MIZZOU FOOTBALL LESSONS

The legal profession could learn something from the events culminating in Tim Wolfe’s resignation as president of the University of Missouri system. So could all of higher education. But those lessons have little to do with race.

Who is Tim Wolfe?

He’s a businessman.

Wolfe’s family moved to the Columbia, Missouri area when he was in fourth grade. For 30 years, his father was a communications professor at the University of Missouri. Wolfe quarterbacked his high school football team to a state championship. He earned an undergraduate degree from MU in personnel management.

After college, Wolfe became a sales rep for IBM where he worked his way up to vice president and general manager of its global distribution center. After 20 years at IBM, he became executive vice president of a consulting services company. From there, he moved to software maker Novell Americas, where he was president when another company acquired Novell and left him unemployed.

In December 2011, the University of Missouri’s board of curators announced Wolfe’s selection as its 23rd president. His base salary was $459,000.

What Happened? For a While, Not Much

As recently as August 2014, the board of curators thought that Wolfe’s performance had earned him a contract extension from February 2015 through June 2018. A year later, his troubles began.

On September 12, the president of the Missouri Student Association posted a Facebook item about vile racist slurs he’d received. By October 10, a group calling itself Concerned Student 1950 (the year Mizzou first admitted black students) staged a homecoming parade protest. On October 20, the group issued eight demands, including the ouster of Wolfe.

Exactly what he did to make such a shortlist is far from clear. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal put some blame on his proposal to close the university’s respected press as a cost saving measure. But he withdrew that proposal after hearing from objectors.

The Times and the Journal also implied that Wolfe was responsible for canceling health insurance for graduate students. But that situation is more complicated. As the graduate studies office announced in August, new Affordable Care Act requirements prevented the university from paying those premiums. Instead, the university would provide a one-time stipend to all qualified graduate students. Under the ACA, the university said, it was unable to link the stipend to health insurance or to ask whether recipients needed or planned to purchase a policy. Failure to implement the new IRS regulations would have resulted in fines of $100 per student.

Was It Race?

After a swastika with feces appeared in a campus bathroom on October 24, Concerned Student 1950 met with Wolfe personally. Three days later, one of the protest organizers announced a hunger strike. On November 6, a student posted a video in which protesters asked Wolfe to define systematic oppression.

“I’ll give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” he said. “Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.”

“Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe?” shouted a protester. “Did you just blame black students?”

Wolfe’s insensitive comments were unfortunate. But they’re not the sort of thing that costs a university president his job. And they didn’t cost Wolfe his — until the football team weighed in.

And Then…

On Saturday, November 7, the entire Mizzou football team — 84 scholarship players and their coaches — proclaimed unanimous solidarity with the protest movement. Within 36 hours, Wolfe resigned.

Like many universities, the University of Missouri created the monster that can devour it. College football is big business, especially in the Southeastern Conference. The average SEC head football coach makes almost $4 million a year. President Wolfe’s base salary was about one-tenth of what the school pays coach Gary Pinkel. Throughout the country, college football generates enormous revenues that pay for coaches, athletic scholarships, and stunning athletic facilities.

Whether and to what extent this circle of riches makes its way back to support a school’s principal mission — educating young people — isn’t clear. Earlier this year during its dispute over whether college players could unionize, Northwestern University claimed that, considered as a whole with other sports that football subsidized, the athletic programs were money-losers for the school. On November 7, Northwestern broke ground on a new $260 million athletic facility.

Pocketbook Threat

The tipping point for Wolfe came when the football team — with a mediocre record of four wins and five losses — said it would boycott its November 14 game against BYU. That game alone would have cost the university $1 million. But the potential impact could be far greater if the team fails to win the two more games needed to qualify for a postseason bowl appearance.

Now we come to the lesson for big law firms. The internal gap between the highest and lowest paid equity partners at most firms is enormous and growing. Likewise, the frenzy to recruit lateral rainmakers continues unabated. Those trends have produced a “don’t-get-me-angry” group that is analogous to what many college football teams have become. A handful of individuals exerts disproportionate influence over an entire institution, but the resulting culture affects everyone.

Football Cognitive Dissonance

Society is conflicted about football. Every weekend, millions of people watch college games. I’m among them. Our behavior creates market demand that gives college football an outsized influence over higher education.

At the same time, we’ve become uncomfortable with some of the adverse individual consequences that the market doesn’t consider, such as lifelong brain damage from concussions. Economists call these externalities. It’s one reason that half of Americans don’t want their sons playing tackle football. When things get personal, they’re somehow different.

Big Law Cognitive Dissonance

Likewise, most law firm managing partners admit that recruiting high-powered rainmakers doesn’t usually improve their firms’ financial performance. Independent studies confirm that lateral hiring is dubious strategy. Yet the lateral frenzy continues as newly hired partners parachute into the top ranks of many firms.

