2015: THE YEAR THAT THE LAW SCHOOL CRISIS ENDED (OR NOT) — CONCLUSION

My prior two installments in this series predicted that in 2015 many deans and law professors would declare the crisis in legal education over. In particular, two changes that have nothing to do with the actual demand for lawyers — one from the ABA and one from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — could fuel false optimism about the job environment for new law graduates.

Realistic projections about the future should start with a clear-eyed vision of the present. To assist in that endeavor, the Georgetown Law Center for the Study of the Legal Profession and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor recently released their always useful annual “Report on the State of the Legal Market.”

The Importance of the Report

The Report does not reach every segment of the profession. For example, government lawyers, legal aid societies, in-house legal staffs, and sole practitioners are among several groups that the Georgetown/Peer Monitor survey does not include. But it samples a sufficiently broad range of firms to capture important overall trends. In particular, it compiles results from 149 law firms, including 51 from the Am Law 100, 46 from the Am Law 2nd 100, and 52 others. It includes Big Law, but it also includes a slice of not-so-big law.

The principal audience for the Georgetown/Peer Monitor Report is law firm leaders. The Report’s advice is sound and, to my regular readers, familiar. Rethink business models away from reliance on internally destructive short-term metrics (billable hours, fee growth, leverage). Focus on the client’s return on investment rather than the law firm’s. Don’t expect a reprise of equity partner profit increases that occurred from 2004 through 2007 (cumulative rate of 25.6 percent). Beware of disrupters threatening the market power that many firms have enjoyed over some legal services.

For years, law firm leaders have heard these and similar cautions. For years, most leaders have been ignoring them. For example, last year at this time, the Georgetown/Peer Monitor Report urged law firm leaders to shun a “growth for growth’s sake” strategy. Given the frenzy of big firm merger and lateral partner acquisition activity that dominated 2014, that message fell on deaf ears.

The Demand for Lawyers

The 2015 Report’s analysis of business demand for law firm services is relevant to any new law graduate seeking to enter that job market. Some law schools might prefer the magical thought that aggregate population studies (or dubious changes in BLS methodology projecting future lawyer employment) should assure all graduates from all law schools of a rewarding JD-required career. But that’s a big mistake for the schools and their students.

For legal jobs that are still the most difficult to obtain — employment in law firms — the news is sobering. While demand growth for the year ending in November 2014 was “a clear improvement over last year (when demand growth was negative), it does not represent a significant improvement in the overall pattern for the past five years.”

In other words, the economy has recovered, but the law firm job market remains challenging. “Indeed,” the Report continues, “since the collapse in demand in 2009 (when growth hit a negative 5.1 percent level), demand growth in the market has remained essentially flat to slightly negative.”

Past As Prologue?

The Report notes that business spending on legal services from 2004 to 2014 grew from about $159.4 billion to $168.7 billion — “a modest improvement over a ten-year period. But if expressed in inflation-adjusted dollars, the same spending fell from $159.4 to $118.3 billion, a precipitous drop of 25.8 percent.”

What does that mean for future law graduates? The Report resists taking sides in the ongoing debate over whether the demand for law firm services generally will rebound to anything approaching pre-recession levels. It doesn’t have to because, the Report concludes, “it is increasingly clear that the buying habits of business clients have shifted in a couple of significant ways that have adversely impacted the demand for law firm services.”

One of the two shifts that the Report identifies doesn’t necessarily mean less employment for lawyers generally. Specifically, companies are moving work from outside counsel to in-house legal staffs. That should not produce a net reduction in lawyer jobs, unless in-house lawyers become more productive than their outside law firm counterparts.

The second trend is bad news for law graduates: “[T]here has also been a clear — though still somewhat modest — shift of work by business clients to non-law firm vendors.” In 2012, non-law firm vendors accounted for 3.9 percent of legal department budgets; it grew to 7.1 percent in 2014.

Beware of Optimistic Projections

The Georgetown/Peer Monitor Report is a reminder that the recent past can provide important clues about what lies ahead. For lawyers seeking to work in firms serving corporate clients, it sure doesn’t look like a lawyer shortage is imminent.

So what will be the real-life source of added demand sufficient to create market equilibrium, much less a true lawyer shortage? Anyone predicting such a surge has an obligation to answer that question. As the Report suggests, general claims about population growth or the “ebb and flow” of the business cycle won’t cut it. Along with the rest of the economy, the profession has suffered through the 2008-2009 “ebb.” The economy has returned to “flow” — but the overall demand for lawyers hasn’t.

