BABY BOOMERS STRIKE AGAIN

Getting old is tough. But not nearly as tough as being young these days.

Recently, the National Law Journal reported that an Am Law  top 20 firm adopted a new policy allowing partners two addtional years before they must “begin giving business to younger colleagues.” Instead of 65, they’ll now have to start that process at 67. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202458271311)

Meanwhile, a prominent 63-year-old white-collar defense attorney left his big firm of 16 years to avoid its mandatory retirement age (65). He declined his old firm’s offer of a two-year exemption that would have given him until 67. (http://legaltimes.typepad.com/blt/2010/05/mark-tuohey-leaves-vinson-elkins-for-brown-rudnick-cites-retirement-policy.html)

And the June ABA Journal includes the following admonition from the organization’s president:

“In August 2007, the ABA adopted a policy rejecting mandatory age-based retirement policies. The recommendation urging this advance is worth considering and adoption by all legal employers.”

Yes, she’s a 60-something baby boomer in a big firm, too.

What’s going on? Forget lip-service paid to the old age-discrimination argument against forced departure of equity partners. That sword of Damocles has floated over the profession forever, yet somehow current big firm leaders replaced their predecessors.

So why the big outcry now? The current chorus reflects an unintended consequence of a flawed biglaw business model: resistance to intergenerational transition. But extending check-out time is a bad move for the firm that does it, the younger attorneys working there, and aging baby boomers unwilling to contemplate life after the law.

Aging rainmakers have books of business that make them indispensable to many large  firms. Why? Throughout biglaw, simplistic metrics (billings, billable hours, and leverage) have determined individual partners’ annual compensation with an eye toward maximizing short-term average profits-per-partner that appear in Am Law‘s annual rankings.

It’s become bad long-term news for the firm. In such a culture, partners have every incentive to retain client responsibilities and none to mentor proteges or promote intergenerational transition. As they age, the old-timers hoard their marbles and threaten to take them elsewhere. Does that sound like a prescription for long-term institutional stability?

What about younger lawyers hoping to inherit clients? Many will find themselves in the position of the wealthy parents’ child awaiting a large bequest. By the time it comes, the kid will be in his 50s. Meanwhile, blockage wreaks havoc all the way down the food chain.

How about the aging attorneys themselves? Encouraging them to deny their own mortality isn’t helpful. Sorry, but once you’re over 65, you may be young at heart, but to the rest of the world, your colorists and/or your combovers aren’t persuasive.

Here’s the painful truth: we baby boomers are not that special. Think you’re indispensable? Put your hand in a pail of water, pull it out, and look at the size of the hole you leave. That’s how indispensable you are. Do you remember any of your own mentors fondly? Well, someday that’s what you’ll be to others — if you truly succeed in the ways that matter most.

Those who have followed this blog from the beginning know that its first series of posts, “PUZZLE PIECES — Parts 1 through 12” (now archived in “CONNECTING THE DOTS”), dramatizes the problem of aging partners who hang on too long.  (https://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/category/connecting-the-dots/) Special ciriticism goes to those who have also inculcated their firms with a business school mentality of misguided metrics. Such baby boomers are now positioning themselves to extract one  final pound of flesh on the way to dotage.

Are these aging leaders who retain literal death grips on their billings positive role models for successors? If the firms themselves don’t survive them, it won’t matter, will it?

A BETTER ALTERNATIVE OR A LEAP FROM THE FRYING PAN?

Thirty years ago, New York was a scary place for me — mostly because I’d never been there. Midwestern curiousity led me to interview with Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s on-campus representative.

I’d heard that its road to success was the toughest. Rumors circulated that it hired twenty new attorneys for every one or two it might promote to equity partner eight or more years later. Not surprisingly, most of my fellow Harvard students regarded Cravath as the quintessential competitive sweatshop — a characteristic that many of my peers actually found attractive.

Not me. I went elsewhere because, in those good old days, there was an elsewhere to go. Cravath is probably not much different from what it was back then. It’s just that most of the biglaw world has followed its example. As other top-50 firms tightened equity partner admission requirements, Cravath just kept doing what it had always done.

Why did firms emulate Cravath? Law student lore made it the best by some undisclosed criteria. In retrospect, I think money had a role. Even back in 1980, it was one of a very few firms where advancement to equity partner meant wealth that was immense, at least for a lawyer.

