel. Logically, absurdly high billables should result in compensation penalties, but prevailing big law economics dictate otherwise.

Here’s a partial cure. Rather than mislabel attorney billables as measures of productivity, an index should permit excessive hours to convey their true meaning: attorney misery. The Misery Index would be a natural corollary to NALP’s survey of minimum billable hour requirements. Attorneys now accept as given the 2,000 hour threshold that most firms maintain, even though current big law leaders faced no mandatory minimum levels when they were associates. As Yale Law School describes in a useful memo, 2,000 is a lot. But even if the 2,000-hour bell can’t be unrung, the Misery Index could reveal a firm’s culture.

To construct this metric for a given firm, start with attorneys billing fewer than 2,000 hours annually (including pro bono and genuine firm-related activities such as recruiting, training, mentoring, client development, and management); those lawyers wouldn’t count toward their firm’s Misery Index. However, at each 100-hour increment above 2,000, the percentage of attorneys reaching each higher numerical category would be added. To reflect the increasing lifestyle costs of marginal billables, attorneys with the most hours would count at every 100-hour interval preceding their own. Separate indices should exist for associates (AMI) and partners (PMI).

The Misery Index would reveal distinctions that firmwide averages blur. For example, Firm A has an Associate Misery Index of 125, calculated as follows:

50% of associates bill fewer than 2,000 hours = 0 AMI points

50% > 2,000 = 50  AMI points

40% > 2,100 = 40

25% > 2,200 = 25

10% > 2,300 = 10

None > 2,400

AMI: 125

Firm B’s AMI of 315 describes a much different place:

10% of associates bill fewer than 2,000 hours = 0 AMI points

90% > 2,000 = 90 points

75% > 2,100 = 75

60% > 2,200 = 60

45% > 2,300 = 45

30% > 2,400 = 30

15% > 2,500 = 15

None > 2,600

AMI: 315

A Misery Index would aid decision-making, especially for new graduates. Some would prefer firms with a high one; most wouldn’t. A Misery Index above 300 might prompt questions about the physical health of a firm’s attorneys; a Misery Index of zero — no one working more than 2,000 hours — might prompt questions about the health of the firm itself. Big disparities between partners (PMI) and associates (AMI) would be revealing, too.

Data collection is problematic. NALP won’t ask for the information and most firms won’t supply it — unless clients demand it. (In an earlier article, I explained why they should.) Alternatively, individual attorneys could provide the information anonymously, similar to The American Lawyer’s annual mid-level associate surveys.

Complementing the Misery Index would be firm-specific Attrition Rates by class year from starting associate to first year equity partner. NALP’s last report — before the 2008 financial crisis — showed big law’s five-year associate attrition rates skyrocketing to more than eighty percent, but significant differences existed among firms.

The Misery Index and Attrition Rates would be interesting additions to Am Law‘s “A-List” criteria that many big firms heed. Imagine an equity partner meeting that included this agenda item: “Reducing Our Misery Index and Attrition Rates.” It would certainly be a departure from scenes and themes in my best-selling legal thriller, The Partnership.

Big law is filled with free market disciples who urge better information as a panacea, as well as metrics to communicate it. Here’s their chance.

THE GOLDMAN MODEL FOR BIG LAW?

Goldman Sachs has been in the news a lot lately. Taken together, several articles suggest parallels to big law. Anyone wondering where many large law firm leaders want to take their institutions — and how they might get there — should look closely at Goldman. As law firms have embraced metrics that maximize short-term partner profits, they’ve moved steadily in Goldman’s direction. If America follows Australia and the UK in permitting non-attorneys to invest in law firms, a tipping point could arrive.

Others ponder this possibility. Professor Mitt Regan, Co-Director of the Georgetown Center for the Study of the Legal Profession, has been thinking, writing, and speaking thoughtfully about non-lawyer investment in law firms for a long time. Understandably, most academic observers focus on the outside — how smaller firms’ access to capital could affect competition, the interaction with attorneys’ ethical obligations, and the like.