Here are two more suggestions for those predicting a big upswing from recent trends in the demand for attorneys. Limit yourselves to the segment of the population that can actually afford to hire a lawyer and is likely to do so. Then take a close look at individual law school employment results to identify the graduates whom clients actually want to hire.

THE BINGHAM CASE STUDY: PART II

Starting with the introduction, Harvard Law Professor Ashish Nanda’s case study on Bingham McCutchen depicts Jay Zimmerman as the architect of the firm’s evolution “from a ‘middle-of-the-road-downtown-pack’ Boston law firm in the early 1990s to a preeminent international law firm by 2010”:

“Zimmerman was elected chairman in 1994. Over the next 15 years, he shepherded the firm through 10 mergers, or ‘combinations’ in the Bingham lexicon, the establishment of 11 new offices, and a ten-fold increase in the firm’s revenues to $800 million… Given its impressive expansion, [journalist Jeffrey] Klineman said, ‘Bingham McCutchen has shown it could probably open an office on the moon.'” (p. 1)

Harvard published the study in September 2011.

Another Case Study

Ten months later, Nanda released another case study, “The Demise of Howrey” — a firm that was dying as he considered Bingham. Interestingly, several footnotes in the Howrey study refer to articles explaining how aggressive inorganic growth compromised that firm’s cohesiveness and hastened its collapse. (E.g., “Howrey’s Lessons” by me, ““Why Howrey Law Firm Could Not Hold It Together”, by the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein, and “The Fall of Howrey,” by the American Lawyer’s Julie Triedman) But Nanda’s 15-page narrative of Howrey barely mentions that topic.

Instead, he invites consideration of “the alternative paths Howrey, and managing partner Robert Ruyak, might have taken to avoid dissolution of the firm” after that growth had occurred. The abstract concludes with these suggested discussion points:

“What could Howrey have done differently as clients demanded contingency payment plans and deep discounts? Should Ruyak have been more transparent about the financial difficulties the firm faced? Should he have consulted with a group of senior partners instead of relying on the counsel of outside consultants? Is a litigation-focused firm at a disadvantage when it comes to leadership, as compared to a corporate practice? Participants will reflect on the leadership structure of Howrey while discussing issues related to crisis management.”

With all due respect, those inquiries don’t reach a key lesson of Howrey’s (and now Bingham’s) collapse. The following sentence in the study does, but it goes unexplored:

“Howrey continued to add laterals over the concerns of some partners that increased lateral expansion might detract from the firm’s strategic focus and weaken its cultural glue.” (p. 6)

The Metrics Trap

Nanda’s case studies report that at Howrey. as at Bingham, a few key metrics suggested short-term success: revenues soared, equity partner profits increased, and Am Law rankings went up. But beneath those superficially appealing trends was a long-term danger that such metrics didn’t capture: institutional instability. When Howrey’s projected average partner profits dipped to $850,000 in 2009, many ran for the exits and the death spiral accelerated.

Likewise, Bingham’s record high equity partner profits in 2012 of $1.7 million dropped by 13 percent — far less than Howrey’s 2009 decline of 35 percent — to $1.5 million in 2013. But a steady stream of partner departures led to destabilization and a speedy end.

Balancing the Presentation

According to the final sentence of the Bingham case study abstract, “The case allows participants to explore the positives and negatives of following a strategy of inorganic growth in professional service firms….”

The negatives now dwarf the positives. No one should fault Nanda for failing to predict Bingham’s collapse two years later. The most spectacular law firm failures have come as surprises, even to many insiders at such firms. But the Bingham study emphasizes how Zimmerman conquered the challenges of an aggressive growth strategy, with little consideration to whether the overall strategy itself was wise over the long run.