According to the first ever listing of the Am Law 50 in 1985, Cravath ranked 2nd in profits per partner with $635,000. For those behind it, the descent was steep: the #10 firm was under $400,000; #30 was $255,000; #50 was $170,000.

Cravath blazed a trail to riches that now accompany those who reach biglaw’s summit: average equity partner profits for the entire Am Law 100 exceeded $1.26 million last year.

But Cravath remains different. Most of biglaw moved to two-tier partnerships and eat-what-you-kill systems where a few key metrics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios — now determine individual equity partner compensation.  Cravath’s single-tier model has reportedly remained lock-step: admission to its partnership means fixed financial rewards over an entire career without regard to individual books of business.

I don’t know if Cravath’s lawyers as a group are any happier than attorneys in other big firms. But the firm is now courting its Generation X’ers. According to the Wall Street Journalpartners in their late-30s and early-40s have “taken a more pro-active approach, building new relationships and handling much of the work that historically would have been taken on by partners in their 50s.” (WSJ, May 28, 2010, C3)

Referring to Cravath’s deferential culture in which young partners traditionally forwarded big deals to older colleagues, the article notes that senior partners have nurtured the new environment that gives younger lawyers earlier name recognition.

Why has it worked so far?

“The older attorneys didn’t mind, partly because the pay they received didn’t get cut as a result,” the Journal observes.

In other words, lock-step allows elders to step out of the spotlight without hits to their pocketbooks.

In the current biglaw world, Cravath’s experiment is risky. Will young partners remain loyal or use their newly gained client power to pursue financial self-interest elsewhere? Will Cravath be forced to modify or abandon lock-step so that it can retain young partners controlling clients and billings?

I don’t know. Equally significant, I suspect those most directly affected by what the article characterizes as a “sea change at one of the best-known and most conservative of white-shoe law firms” don’t know, either.

And what does it mean for new associates trying to understand how this affects the firm’s culture and their own career prospects?

Ah, the things I didn’t think to consider when I was a second-year law student looking for a job about which I knew almost nothing.

Fortunately, students are wiser now, right?

IT’S NOT JUST ME

They acknowledge it’s a tough sell.

The co-chairman of a large, well-respected law firm has teamed with the former senior vice president and general counsel of General Electric to write an article that appeared in the May issue of The American Lawyer. The title says it all: “Noblesse Oblige: Firms must teach the younger generation what it means to be a true professional.”  (http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/plp/pdf/Noblesse_Oblige.pdf)

Here’s the first paragraph.

“Law firms have been moving from loosely managed associations of professionals to disciplined business organizations for more than a generation. This shift has caused an erosion of professional values (lawyers’ traditional commitment to enhancing society) and has increased the focus on economic return (firms’ relentless quest for escalating profits per partner).”

So how did that happen? Why doesn’t the younger generation already know what it means to be a true professional? Who have been their role models?

Better not to ask. Like me, the authors are members of the baby boomer generation that, as a group, bears responsiblity for a culture that some of us hope younger attorneys can change. In other words, do as we now say, not as too many of us did and still do.

Their suggestions start with the toughest job of all: persuading firm partners to move away from “inward-looking economics (more hours, more leverage, more profits, regardless of value)….”

For example, consider the concept of “productivity” — a bill of goods that self-styled legal consultants have sold to willing biglaw buyers for the past two decades. Increasing productivity has become a nice way of saying: “Get your billable hours  up.” In the Great Recession, it has translated into layoffs so that survivors worked harder.

The authors’ approach would revolutionize most firms’ fundamental cultures. The resulting benefits would flow to partners, associates, the unrepresented, and the community.

But it all begins with a willingness to jettison the business school mentality of misguided metrics that has made profits per partner biglaw’s pervasive measuring stick — in substantial part because it has made most biglaw equity partners wealthy beyond their wildest law school dreams.

How will equity partners respond to the news that they’ll have to earn less now for the promise of longer-term non-economic gains to the profession and, I dare say, to their own improved psychological well-being?

Sophocles wrote in Antigone, “No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.”

Shakespeare’s formulations — subsequently condensed to “don’t kill the messenger” — were likewise on point: “Though it be honest, it is never good to bring bad news” (Antony and Cleopatra) and “Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news Hath but a losing office.”  (Henry IV, Part 2.)

And when it comes to a willingness to hear unpleasant news about average equity partner profits, those of us familiar with the profession know too well the pervasive presence of biglaw’s equivalents to Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts:

“Off with their heads!”