Those are important issues, but I’m more interested on the inside. Presumably, the process would involve current equity partners selling ownership interests to investors. Many of those in big law who already take a short-term economic view of their institutions would leap at the opportunity for a one-time payday that discounted future cash flows to today’s dollar. In fact, a big lump sum will tempt every equity partner who worries about next year’s annual review.

Then what? Perhaps Goldman has devised an adaptable mechanism. When it went public in 1999, Goldman Sachs retained a partnership system within a larger corporate structure. As the Times notes, “Goldman’s partners are its highest paid executives and it biggest stars….”

Consider the similarities to big law:

— Management

Traders displaced traditional investment bankers and chairman Lloyd Blankfein surrounded himself with “like-minded executives — ‘Lloyd loyalists,'” according to the Times. Transactional attorneys have similarly risen to lead many big law firms; dissent is not always a cherished value.

— Resulting culture changes

Seeking to represent all sides of a deal, Goldman became adept at managing conflicts rather than avoiding them, a former insider told the Times. Large law firms have developed standard retention letters that maximize their representational flexibility to take on more lucrative matters that might arise.

— Metrics

Goldman’s leverage ratio is stunning: 475 partners out of more than 35,000 employees. As a group, large firms have pulled up ladders, widened the top-to-bottom range within equity partnerships, and doubled attorney-to-equity partner leverage ratios between 1985 and 2010.

— Partner Wealth

Goldman’s partners are famously rich. Many big firm equity partners now enjoy seven-figure incomes previously reserved for media celebrities, professional athletes, and investment bankers.

All of this raises an important question: How well is the model working — and for whom? Maintaining the stability of such a regime presents challenges. Goldman partners maximize their continuing influence as minority shareholders by acting in unison on shareholder votes. But the cast of characters constantly changes. According to the Times, “Every two years, roughly 70 executives leave the club, by choice or because they are no longer pulling their weight. The average tenure is about seven years…Within five years of the IPO, almost 60 percent of the original partners were gone…”

In the end, the environment is problematic for many, as one former Goldman partner told the Times:

“It’s a very Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest firm.”

It could also be big law’s future. Then again, some firms may already be there.

Here’s a concluding thought: perhaps Goldman Sachs will become a big law outside investor that buys its way into the legal profession. That shouldn’t bother anyone. After all, Lloyd Blankfein graduated from Harvard Law School.

HOWREY’S LESSONS: A NATIONAL CONVERSATION

My latest “Commendable Comments” award goes to a non-lawyer, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Steven Pearlstein.

Since I started my blog a year ago, two of my most popular articles have been “Howrey’s Lessons” and “Howrey’s Lessons — Part II.” Versions recently ran on Am Law Daily, where they also attracted widespread attention.

I don’t know if Pearlstein was among the thousands who saw my analysis of Howrey’s end and its relationship to ubiquitous big law trends, but his March 20 column reinforces my themes. If I hadn’t been attending the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville to discuss The Partnership, I might have missed it. I’m glad I didn’t.

Both of my Howrey articles focused on a central point: What matters most are not the things that make the once venerable institution different from other large firms. Rather, the true significance of its death lies in what makes the firm similar to many, many others. Intelligent lawyers who specialize in distinguishing adverse precedent prefer to think otherwise; they do so at their peril.

Noting as I had that, as recently as 2008, the DC-oriented Legal Times hailed Howrey’s final chairman, Robert Ruyak, as one of 30 “visionaries,” Pearlstein describes how quickly the world turned. In the end, I found Ruyak’s litany of claimed contributors to the firm’s demise — clients demanding contingency fee arrangements; conflict problems that made European growth problematic; and the rise of competitive electronic discovery vendors — unpersuasive; I explained why in “Howrey’s Lessons — Part II.” Pearlstein is more charitable in accepting such excuses at face value. That’s understandable because he’s never worked in a large firm.

But on the big picture, his assessment echoes my earlier observations:

1. Howrey’s global expansion through lateral hiring created a firm of free agents who lacked the deep loyalties that once characterized the firm. That phenomenon wasn’t unique to Howrey.

2. Pearlstein notes that profits per partner has become “not only the key determinant of how much partners take home, but it is the metric by which the very competitive and ambitious people in the legal business keep score.” My regular readers know that the business school mentality of misguided metrics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios aimed at increasing partners’ short-term profits — has transformed a once noble profession in unfortunate ways.