For example:

— The study notes that after Bingham’s 2002 merger with 300-attorney McCutchen Doyle, “Cultural differences…loomed over the combined organization….” But the study goes on to observe, “[T]hese issues did not slow the firm’s growth on the West Coast.” (p. 11) By 2006, “Bingham had achieved remarkable success and unprecedented growth.” (p. 14)

— The study reports that the firm’s American Lawyer associate satisfaction ranking improved from 107 in 2007 to 79 in 2008, which Bingham’s chief human resources officer attributed to “an appreciation for the leadership of the firm. People have confidence in Jay’s competence.” (p. 17). The study doesn’t mention that the firm’s associate satisfaction ranking dropped to 100 in 2009 and to 106 (out of 137) in 2010. (American Lawyer, Sept. 2010, p. 78)

— “Our management committee has people from all over,” the study quotes Zimmerman. “You don’t have to have been at Bingham Dana forever to lead at the firm.” (p. 15) But the study doesn’t consider how too many laterals parachuting into the top of a firm can produce a concentration of power and a problematic distribution of partner compensation. When Bingham began to unravel, the spread between its highest and lowest paid partners was 12:1.

— Bingham’s final acquisition — McKee Nelson — was the largest law firm combination of 2009. The study doesn’t discuss the destructive impact of accompanying multi-year compensation guarantees that put some McKee Nelson partners at the very top of the Bingham McCutchen pay scale. To be fair, Nanda probably didn’t know about the guarantees, but the omission reveals the limitations of his investigation. The guarantees came to light publicly when the American Lawyer spoke recently with former partners who said that “the size and scope of the McKee Nelson guarantees led to internal fissures…that caused at least some partners to leave the firm.”

No Regrets

Looking to the future, Zimmerman told the Harvard researchers, “[W]e’re competing with the best every day. We know we are among the best.” (p. 19)

I wonder if he would now offer the same self-assessment of his leadership that Robert Ruyak provided to the American Lawyer at the time of Howrey’s bankruptcy, namely, “I don’t have any regrets.” Nanda’s case study on Howrey’s demise concludes with “Ruyak’s Reflections.” The “no regrets” line could lead to interesting classroom discussions about accepting responsibility, but it doesn’t appear in the Howrey study. Ruyak’s explanations for the firm’s failure do.

One explanation that receives no serious attention in the case study is Ruyak’s observation that the partnership lacked patience and loyalty to the firm: “The longer-term Howrey people realized that our profitability jumped around a bit,” he said. “The people who were laterals, maybe, did not.” (p. 15)

Perhaps the potential for institutional instability that can accompany aggressive inorganic law firm growth receives greater emphasis in classroom discussions of Howrey and Bingham than it does in Nanda’s written materials. In that respect, both firms are case studies in management failure that is regrettably pervasive: a wrongheaded vision of success and a reliance on misguided metrics by which to measure it.

THE BINGHAM CASE STUDY — PART I

“For the first time since I’ve been in this job, we have all the pieces we need to do our job.”

That was former Bingham McCutchen chairman Jay Zimmerman’s penultimate line in the September 2011 Harvard Law School Case Study of his firm.

Oops.

Harvard Law School Professor Ashish Nanda and a research fellow developed the study for classroom use. According to the abstract, it’s a textbook example of successful management. It demonstrates how a firm could evolve “from a ‘middle-of-the-downtown pack’ Boston law firm in the early 1990s to a preeminent international law firm by 2010.”

Oops, again.

Familiar Plaudits

At the time of Nanda’s study, the profession had already witnessed a string of recent big firm failures. He should have taken a closer look at them. In fact, only seven months before publication of the Harvard Study, Howrey LLP was in the highly publicized death throes of what was a preview Bingham’s unfortunate fate.

Bingham’s Zimmerman and Howrey’s last chairman, Robert Ruyak, had several things in common, including accolades for their leadership. Just as Nanda highlighted Zimmerman’s tenure in his study, two years before Howrey’s collapse, Legal Times honored Ruyak as one of the profession’s Visionaries. Along similar lines, less than a month after publication of the Harvard study, Dewey & LeBeouf’s unraveling began as partners learned in October 2011 that the firm was not meeting its revenue projections for the year. But Dewey chairman Steven Davis continued to receive leadership awards.

Perhaps such public acclaim for a senior partner is the big firm equivalent of the Sports Illustrated curse. Being on the cover of that magazine seems to assure disaster down the road. (According to one analyst, the SI curse isn’t the worst in sports history. That distinction belongs to the Chicago Cubs and the Billy Goat hex. But hey, anyone can have a bad century.)

Underlying Behavior

The Lawyer Bubble investigates Howrey, Dewey, and other recent failures of large law firms. The purpose is not to identify what distinguishes them from each other, but to expose common themes that contributed to their demise. With the next printing of the book, I’m going to add an afterword that includes Bingham.