“SEND THE ELEVATOR BACK DOWN…”

Kevin Spacey regards late actor Jack Lemmon as a key influence in his life. He often quotes Lemmon’s famous remark:

“If you’re lucky enough to have done well, then it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.”

I thought about those comments as I read this year’s Am Law 100 listings and then took another look at last year’s. Rather than sending the elevator back down, most biglaw leaders seem to be pulling the ladder up.

A year ago, the editors of American Lawyer observed that since 1999, the number of non-equity partners in Am Law 100 firms increased threefold. But  the equity ranks rose by only one-third. For context, that was a decade when demand for all legal services surged and large firms in particular experienced explosive growth in revenues, headcount, and profitability.

In other words, there was more room everywhere — except at the top, apparently.

The May 2010 issue of American Lawyer noted that as gross revenues for the Am Law 100 fell, average equity partner profits for the group actually increased to over $1.26 million. How did that happen?

Answer: A multi-pronged attack.

First, firms increased productivity — which is another way of saying that some associates lost their jobs so the survivors could bill more hours. Remember Black Thursday in mid-February 2009 — a second St. Valentine’s Day massacre?

Second, they reduced staff, slashed summer programs, deferred or withdrew previous offers to new hires, and cut other expenses.

Finally and less publicly, some firms quietly moved equity partners to income status while putting the brakes on new entrants to the equity ranks. As a result, the number of non-equity partners rose again in 2009. That bulge in the biglaw python now comprises almost 40% of all Am Law 100 law firm partners.

Where will they go?

Maybe someday the biglaw benefactors bankrolling the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) will allow that organization systematically to gather tracking data that will tell us, just as it does for associates. You might think that all of the free market proselytizers in large firms would embrace more transparency on a topic of such central importance to law students trying to make career decisions.

Think again. NALP tried, but the organization ceased collection efforts in December 2009 because firms balked at providing it. In April, a prominent group of judges, professors, and attorneys wrote a letter criticizing NALP’s capitulation. In response, its executive director offered assurances that the board would consider the issue on April 26.

Now what?

25 YEARS…

There are no other lawyers in my family. One of my sons has a rock band, Harper Blynn, that just released its new album, The Loneliest Generation. (http://www.myspace.com/harperblynn)

It’s an anthem for young adults, but it also engages my Beatles-era baby boomer mind. The album’s first track — 25 Years — resonates on many levels. Fortuitously, it also marks the end of a time span that began with the first ever Am Law listing of the nation’s largest firms.

In its 1985 inaugural appearance, there were only 51 Am Law firms. (A tie required expanding the first group from its intended 50.) For a while, the annual lists were of passing interest, mostly to the profession’s voyeurs. But eventually, the rankings assumed a status that revolutionized the profession — in a very big way.

Once upon a time, how much money a person made wasn’t the subject of polite conversation. At least in the large law firm world,  Am Law changed all of that. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened.

For many firms, a key metric became definitive: average equity partner profits. Wrapped in illusory objectivity, decisions became easier:

“The numbers don’t lie.”

As firm leaders themselves became armed with MBAs, more business school-type metrics and jargon began to displace meaningful discussion about quality lawyering:

“What are your billable hours?”

“What’s the leverage ratio of non-equity lawyers working on the matter?”

“What client billings comprise the ‘business case’ for promoting an attorney to equity partner?”

And now the rhetoric is simpler as the transformation from profession to bottom-line business has become complete:

“A dollar of revenue is a dollar of revenue, period.”

“I’m just trying to run a business.”

Along the way, attorneys at many firms found the road to equity partnership longer and less certain. But things played out well for the winners, although retaining that status became more challenging, too. In 1990, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 were $565,000. Last year, in the midst of economic recession, they were still over $1.26 million.

How did all of this affect the culture of many firms? There’s no convenient metric for measuring that impact, but try this one:

In surveys identifying those who are the unhappiest and least satisfied workers in any occupation, lawyers — especially those in  big firms — consistently lead the pack. It’s a race no one wants to win.

Which takes me to the chorus of Harper Blynn’s 25 Years:

“You don’t have to go the lonely way —

— That wrecks your heart with sorrow and leaves your mind in disarray —

Don’t pretend that you don’t know –

         — Twenty-five years….and nothin’ to show.”

LIFE IMITATES ART

Sunday’s lead article in the Business section of the May 2 NY Times brought to mind a passage in my forthcoming novel, The Partnership. It’s a legal thriller set against a power struggle at a fictional firm that has embraced biglaw’s twenty-year transformation from a profession to a bottom-line business.