3.  Pearlstein observes that when Howrey’s average partner profits took a downward turn, the partnership — which wasn’t really a partnership in the way most people understand that concept — found that its “bonds of loyalty [were] not strong enough to hold Howrey together.” In “Howrey’s Lessons,” I put it this way: “[W]hen cash becomes king, partnership bonds remain only as tight as the glue that next year’s predicted equity partner profits provide….”

Likewise, Pearlstein’s overall conclusion is identical to mine: The most troubling aspect of Howrey’s death is that “the industry seems to have learned nothing from such episodes.”  He closes with an acknowledgement of the widespread problem of partner and associate dissatisfaction that the prevailing big law culture has exacerbated.

On only one point would I offer this limited qualification to Pearlstein’s survey of the legal blogosphere concerning Howrey. He suggests that the media (press and blogs) offer “the same uncritical acceptance of…a world in which firms are held together by nothing more than a collective determination to increase profit per partner.” Respectfully, I offer my ongoing commentary over the past year as a consistent voice in challenging the prevailing big law model.

When an intelligent, sophisticated observer such as Steven Pearlstein takes a seemingly isolated issue involving lawyers — that is, Howrey’s disintegration — and uses his national platform to shine a welcome light on a deeper professional problem, it becomes that much more difficult for big law leaders to ignore. They’ll continue to turn a blind eye to the incubating crisis, but perhaps they’ll rest just a little bit less easily in doing so.

Pearlstein’s prize is a copy of The Partnership, which I will send him this week. I’m confident that, as an interested outsider, he’ll find it fascinating.

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.

HOURLY RATES: PLEASE DON’T READ

For a long time, big law’s high-flying hourly rates remained under popular radar screens. Not anymore. On the heels of Jamie Wareham’s $5 million move to DLA Piper, The Wall Street Journal recently added “Big Law’s $1,000-Plus an Hour Club.”

Will big law leaders react with shame and embarrassment to such disclosures? Doubtful. Most partners will defend their rates as market-driven. As Weil, Gotshal & Manges’s bankruptcy partner Harvey Miller told the Journal bluntly: “The underlying principle is if you can get it, get it.”

He’s not alone. According to the article, “the average law-firm partner now asks $635 an hour and bills $575.” Ashby Jones’s companion online report quoted a law firm management consultant’s prediction that $2,000/hour for top partners could be only five years away.

“Get it if you can” is unworthy of a noble profession and a dangerous business plan. Some clients pay enormous rates to those who, as one in-house lawyer put it, are worth it. But rising resistance to $500+/hour associates creates problems for big law’s leveraged pyramid. At $1,000/hour, 2,000 partner hours generate $2 million in gross revenues, which is a lot less than these marquee players pocket annually. When younger attorneys’ hourly rates multiplied by their billables (less salary and bonus) no longer make up the difference, clients squeezing the bottom will dramatically reduce profits at the top. Along the way, the effort to preserve equity partner earnings will exacerbate the most unpleasant aspects of big law culture.

Another fault line runs through today’s high rates: Taxpayers are bearing some of those fees directly, not just through price elasticity curves that push some legal cost increases into the consumer price of a client’s goods or services. For example, last May, Harvey Miller’s firm had received $16 million in legal fees for work on the GM bankruptcy that taxpayers funded. With hubris that ignored the public’s financial contribution, Miller defended his resistance to discounts from Weil Gotshal’s reported rates of $500+/hour for associates to more than $1,000/hour for some senior partners: “If you had cancer and you were going into an operation, while you were lying on the table, would you look at the surgeon and say, ‘I’d like a 10 percent discount’? This is not a public, charitable event.” He was only half-right.

Similarly, Congress is now investigating legal fees that the federal government has paid to firms representing Fannie Mae and its former executives. When shareholders sued the company in 2004, each defendant retained separate counsel. That’s typical because a single attorney’s simultaneous representation of multiple defendants can create conflicts that inhibit zealously advocacy on behalf of any particular client. In such circumstances, indemnification agreements usually obligate the company to pay its former executives’ separate lawyers, as well as its own.