If Nanda had considered those larger themes, he might have viewed Bingham’s evolution much differently from the conclusions set forth in his study. He certainly would have backed away from what he thought was the key development proving Bingham’s success, namely, aggressive growth through law firm mergers and lateral hiring. He might even have considered that such a strategy could contribute to Bingham’s subsequent failure — which it did.

To find those recent precedents, he need not have looked very far. Similar trends undermined Howrey, Dewey, and others dating back to Finley Kumble in 1988. As a profession, we don’t seem to learn much from our mistakes.

The MBA Mentality Strikes Again

What caused Professor Nanda to line up with those who had missed the fault lines that had undone similar firms embracing the “bigger is always better” approach? One answer could be that he’s not a lawyer.

Nanda has a Ph.D in economics from Harvard Business School, where he taught for 13 years before becoming a professor of practice, faculty director of executive education, and research director at the program on the legal profession at Harvard Law School. Before getting his doctorate, he spent five years at the Tata group of companies as an administrative services officer. He co-authored a case book on “Professional Services” and advises law firms and corporate inside counsel.

It’s obvious that Nanda is intelligent. But it seems equally clear that his business orientation focused him on the enticing short-term metrics that have become ubiquitous measures of success. They can also be traps for the unwary.

In Part II of this series, I’ll review some of those traps. Nanda fell into them. As a consequence, he missed clues that should have led him to pause before joining the Bingham cheerleading squad.

Meanwhile, through December 6, Amazon is offering a special deal on my novel, The Partnership: It’s FREE as an ebook download. I’m currently negotiating a sale of the film rights to the book.

BULLET DODGED? OR REDIRECTED TOWARD YOU?

For the past six months, Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego seemed poised to become the first ABA-accredited law school to fail since the Great Recession began. For anyone paying attention to employment trends in the legal sector, the passage of six years without a law school closing somewhere is itself remarkable. It also says much about market dysfunction in legal education.

In his November 5 column in the New York TimesUniversity of California-Berkeley law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon has a different view. Solomon argues that recent enrollment declines prove that a functioning market has corrected itself: “[T]he bottom is almost here for law schools. This is how economics works: Markets tend to overshoot on the way up, and down.”

Solomon urges that the proper course is to keep marginal law schools such as Thomas Jefferson alive for a while “and see what happens.” I disagree.

Take Thomas Jefferson, Please

As I’ve discussed previously, in 2008 the school issued bonds for a new building. When the specter of default loomed large in early 2014, the question was whether some accommodation with bondholders would keep the school alive. Solomon suggests that creditors made the only deal possible and the school is the ultimate winner. He gives little attention to the real losers in this latest example of a legal education market that is not working: Thomas Jefferson’s students, the legal profession, and taxpayers.

In retrospect, the restructuring agreement between the school and its bondholders reveals that a deal was always likely. That’s because both sides could use other people’s money to make it, as they have since 2008.

According to published reports, interest on the taxable portion of the 2008 bond issuance was 11 percent. Tax-exempt bondholders earned more than 7 percent interest. Thanks to federally-backed student tuition loans, taxpayers then subsidized the school’s revenue streams that provided quarterly interest and principal payments to those bondholders.

Outcomes? Irrelevant In This Market

Last year, Thomas Jefferson accepted 80 percent of applicants. According to its latest required ABA disclosures, first-year attrition was over 30 percent. The school’s California bar passage rate for first-time takers in February and July 2012 was 54 percent, compared to the state average of 71 percent.

Solomon cites the school’s other dismal statistics, but ignores their implications. For example, Thomas Jefferson’s low bar passage rate made no difference to most of its graduates because the full-time long-term bar passage-employment rate for the class of 2013 was 29 percent, as it was for the class of 2012.

Meanwhile, its perennially high tuition (currently $44,900 a year) put Thomas Jefferson #1 on the U.S. News list of schools whose students incurred the greatest law school indebtedness: $180,665 for the class of 2013. According to National Jurist, the school generates 95 percent of its income from tuition.

It’s Alive

This invites an obvious question: How did the school survive so long and what is prolonging its life?

