28 DAYS – The Big Squeeze Continues

While we’re waiting for NALP to reveal what it decided on April 26 — when it was supposed to grapple with the problem of getting biglaw firms to provide career tracking information on their non-equity partners (see my April 21 post: “Will Anyone Notice on April 27?”) — consider another recent NALP move…

Twenty-eight days sounds like a lot of time, doesn’t it?

On February 26, 2010, NALP announced a new provisional guideline. Beginning in August 2010, students receiving summer or permanent job offers from new prospective employers will have 28 days to respond. Yea or nay…up or down…fish or cut bait…

You get the idea.

NALP ignored the elephants in the room: law firms follow no uniform timetable in extending offers and, even worse, an accepted offer can turn out to be bogus when the employer later withdraws or defers it. When that happens, the victim is without recourse.

In other words, the ongoing capitulation to biglaw’s demands continues. In 2008, NALP adopted the prior rule giving students 45 days to ponder the decision that could shape their futures. Most big firms thought that was too long. Before that, students had until December 1. Before NALP existed, they had as much time as an individual firm gave them — which was usually a lot.

Do you detect a one-sidedness to the trend? Law firms have always retained flexibility to make rolling offers at their pleasure and to revoke them at will. Who’s looking out for the students?

Not NALP:

“Member feedback…has indicated that a shorter period will still allow students sufficient time to choose among competing offers.”  (http://www.nalp.org/provisionaltimingguidelines2010)

Ah, “member feedback.” Who provides that? Not students or anyone committed to their best interests, that’s for sure.

NALP’s board consists of biglaw representatives and law school career development officers seeking to maximize their graduates’ placements in large law firms. That means the big firms wield commanding voices.

The new guideline is an example. Biglaw scuttled NALP’s recommendation to move “the current recruiting model away from rolling response deadlines to a model based on ‘offer kickoff dates,’ the specific dates before which offers could not be made,” followed by a universal 14-day response period. That wasn’t perfect, but at least it would have allowed students to know all of their options before locking in their final answers.

Under the new rule, they’ll never know what might have been. Then again, based on biglaw’s associate attrition rates immediately preceding the Great Recession, the vast majority of new hires won’t remain with their first employers for more than three years anyway.

Whether students should rush like lemmings to the sea toward biglaw opportunities is a question that most students don’t consider, but they should. Shortening the response time won’t help them or the profession’s growing problem of attorney career dissatisfaction.

After piling up enormous law school debts as new job offers dwindle, are any of you prospective biglaw associates feeling squeezed again?

WILL ANYONE NOTICE ON APRIL 27?

When is a partner not a partner?

One of biglaw’s profitability secrets relates to what “partner” means. In increasingly common two-tier partnerships, only equity partners have an ownership interest that translates into the stunning average incomes reported in the Am Law 100. (In 2008, the average was $1.26 million.) The distinction should interest students who seek biglaw jobs and want to know what any particular firm is really like.

So where can they learn the truth? Every law student knows about the NALP Foundation. It’s the only organization that collects comprehensive personnel information directly from major U.S. law firms. It publishes much of it in a Directory that is every student’s bible of prospective employers. But data on firms’ non-equity/equity partner distribution is conspicuously absent from NALP’s reports, as is any attempt to track non-equity partners’ careers.

In December 2009, NALP decided NOT to collect data distinguishing equity from non-equity partners. When disappointed law students heard the news, NALP responded that it would begin compiling such information. It then backtracked because law firms balked.

Hmmmm…..

On April 6, a prominent group of 75 attorneys, judges, and legal scholars protested NALP’s decision on the grounds that tracking non-equity partners was important to assessing a firm’s true gender and racial diversity. Of course, they’re correct.

But there’s another reason to provide students with this information. According to Am Law, between 1999 and 2008, the nation’s 100 biggest firms increased their non-equity partner ranks threefold, but the number of equity partners grew by only one-third. What is the fate of most big firm non-equity partners? Don’t ask; don’t tell.

Could that be the real story behind NALP’s reluctance to cross so many of its biglaw board members, advisors, and benefactors?

NALP said it would reconsider the issue at its April 26 meeting. Will anyone notice? Will anyone care?

For students who understand the issue well enough to do the research, American Lawyer lends a hand. Although it doesn’t have diversity information, the annual Am Law 100 issue publishes overall breakdowns of the largest firms’ equity/non-equity partners. So why not let NALP take the next step? What happened to all of those biglaw free market enthusiasts who usually argue that complete, easily available information facilitates better decisions? What could be more relevant than a firm’s answer to a fundamental question: who are your real partners and whither goest the vast cadre of attorneys who survive the associate gauntlet only fail in their efforts to overcome the final hurdle into the ownership ranks?

PUZZLE PIECES – Part 3

As he himself described it, one of the top partners at Dechert LLP was 64 years old when he first realized that on his next birthday he’d turn 65. Now 67, he’s quoted in “Not Done Yet”:

“It made me start to think, ‘I’m in the traditional retirement zone without having spent one day thinking about it.’…Every time I set a timetable for a decision, I move it.”

That’s a witness statement I’d like to cross-examine — even if only in my dreams.

Q: “You’re an intelligent, accomplished attorney at one of the nation’s most prestigious firms, aren’t you?”

Partner: “I suppose you could say that.”

Q: “Don’t be modest. You have Ivy League undergraduate and law degrees sandwiched around an MBA, right?”

Partner: “Yes.”

Q: “You’re a senior partner at one of the nation’s elite firms — a group known as the Am Law 100, right?”

Partner: “Yes.”

Q: “You say that you didn’t think about retirement for a single day until you were 64?”

Partner: “Right.”

Q: “The light dawned when a list of nominees for the firm’s policy committee circulated and you saw that your name wasn’t on it, right?”

Partner: “That’s correct.”

Q: “You must have been pretty busy worrying about other things?”

Partner: “I’ve cultivated a very demanding practice. Law has become a 24/7 job.”

Q: “In your case, the job was so demanding that it completely distracted you from any awareness that you were getting older, is that what you’re saying?”

Partner: “Well…”

Q: “Before you answer, let me ask if you think anything else might have been contributing to your denial of the inevitable?”

Partner: “What do you mean?”

WHY LISTEN TO ME?

Before spending your most precious commodity — your time — reading what I have to say, you’re entitled to enough information about me to decide whether my words matter.

The title of this blog is no accident, but I’m not a bitter online screamer who uses internet access as a substitute for anger management classes. Born into a working class family during the middle of the baby boom, I eventually surprised myself when I wound up at Harvard Law School and, immediately after graduation, one of the country’s biggest law firms. “Big” meant something different in those days; I was lawyer number 150 or so.

My job afforded me great opportunities to do what I enjoyed, gave me a sense of personal autonomy, and provided my family with financial security. Still, as demanding as it was, being a lawyer never defined me exclusively. When I wasn’t out-of-town trying cases, I was home for dinner. I coached all of my kids’ little league and girls’ softball teams and am still married to my first wife. All of our adult children are making the world a better place.

I don’t take credit for all of the good things that have happened in my life, nor can I pretend that my priorities are right for everyone. But my approach helped to make me part of an increasingly rare breed: attorneys who are satisfied with their careers and happy with their lives.

Retirement in my early-50’s hasn’t dimmed my outlook or diminished my enthusiasm, but distance has sharpened my perspective on how the legal profession has changed. For those now entering it, career satisfaction seems to be more and more elusive. The reasons become clearer to me every day.

Even more importantly, they have a universal application that goes far beyond the law.

More about that in the days ahead.