Normally, none of this would be controversial, but Fannie Mae isn’t normal. When it collapsed in 2008, the government assumed control. Taxpayers are now footing the legal bills — really big ones — for defending the company and its former executives in the pending lawsuits. The Times reported:

“The amount advanced by the government to pay legal bills for Fannie Mae and its former executives was a well-kept secret for more than two years. But the bills add up quickly. In the main lawsuit [overseen by Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine on behalf of two state pension funds that owned Fannie Mae shares], 35 to 40 lawyers representing Fannie defendants attend monthly conferences by the judge.”

It’s a tragic irony. In Ohio, state and local workers have taken to the streets in protesting budget reductions that would reduce their wages and end collective bargaining. Meanwhile, the attorney general leads a lawsuit against Fannie Mae and its former executives while federal taxpayers — some of whom are Ohioans — finance the defense that creates big paydays for a relatively few lawyers.

I don’t know these attorneys or their hourly rates. But generating national bipartisan outrage isn’t a good development for them or big law generally.

Sunlight can be a disinfectant, unless you’re a vampire.

NUMBERS TELL A STORY

When challenged to tell a story in as few words as possible, Ernest Hemingway replied with six: “For sale: Baby shoes — never worn.”

I’m not Hemingway, but in his spirit of brevity, I offer five phrases — totaling eight words — distilling a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Law Firms Hold Line In Setting Bonuses,” by Vanessa O’Connell and Nathan Koppel. It appeared on the Monday after Christmas, so you might have missed it.

***
HOURS UP: “Average hours billed by associates at the nation’s top 50 law firms by revenue rose by 7% in 2010.”
***
BONUSES FLAT: “At New York-based Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy LLP, where bonuses were only slightly above last year’s payouts, hours billed by associates were up about 6%.” [According to Above the Law, the firm’s 2010 bonuses ranged from $7,500 for first-year associates to $35,000 for those in the class of 2003. That’s a big drop from 2006, when first-year associates received “special year-end bonuses” of $30,000. Student-loan repayment requirements have not experienced a similar decline.]
***
MANAGERS RATIONALIZE: “‘The actual number of [billed] hours is still low compared to what it has historically been,’ [says Milbank’s Chairman Mel M. Immergut].”
***
PARTNERS WIN: “Revenue at Milbank Tweed will be up by about 3% on flat expenses, Mr. Immergut says, adding that profit per partner will be up by 8% to 10%, depending on year-end collections.” According to The American Lawyer, Milbank Tweed’s average profits per partner in 2009 were $2.230 million. How much is enough? The answer appears to be “More.”

LAW SCHOOL DECEPTION

Last Sunday, the NY Times asked: Are law schools deceiving prospective students into incurring huge debt for degrees that aren’t worth it?

Of course they are. The U.S. News is an aider and abettor. As the market for new lawyers shrinks, a key statistic in compiling the publication’s infamous rankings is “graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation.” Any job qualifies — from joining Cravath to waiting tables. According to the Times, the most recent average for all law schools is 93%. If gaming the system to produce that number doesn’t cause students to ignore the U.S. News’ rankings altogether, nothing will.

My friend, Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law Professor Bill Henderson, told the Times that looking at law schools’ self-reported employment numbers made him feel “dirty.” I assume he’s concerned that prospective students rely on that data in deciding whether and where to attend law school. I agree with him.

But an equally telling kick in the head is buried in the lengthy Times article: Most graduates who achieve their initial objectives — starting positions in big firms paying $160,000 salaries — quickly lose the feeling that they’re winners. Certainly, they must be better off than the individuals chronicled in the article. What could be worse than student debt equal to a home mortgage, albeit without the home?

Try a legal job with grueling hours, boring work, and little prospect of a long-term career. Times reporter David Segal summarized the cliche’: “Law school is a pie-eating contest where first prize is more pie.”

These distressing outcomes for students and associates aren’t inevitable. In fact, they’re relatively new phenomena with a common denominator: Business school-type metrics that make short-term pursuit of the bottom line sterile, objective, and laudable. Numbers prove who’s best and they don’t lie.