First, owing to unemployed recent graduates with massive student loans, bondholders received handsome quarterly payments for more than five years — much of it tax-exempt interest. The disconnect between student outcomes and the easy availability for federal loans blocked a true market response to a deteriorating situation. Bondholders should also give an appreciative nod to federal taxpayers who are guaranteeing those loans and will foot the bill for graduates entering income-based loan forgiveness programs.

Second, headlines touted Thomas Jefferson’s new deal as “slashing debt” by $87 million, but bondholders now own the law school building and will reportedly receive a market rate rent from the school — $5 million a year. Future student loans unrelated to student outcomes will provide those funds.

Third, the school issued $40 million in new bonds that will pay the current bondholders two percent interest. Student loan debt will make those payments possible.

Net-net, win-win, lose-lose

The bottom line benefit for Thomas Jefferson is immediate relief from its current cash crunch. Instead of $12 million in principal and interest payments annually, the school will pay $6 million in rent and bond interest — funded by students who borrow to obtain a Thomas Jefferson law degree of dubious value.

“I think the whole deal is a reflection of the fact that the bondholders were very desirous for us to succeed,” [Thomas Jefferson Dean Thomas] Guernsey said.

Actually, it reflects the bondholders’ ability to tap into the proceeds of future federal student loans as they cut a deal with a wounded adversary. Instead of cash flow corresponding to bond interest rates of 7 and 11 percent, bondholders will receive about half that amount, along with an office building and the tax advantages that come with ownership (e.g., depreciation deductions). Think of it as refinancing your home mortgage, except the bank gets to keep your house.

Erroneous Assumptions Produce Dubious Strategies

“This restructuring is a major step toward achieving our goals,” said Thomas Guernsey, dean of Thomas Jefferson. “It puts the school on a solid financial footing.”

Throwing furniture into the fireplace to keep the house warm is not a viable long-run survival strategy. Consider future students and their willingness to borrow as the “furniture” and you have a picture of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s business plan.

Meanwhile, Solomon echoes the hopes of law school faculty and administrators everywhere when he says, “[T]he decline in enrollment could lead to a shortage of lawyers five years from now.”

In assuming a unitary market demand for lawyers, he conflates the separate and distinct submarkets for law school graduates. His resulting leap of faith is that a rising tide — even if it arrives — will lift Thomas Jefferson’s boat and the debt-ridden graduates adrift in it. It won’t.

ELON’S “GROUNDBREAKING NEW MODEL”

On October 9, the Elon University School of Law issued a press release announcing its “groundbreaking new model” of legal education. That’s an overstatement, but the plan has some distinctly positive elements. Unfortunately, it also continues to rely on the prevailing law school business model that has produced the profession’s current crisis.

Elon’s Brief History

Located in Greensboro, North Carolina, Elon was founded in 2006 and received ABA accreditation in 2008 — as the Great Recession began. In one sense, the timing was good because many undergraduates thought law school was a safe place to spend three years waiting for the economy to improve. At the time, that option looked especially attractive because the ABA didn’t require schools to disclose whether recent graduates were obtaining meaningful JD-required jobs. By 2010, Elon achieved a record-high first-year enrollment of 132 students. Tuition for 2009-2010 was $30,750/year.

As ABA-mandated disclosures began to reveal that almost half of all law graduates nationwide were not getting full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD, the overall number of applicants to all law schools plummeted — from 87,500 in 2010 to 59,400 in 2013. Some deans at less competitive schools lowered admissions standards and raised acceptance rates. Even in a collapsing market for new lawyers, the effort to fill classrooms was a rational response to financial incentives. Federally-backed non-dischargeable student loans for tuition generated revenues for law schools, but schools had no accountability for their graduates’ poor job prospects.

Lowering the Bar

According to U.S. News, Elon accepted 68.4 percent of applicants for fall 2013 and enrolled 107 first-year students — almost 20 percent fewer than in 2010. From 2010 to 2013, the median LSAT for its first-year class dropped from 155 to 150; the median GPA declined from 3.12 to 3.01. At the 25th percentile, from 2010 to 2013, Elon’s LSAT/GPA combination went from 153/2.80 to 146/2.75.

Even as first-year enrollment declined at Elon, tuition increased to almost $38,000/year. Average student debt for 2013 graduates exceeded $108,000. Meanwhile, Elon’s full-time long-term JD-required employment rate for 2013 graduates was 32.8 percent. The school was one of only 13 (out of 201) ABA-accredited schools that placed less than one-third of their graduates in such jobs.

