Dewey & LeBoeuf has talented lawyers, great clients, and 2011 average equity partner profits exceeding $1.7 million. So what required a March 2 firmwide memo from Chairman Steven H. Davis in response to “press stories on U.S. legal blogs”? If the firm paid some media relations consultant to advise him on the missive, it should demand a refund.

Lessons about communicating

Davis says that he planned to outline cost-cutting and other measures when he “knew exactly how they would impact individual offices and departments, but given the press attention,” he advanced his timetable. There’s the first lesson to learn from his approach: When management makes decisions, it shouldn’t attribute the timing of announcements to outside media influences, even if they are a factor.

The second lesson is to avoid firmwide memoranda on sensitive issues. That’s not because transparency is bad (although sometimes less is more). Rather, it’s because difficult news should be communicated in a way that best serves the institution, its people, and its clients.

In the age of global mega-firms, it’s difficult to bring all personnel — or even all partners — together for a candid conversation about what’s happening and why. But there’s no better use for all of that fancy videoconferencing technology than promoting the right narrative, rallying the troops, and instructing partners to inform clients and staff directly about internal firm situations that generate press.

Mixed messages

The substance of the memo presents other issues. Davis starts with the “many successes last year” and “improved financial performance” in 2011 that continued during the first two months of 2012. The problem, he suggests, is a “significant increase in our cost base.” Taking “proactive steps to align the firm’s resources with anticipated demand,” he notes that “[s]ome recent departures have been consistent with the firm’s strategic planning for 2012, and we expect some additional partners to leave.”

That leads to a third lesson about these situations. If a firm is pushing some partners out, don’t make a big deal about it while also touting the firm’s improved financial performance. As they’re losing their jobs, let subpar performers who were once valued firm assets keep their dignity. In fact, public characterizations invite scrutiny. For example, attrition and pruning are one thing, but did the firm’s strategic plan really contemplate losing current and former practice group leaders?

Then comes the punch line: the firm will reduce another five percent of attorneys and six percent of staff. Perhaps, as Davis suggests, the firm does “very much regret the impact” on affected colleagues, but with average equity partner earnings well above the million dollar mark, describing layoffs of 50 to 60 lawyers as “necessary to ensure the firm’s competitiveness” seems disingenuous to most observers.

Misleading metric?

Underlying all of this could be the fact that a key firm metric — average equity partner profits — is misleading. Perhaps, like many big firm trends, the real story is the internal gap between the highest and lowest equity partners.

According to the February issue of The American Lawyer, “Davis says that the firm resisted making mass lateral hires for three years after it was created in October 2007 through the merger of Dewey Ballantine and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, choosing to focus on integration first. ‘Now, we’re moving into a new part of the cycle….'”

One new part of the cycle is lateral partner hiring, for which Dewey was among the top ten firms in 2011. Some of its newest partners were probably expensive, such as former chairs of their previous firms’ practice areas. In 2009, Davis said that the firm rewarded superior performance and denied giving compensation guarantees to rainmakers. If, as recent reports suggest, that policy changed, guarantees could present risks. When a lateral bubble pops, it can inflict significant collateral damage.

Even so, Dewey remains a great firm. On the strength of its ranking surge from 33 to 14 in the Midlevel Associate Satisfaction survey, together with its numerous awards for diversity and pro bono initatives, the firm made the 2011 Am Law “A-list.” That requires decent people creating a culture worth preserving. Hopefully, “moving to the new part of the cycle” hasn’t taken the firm in an errant direction — or, alternatively, any detour is temporary.