Law school administrators manipulate employment data because they have ceded their reasoned judgment to mindless ranking criteria. (“[M]illions of dollars [are] riding on students’ decisions about where to go to law school, and that creates real institutional pressures,” says one dean who believes that pandering to U.S. News rankings isn’t gaming the system; it’s making a school better.)

Likewise, today’s dominant large firm culture results from forces that produced the surge in average equity partner income for the Am Law 50 — from $300,000 in 1985 to $1.5 million in 2009. Leveraged pyramids might work for a few at the top; for everyone else — not so much.

The glut of law school applicants, as well as graduates seeking big firm jobs to repay their loans, leaves law school administrators and firm managers with no economic incentive to change their ways. The profession needs visionaries who are willing to resist perpetuating the world in which debt-laden graduates are becoming the 21st century equivalent of indentured servants.

Henderson calls for law school transparency in the form of quality employment statistics. I endorse his request and offer a parallel suggestion: Through their universities’ undergraduate prelaw programs, law schools should warn prospective students about the path ahead before their legal journeys begin.

Some students enter law school expecting to become Atticus Finch or the lead attorneys on Law & Order. Others pursue large firm equity partnerships as a way to riches. Few realize that career dissatisfaction plagues most of the so-called winners who land what they once thought were the big firm jobs of their dreams.

A legal degree can lead to many different careers. The urgency of loan repayment schedules creates a practical reality that pushes most students in big law’s direction. If past is prologue, the vast majority of them will not be happy there. They should know the truth — the whole truth — before they make their first law school tuition payments. Minimizing unwelcome surprises will create a more satisfied profession.

Meanwhile, can we all agree to ignore U.S. News rankings and rely on our own judgments instead of its stupid criteria? Likewise, can big law managers move away from their myopic focus on the current year’s equity partner profits as a definitive culture-determining metric? I didn’t think so.

COCKROACHES, MEDICINE, AND THE BILLABLE HOUR

Cockroaches should take lessons from the billable hour. Detractors notwithstanding, it has survived every economic downturn of the last 30 years including, apparently, this one. Although a recent ALM survey noted that almost 75% of client payments in 2009 were pursuant to “alternative fee arrangements,” almost 80% of those were simply discounts from attorneys’ hourly rates. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/10/billing.html)

Here’s the real problem: Whenever the regime eventually crumbles, the worst aspects of the billable hours culture will persist. Take fixed fee caps, for example. Even if they benefit some clients financially — a big “if” that’s a separate discussion — they create a Hobson’s choice for associates.

On one side is the pressure not to log all time. Keeping matters within internal budgets makes billing partners look good in their year-end reviews.

On the other side stands the billable hour as the definitive metric for measuring individual productivity. They might be working on fixed fee matters, but attorneys must still account for their time. Large firm minimum hours requirements aren’t going away.

What happens when externally fixed fees meet internal billable hours cultures? Ask your doctor.

Do you sometimes get the impression that your family physician is rushing through an appointment? That’s because the doctor is responding rationally to something called the relative value unit (RVU) — medicine’s equivalent to the billable hour.

In 1964, the AMA created reimbursement codes for the newly enacted Medicare program. Fifteen years later, a Harvard School of Public Health economist began investigating ways to compare the seemingly incomparable: the time and effort associated with doctors’ diverse tasks. The typical economist’s study sought to develop relative values for measuring productivity across a range of different activities — from well-child checkups to brain surgery.

The academic exercise remained theoretical until 1985 when Medicare expanded the inquiry: Might such a scale be used to control costs associated with spiraling “reasonable, customary and prevailing fee-for-services” payment schedules? In 1992, Congress linked the relative value unit system to the Medicare codes used for reimbursing more than 7,000 different physician tasks. Private health insurers soon adopted RVUs for reimbursement, too.

Physicians now generate RVUs to earn a living, but time becomes a critical limiting factor. For example, whether a family physician spends 10 or 30 minutes on a routine office visit, Medicare and insurance companies set physician reimbursement at the activity’s predetermined RVU value (0.7). That gets multiplied by the uniform RVU rate (about $40/RVU) for a total of $28. (The final bill exceeds $28 because practice expense and malpractice RVU-factors get added.)