Groundbreaking?

When the school’s new dean, Luke Bierman, joined Elon on June 1 of this year, the school was already more than two years into developing a strategic plan that now includes added experiential learning, residencies with practicing attorneys, faculty-supervised development, and a JD program of seven trimesters replacing three academic years.

Practical training, residencies, and student development efforts that give otherwise unemployed lawyers a few tools to help them scratch out a living with their JDs is a good thing. Everyone should applaud those initiatives. But especially with Duke, UNC, and Wake Forest nearby, such changes are not likely to create more JD-required jobs for Elon graduates.

Pushing students out the door more quickly is not particularly novel. Many schools, including the University of Dayton, Drexel, Pepperdine, Northwestern, Southwestern, and others, have two-year programs. But the really big reform — eliminating the third year altogether — isn’t happening because accreditation rules prevent it. Existing accelerated programs merely cram the requisite workload into a shorter time period.

Money-saving?

Elon claims that its new plan offers two economic benefits to students: they can enter the job market sooner and save money on tuition. Whether becoming eligible for JD-required employment is a benefit for Elon graduates in the current environment (or even a few years from now) isn’t clear. As for the tuition discount, it’s true that an Elon JD will now cost $100,000 for seven trimesters compared to the $114,000 for three years (at $38,000/year) — a nominal student savings of $14,000.

But Elon’s strategic plan probably includes a pro forma projection showing that its new pricing policy benefits the school at least as much. Take the total current cost of $114,000, divide it by nine trimesters (three years), and the result is a per-trimester cost of $12,666.67. If students were paying for seven trimesters at Elon’s current annual tuition rate, the total cost for the degree would be $88,666.67. They’ll now pay $100,000 (or $14,285.71 per trimester). Elon promises to freeze a student’s total cost for the program, but on a price-per-trimester basis the $100,000 fixed cost already includes a tuition increase.

The Real Problem

The short-term economic impact of Elon’s new program is less troubling than the school’s long-term business plan. Because the seven-trimester program will generate less gross revenue per student than its current three-year course of study, the school plans to recover those losses by adding — you guessed it — more students.

The Triad Business Journal reports: “From a business standpoint, Elon Law anticipates offsetting the loss of revenue from tuition reduction by gradually increasing the number of students joining the school each year, up from 112 this fall to about 130 within a number of years.”

Imagine the consequences if every law school that currently places fewer than one-third of its graduates in full-time long-term JD-required jobs were to increase enrollment by 20 to 30 percent “within a number of years.” For the profession, that would be like accelerating in reverse gear toward a brick wall.

The Quest for Meaningful Reform

Elon’s understandable approach to the economics of this situation is important for one more reason. After accepting the deanship in January 2014, Bierman became a member of the ABA’s Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education. If that task force develops a “groundbreaking” plan to supplement a glutted market with more new lawyers from schools where two-thirds of current graduates can’t find full-time long-term JD-required employment, perhaps the ground would be better left unbroken.

More about possible solutions in my address at the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Symposium at St. John’s University on October 24.

A MYTH THAT MOTIVATES MERGERS

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

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

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

Bigger Is…?

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

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

The Magic of the Am Law 50?

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

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

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

Buzzwords Without Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

Soundbites

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

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

Uncertain Outcomes

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

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

DANGEROUS ADVICE FOR LAW FIRM LEADERS

During the past 25 years, law firm management consulting has grown from cottage industry to big business. In a recent Am Law Daily article, “What Critics of Lateral Hiring Get Wrong,” Brad Hildebrandt, one of its pioneers, provides a comforting message to his constituents:

“Large law firms are weathering the storm of the past five years and continue to transform their businesses to operate with efficiency and agility amid a new set of client expectations.”

Hildebrandt v. Altman Weil

Hildebrandt correctly notes that painting all large firms with a single brush is a mistake. But his general description of most firms today is at odds with the results of Altman Weil’s recent survey, “2014: Law Firms in Transition.” The summary of responses from 803 law firm leaders (including 42 percent of the nation’s largest 350 firms) offers these highlights:

— “The Survey shows clear consensus among law firm leaders on the changing nature of the legal market…. [But] law firms are proceeding without an apparent sense of urgency.”