First, the passage from my book, which will be available later this month:

“The crash of 2008 stalled a great run for most large firm equity partners. A year earlier, Michelman & Samson’s average partner profits had grown to almost $3 million. The reasons were obvious: the ratio of all attorneys to equity partners — a number that managers called leverage — doubled from three to six in only ten years. The firm tripled in size to more than two thousand attorneys in a dozen offices around the world. Average hours climbed as yearly billing rate increases far outstripped inflation. Trees, it seemed, really did grow to the sky.

“Michelman & Samson’s balanced portfolio of client work had historically provided protection against the vagaries of the business cycle…For some reason that mystified the firm’s Executive Committee, diversification wasn’t working as well this time. The lucrative corporate venture capital practice had led the firm’s fortunes upward, and it experienced the leading edge of the coming collapse. The transactional pipeline dried up first…The restructuring group picked up some of the slack, but not enough to maintain the historic profits of earlier times. Even worse, the uproar over executive compensation threatened to spill over into bankruptcy courts….”

Which brings me to the Sunday Times article. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/business/02workout.html?) Throughout the current Great Recession, some lucrative pockets of biglaw have fared pretty well. For example, overall average equity partner profits of the Am Law 100 (released last Thursday) actually rose slightly in 2009 — even though gross revenue, headcount, and revenue per lawyer fell.

Is the leverage-billable hours model that produces such results sustainable? I don’t know, but it faces a new assault. Kenneth Feinberg, the Washington lawyer who serves as the “pay czar” for banks receiving tax dollars, received another assignment last June. The court in the Lehman bankruptcy appointed him to monitor attorneys’ fees in the case.

“Unemployment is over 9 percent, and to be paying first-year associates $500 an hour angers the public,” the Times quotes him. “People read about all of this and say that lawyers and the legal system are one more example of Wall Street out of control.”

The 77-year-old dean of the bankruptcy bar, Harvey Miller, responded with a spirited defense of the $164 million that his firm reportedly has incurred as Lehman’s lead counsel since its 2008 bankruptcy filing:

“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.'”

Miller sat on his firm’s management committee for 25 years. Where should I begin an analysis of what his remarks reveal about my once noble profession? 

Here’s one place: American Lawyer reported last week that the average equity partner profits of Miller’s firm — Weil Gotshal — increased to more than $2.3 million in 2009; their percentage of equity partners declined.

Here’s another: how many doctors make more than $1,000 an hour?

Here’s yet another: the Times noted that Miller’s firm also received $16 million in connection with the General Motors bankruptcy. Weren’t “public” taxpayer dollars involved in that one?

More thoughtful biglaw law attorneys declined to take the bait and refused comment to the Times.

Harvey won’t enjoy my novel.

PUZZLE PIECES – Part 6

Q: “OK, let’s get specific. Let’s talk about you. Your path to the top of your firm was a lot easier than it is for new associates today, right?”

Partner: “I don’t accept that. We’re a meritocracy. Cream rises to the top.”

Q:  “Just because cream rises to the top doesn’t mean you skim all of it off, does it?”

Partner: “That’s clever, but what’s your point?”

Q: “Are you saying that the path to equity partnership at your firm is no more difficult now than it was for you?”

Partner: “I don’t think about it that way.”

Q: “I’m sure you don’t. But I’m asking you to think about it that way now. According to Am Law, in 1995 your firm had 315 lawyers of whom 132 — more than 40% — were equity partners, right?”

Partner: “That’s what it reported.”

Q: “In Feburary 2010, American Lawyer reported that your firm ended 2009 with more than double that number of lawyers — almost 800 in all. But during that 14-year period, the number of equity partners rose by a measly 17 — to only 149 , right?”

Partner: “You’ve posed a compound question, but what’s your point?”

Q: “When you’re averaging only one additional equity partner per year on a net basis, every associate in an incoming class of 20, 30 or even more law school graduates faces pretty daunting odds against success, correct?”

Partner: “The best will still make it.”

Q: “And if your firm wants to preserve its equity partners’ multi-million dollar incomes, some highly capable attorneys — people good enough to have advanced if they’d been in your demographic group 30 years ago — won’t capture the brass ring of equity partnership today, will they?”

Partner: “We’ll always have room for the best.”

Q: “Your Honor, I move to strike the witness’ last answer as non-responsive.”

THE COURT: “Motion granted. The witness is instructed to answer the question.”