Specialists’ tasks have greater RVU values than general practitioners.’ Compared to a 15-minute routine visit worth 0.7 RVU, a 30-minute colonoscopy is worth several times that. Such differences relate to physician training, skills, mental effort, judgment, stress, and other aspects of the work. But cynics note that specialists have dominated Medicare’s RVU schedule advisory boards.

Behavior has followed incentive structures:

— RVU-driven compensation differences have created shortages of family physicians.

— Specialists mean well, but they tend to view patients myopically through the prism of their expertise, rather than as entire beings. Piecemeal medicine results.

— The system encourages pills, procedures, and tests. Prescription drugs promise quick fixes that move patients out of their doctors’ offices sooner. Procedures generate high RVU values; tests requiring expensive equipment likewise reap generous reimbursement.

Meanwhile, doctors must meet minimum annual RVUs, sometimes pursuant to explicit contractual requirements. That should sound familiar to any big law associate.

As physicians ceded control of hospitals to lay managers, RVUs became a key tool by which the MBA mentality of misguided metrics overtook that profession. Don’t take my word for it. Ask your doctor — if he’ll give you the time.

What would happen if clients and the courts that approve fee petitions started “fee-capping” lawyers the way Medicare and insurance companies have sliced into doctors’ incomes since 1992? Probably unintended consequences no less dramatic than those still surprising the medical profession. Many haven’t been pretty.

Here’s the real kicker: Unlike the legal profession, most physicians have always liked their jobs.

“LIES, DAMN LIES, AND STATISTICS”

ALM editor-in-chief Aric Press penned a provocative article about Indiana Law Professor Bill Henderson’s for-profit venture on recruiting, retention, and promotion. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/11/pressconventionalwisdom.html) The WSJ law blog and ABA Journal covered it, too. (http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2010/11/15/on-law-firms-and-hiring-is-a-new-paradigm-on-the-way/) Henderson is analyzing why some attorneys succeed in Biglaw and others don’t.

Does anyone else find his project vaguely unsettling?

At first, I thought of the venerable computer programming maxim, “garbage in, garbage out.” That’s because he’s asking Am Law 200 partners to identify values and traits they want in their lawyers — and he’s assuming they’ll tell him the truth. But will they admit to seeking bright, ambitious associates wearing blinders in pursuit of elusive equity partnerships typically awarded to fewer than 10% of large firm entering classes? Or that such low “success” rates inhere in the predominant Biglaw business model that requires attrition and limits equity entrants to preserve staggering profits?

Then I considered Mark Twain’s reflections on the three kinds of falsehoods: “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” It came to mind because Henderson’s researchers “pour over the resumes and evaluations of associates and partners trying to identify characteristics shared by those who have become ‘franchise players’ and those who haven’t.” Here’s what those resumes and evaluations won’t reveal: the internal politics driving decisions.

Most Biglaw equity partners are talented, but equally deserving candidates fail to advance for reasons unrelated to their abilities. Rather, as the business model incentivizes senior partners to hoard billings that justify personal economic positions, those at the top wield power that makes or breaks young careers — and everybody knows it. Doing a superior job is important, but working for the “right” people is outcome determinative. Merit sometimes loses out to idiosyncrasy that is impervious to Henderson’s data collection methods.

But perhaps the biggest problem with Henderson’s plan is it’s goal: identifying factors correlating with individual success. Does the magic formula include “a few years in the military, a few years in the job force, or a few years as a law review editor?”

If managers warm to Henderson’s conclusions (after paying his company to develop them), they’ll leap from correlation to causation, develop checklists of supposed characteristics common to superstars like themselves, and hire accordingly. Law schools pandering to the Biglaw sliver of the profession (it’s less than 15% of all attorneys) could take such criteria even more seriously. Before long, prospective students will incorporate the acquisition of “success” credentials into their life plans.

The difficulty is that today’s Biglaw partners already favor like-minded proteges. That inhibits diversity as typically measured — gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and the like — along with equally important diversity of views and a willingness to entertain them. Even today, concerned insiders are reluctant to voice dissent from Biglaw’s prevailing raison d’etre — maximizing short-term profits at the expense competing professional values and longer-term institutional vitality. Won’t meaningful diversity — of backgrounds, life experiences, and resulting attitudes about professional mission — suffer as groupthink makes firms even more insular? Meanwhile, trying to improve overall “success” rates is a futile goal; they won’t budge until the leveraged pyramid disappears.