— “Less than half of the law firms surveyed are responding to the pressures of the current market by significantly changing elements of their traditional business model.”

— “Most firms are not making current investments in a future they acknowledge will be different – and different in seemingly predictable ways.”

— “Only 5.3 percent of firms are routinely looking farther than five years out in their planning.”

Altman Weil’s conclusions comport with its October 2013 Chief Legal Officer Survey. When clients rated outside law firms’ seriousness about changing legal service delivery models to provide greater value, the median score was three out of ten — for the fifth straight year.

Hildebrandt v. Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor and Henderson

So what are most big firms doing? Growth through aggressive lateral hiring. Hildebrandt responds to “academics, journalists, former practicing attorneys, and countless legal bloggers” who question that strategy. Count me among them.

Acquiring a well-vetted lateral partner to fill a specific strategic need is wise. But trouble arises when laterals become little more than portable books of business whose principal purpose is to enhance an acquiring firm’s top line revenues.

“Growth for growth’s sake is not a viable strategy in today’s market,” the 2014 Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report on the State of the Legal Market observes. Nevertheless, the report notes, most firms are pursuing exactly that approach: “[Growth] masks a bigger problem — the continuing failure of most firms to focus on strategic issues that are more important….”

Professor William Henderson has done extensive empirical work on this subject. “Is Reliance on Lateral Hiring Destabilizing Law Firms?” concludes: “[T]he data is telling us that for most law firms there is no statistically significant relationship between more lateral partner hiring and higher profits.”

Hildebrandt v. Citi/Hildebrandt

Big law partners acknowledge the truth behind Henderson’s data. According to the 2014 Citi/Hildebrandt Client Advisory, only 57 percent of law firm leaders describe their lateral recruits during 2008-2012 as successful, down from 60 percent last year. If those responsible for their firms’ aggressive lateral hiring strategies acknowledge an almost 50 percent failure rate, imagine how much worse the reality must be. Nevertheless, the lateral hiring frenzy continues, often to the detriment of institutional morale and firm culture.

With respect to culture and morale, Hildebrandt rejects the claim that lateral partner hiring crowds out homegrown associate talent. But the 2013 Citi/Hildebrandt Client Advisory suggests that it does: Comparing “the percentages of new equity partners attributable to lateral hires vs. internal promotions in 2007…with percentages in 2011 reveals a marked shift in favor of laterals” — a 21 percent decrease in associate promotions versus a 10 percent increase in lateral partner additions.

Nevertheless, Hildebrandt offers this assessment:

“In the six years prior to the recession, many firms admitted far too many partners—some into equity partnership, many into income partnership. A driving factor in the number of partners in the lateral marketplace is that firms are coming to grips with the mistakes of the past. Lax admissions standards have been a far greater issue than mistakes made on laterals.”

When I read that passage, it seemed familiar. In fact, Chapter 5 of my latest book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisisopens with this quotation:

“The real problem of the 1980s was the lax admission standards of associates of all firms to partnerships. The way to fix that now is to make it harder to become a partner. The associate track is longer and more difficult.”

Those were Brad Hildebrandt’s words in September 1996. (“The NLJ 250 Annual Survey of the Nation’s Largest Law Firms: A Special Supplement — More Lawyers Than Ever In 250 Largest Firms,” National Law Journal)

“Fool Me Once, Shame On You…”

Evidently, most firms followed Hildebrandt’s advice in the 1990s because the overall leverage ratio in big law firms has doubled since then. His recent suggestion that “lax admission standards” caused firms to make “far too many” equity partners during the six years prior to the Great Recession of 2008-2009 is particularly puzzling. In the May 2008 issue of American Lawyer, Aric Press noted that during the “Law Firm Golden Age” from 2003 to 2007, “Partners reaped the benefits of hard work — and of pulling up the ladder behind them. Stoking these gains has been a dramatic slowdown in the naming of new equity partners.”

Meanwhile, the swelling ranks of income partners reflect a different strategy: using the non-equity partner tier as a profit center. The strategy is misguided, but pursuing it has been intentional, not a “mistake.” (Take a look at the American Lawyer article, “Crazy Like a Fox,” by Edwin Reeser and Patrick McKenna.)

Even so, Hildebrandt’s words reassure firms that are recruiting laterals for all the wrong reasons and/or tightening the equity partner admission screws. Tough love might better serve the profession.