I don’t fault Henderson, who bypassed Biglaw practice for academia after his 2001 graduation. But Press’s warning is important: “To some extent, it doesn’t matter what Henderson and Co. discover. What matters is that the inquiries have begun…If we’ve learned anything from the last decade, it’s that we can’t predict the consequences of new information beyond acknowledging its power to disrupt.”

Consider two unfortunate examples. The flawed methodology behind U.S. News’ law school rankings hasn’t deterred most students from blindly choosing the highest-rated one that accepts them. (Exorbitant tuition and limited job prospects may be changing that.) Likewise, Biglaw’s transformation from a collegial profession to a short-term bottom-line business accelerated after publication of average partner profits at the nation’s largest firms (then the Am Law 50), beginning in 1985; I just published a legal thriller describing that phenomenon. (http://www.amazon.com/Partnership-Novel-Steven-J-Harper/dp/0984369104)

The most important things that happened to me — in Biglaw and in life — were fortuitous. No statistical model could have predicted them. Still, I hope Henderson’s study answers an important question: Would his likely-to-succeed factors have led any firm to hire me?

THE END OF LEVERAGE? JUST KIDDING.

Since the beginning of the Great Recession, some observers have predicted the demise of the Biglaw leverage model. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202428174244) Are they correct? After all, recent associate classes are dramatically smaller than in prior years. Unless equity partner ranks shrink proportionately, the argument goes, something has to give and that something will be the very business model itself. The days of using four or more associates to sustain a single equity partner must be numbered, right?

In fact, the model endures, but with structural innovations. What has been transient leverage — continuous non-equity attorney attrition coupled with annual replenishment from law schools — is giving way to something more permanent and, perhaps, more sinister for the future of the profession. Law firm management consultant Jerome Kowalski recently called it the “Associate Caste System.”  (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202472939044&PostRecession_Law_Firms_A_New_Caste_System_Emerges)

New hires earning $160,000 a year are the “showcase pieces,” but they are a much smaller group than they once were. Below them at the same firms is a vast underbelly of lawyers. Some are full-time but have taken themselves off partner tracks and make less than their nominal classmates. At the bottom are contract attorneys whose jobs won’t last beyond their current projects. They work per diem with no benefits. Kowalski describes them as comparable to “those guys who hang around in front of a Home Depot waiting for some contractor to show up with a truck.”

The rise of  legal outsourcing could add yet another attorney subclass contributor to Biglaw profits, provided firms can persuade clients to accept fees greater than what the people doing the outsourced work earn. That’s nothing new. For a long time, clients have regarded overpriced associates as a necessary cost incurred to retain a big-name attorney.

Does this add up to the demise of the lucrative leverage model that has kept average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 well above $1 million annually for many years?

For all practical purposes, it means the opposite. Although big firms are hiring 30 or 35 new associates rather than the 100 or more of a few years ago, most of them will still be unpleasantly surprised when they don’t capture the equity partner brass ring after pursuing it for a decade or more. That component of the model remains intact. Meanwhile, the rest of the leverage action has moved to the growing ranks of underbelly people. For as long as they get paid less than their billing rates, they contribute to equity partner wealth.

In fact, many Biglaw managers prefer this new system. They save on recruiting (say, 35 instead of 150 new associates each year), summer programs, associate training, and other expenses associated with talent development. Meanwhile, the underclass of attorneys who know their places will resign themselves to their limited prospects: a source of permanent leverage.

This continues an ugly trend: Many big firms have been candidly closing long-term career windows for their youngest lawyers. For example, Morgan Lewis already had a non-partner track for those who opted onto it. But when the firm recently announced a return to lock-step associate compensation, it included this kicker: another permanent non-partner track for young lawyers who pursue partnership but don’t make it. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/11/morganlewispay.html)

Rather than up-or-out, it’s becoming stick around and make the equity partners some money. In earlier times, wise firm leaders either promoted such individuals to well-deserved equity partnerships or terminated them as counterproductive blockage that undermined morale and deprived more promising younger lawyers of developmental opportunities. Either way, positioning the next generation to inherit clients served long-term institutional interests. But that’s less important when equity partners jealously guard their clients to preserve personal economic positions and “long-term” doesn’t extend beyond current profits or the coming year’s equity partner compensation decisions.

Here’s my question: How will any aspect of this new world promote the profession’s unique and defining values or improve Biglaw’s dismal career satisfaction rates? Here’s an even better one: Does anyone care?

WORK-LIFE BALANCE MONTH

Pity the United Kingdom, which I just visited. It has only “Work-Life Balance Week” — the last seven days of September. How many Americans realize that October was our “Work-Life Balance Month“? Such commemorations suggest an obvious question: What should we celebrate the rest of the year? Work-Life Imbalance?

The concept of work-life balance is laudable, even if the phrase itself can be somewhat off target. For those who are chronically unhappy with their jobs, “balancing” unpleasant “work” with the rest of “life” is at best palliative, not curative. Dissatisfaction with a career usually infects everything else. Notwithstanding daunting economic realities, a better long-term plan for such sufferers is to find another way to make a living.

On the other hand, my friend, Northwestern Professor Steven Lubet, correctly notes that no job is perfect: “That’s why they call it work.” But attorneys who generally enjoy their tasks still benefit from time spent on people and things other than clients and their problems. Enjoying life outside the office makes most of us better in every way and improves worker productivity. Unfortunately, that’s an increasingly tough sell in most of  the Biglaw world where the MBA-mentality of misguided metrics — billable hours, billings, and short-term equity partner profits — force all oars in the water to row in the same myopic direction.

Being a lawyer has always been demanding, but when even satisfied attorneys feel pressure to work unreasonably long hours, bad things happen to them, their families, clients, firms, and the profession. Slackers can take no comfort in my views. An honest 2,000 billed hours — the annual minimum that most big firms report to NALP — requires 10-hour days and occasional weekends. (http://www.law.yale.edu/documents/pdf/CDO_Public/cdo-billable_hour.pdf) That’s more than firms required 25 years ago, but it’s still not unreasonable.

Unfortunately, too many large firms made the 2,000 minimum culturally irrelevant long ago. No debt-ridden associate concerned about keeping a job wants to bring up the rear of a year-end billable hours list. Nor does the pressure end with advancement. Equity partners must continually justify their economic existences — year-after-year.

During my 30 years at a large firm, my billed hours usually ranged from 2,000 to 2,200 yearly. Once or twice, they reached 2,500 and every incremental hour above 2,200 took a increasingly severe toll. Beyond losing any semblance of a personal life, how well does anyone function during the 14th hour of a workday compared to hour 8? A fatigued mind is fuzzy, irrational, less efficient, and prone to error. Most clients paying for an attorney’s 3,000th billed hour in a year are getting very little for their money. Yet some lawyers do that year after year — and some clients encourage such behavior.

The Department of Transportation reviewed scientific studies on the effects of exhaustion on the human mind and body before limiting over-the-road truckers to 70 hours in an 8-day period, after which they must rest for 34 consecutive hours. (http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/rules-regulations/topics/hos/) Ask any Biglaw lawyer the last time he or she worked at that clip (or worse) and then went 34 straight hours without looking at a BlackBerry or talking with clients and colleagues on a cellphone.

Who presents the greater societal danger — a tired, overworked driver exceeding the 8-day maximum of 70 hours, or an attorney maintaining a more strenuous pace? Big-hours legal billers might argue that trucker fatigue is different. When a sleep deprived driver causes a catastrophe, innocent bystanders are at risk. If lawyer exhaustion produces suboptimal or even negative results, the client (or the attorney’s malpractice carrier) pays the price; usually it’s financial. That’s reassuring.

No one wants an attorney who has nothing to do. Likewise, every good lawyer sometimes confronts genuine emergencies that require burning the midnight oil. But a firm’s perennial billable hours winners present potential problems that, for some reason, don’t concern most clients. I’ve never understood why.