Unfortunately, short-run disappointment with the financial impact of a lateral hire is the least of the problems associated with aggressive inorganic growth. The strategy can destroy a firm’s cohesion, impair its sense of professional mission, and increase its vulnerability to financial shocks. In the resulting environment, everyone in the institution suffers.

Living through the financial and cultural consequences of lateral hiring failures could have prompted law firm leaders to rethink their strategic plans. But that hasn’t happened. After all, such a reversal would require leaders to overcome their confirmation bias, transcend hubris, and admit mistakes. That’s less likely than a major university relegating football to its proper place in the institution’s broader educational mission.

By the way, Mizzou may also offer a lesson to some law school deans: make friends with your university’s football coach.

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.

THE LAWYER BUBBLE — Early Reviews and Upcoming Events

The New York Times published my op-ed, “The Tyranny of the Billable Hour,” tackling the larger implications of the recent DLA Piper hourly billing controversy.

And there’s this from Bloomberg Business Week: “Big Law Firms Are in ‘Crisis.’ Retired Lawyer Says.”

In related news, with the release of my new book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis, my weekly posts will give way (temporarily) to a growing calendar of events, including:

TUESDAY, APRIL 2, 2013, 10:00 am to 11:00 am (CDT)
Illinois Public Media
“Focus” with Jim Meadows
WILL-AM – 580 (listen online at http://will.illinois.edu/focus)

TUESDAY, APRIL 2, 2013, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (CDT)
“Think” with Krys Boyd
KERA – Public Media for North Texas – 90.1 FM (online at http://www.kera.org/think/)

THURSDAY, APRIL 4, 2013, 11:00 am to Noon (EDT)
Washington, DC
The Diane Rehm Show
WAMU (88.5 FM in DC area) and NPR

FRIDAY, APRIL 5, 2013, 10:45 am to 11:00 am (EDT)
New York City
The Brian Lehrer Show
WNYC/NPR (93.9 FM/820 AM in NYC area)
(http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/)

SATURDAY, APRIL 6, 2013, Noon (EDT)
New Hampshire Public Radio
“Word of Mouth” with Virginia Prescott
WEVO – 89.1 FM in Concord; available online at http://nhpr.org/post/lawyer-bubble)

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10, 2013, 8:00 am to 9:00 am (CDT)
The Joy Cardin Show
Wisconsin Public Radio (available online at http://www.wpr.org/cardin/)

FRIDAY, APRIL 12, 2013
The Shrinking Pyramid: Implications for Law Practice and the Legal Profession” — Panel discussion
Georgetown University Law Center
Center for the Study of the Legal Profession
600 New Jersey Avenue NW
Location: Gewirz – 12th floor
Washington, D.C.

TUESDAY, APRIL 23, 2013, 7:00 pm (CDT) (C-SPAN 2 is tentatively planning to cover this event)
The Book Stall at Chestnut Court
811 Elm Street
Winnetka, IL

Here are some early reviews:

The Lawyer Bubble is an important book, carefully researched, cogently argued and compellingly written. It demonstrates how two honorable callings – legal education and the practice of law – have become, far too often, unscrupulous rackets.”
—Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocent and other novel

“Harper is a seasoned insider unafraid to say what many other lawyers in his position might…written with keen insight and scathing accusations…. Harper brings his analytical and persuasive abilities to bear in a highly entertaining and riveting narrative…. The Lawyer Bubbleis recommended reading for anyone working in a law related field. And for law school students—especially prospective ones—it really should be required reading.”
New York Journal of Books

“Anyone looking into a career in law would be well advised to read this thoroughly eye-opening warning.”
Booklist, starred review

“[Harper] is perfectly positioned to reflect on alarming developments that have brought the legal profession to a most unfortunate place…. Essential reading for anyone contemplating a legal career.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“[Harper] burns his bridges in this scathing indictment of law schools and big law firms…. his insights and admonitions are consistently on point.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Imagine that the elite lawyers of BigLaw and the legal academy were put on trial for their alleged negligence and failed stewardship. Imagine further that the State had at its disposal one of the nation’s most tenacious trial lawyers to doggedly build a complete factual record and then argue the case. The result would be The Lawyer Bubble. If I were counsel to the elite lawyers of BigLaw and the legal academy, I would advise my clients to settle the case.”
—William D. Henderson, Director of the Center on the Global Legal Profession and Professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law

“With wit and insight,The Lawyer Bubble offers a compelling portrait of the growing crisis in legal education and the practice of law. This book is essential reading for anyone concerned about the profession or contemplating a legal career.”
—Deborah L. Rhode, Professor of Law and Director of the Center on the Legal Profession, Stanford University

“This is a fine and important book, thoughtful and beautifully written. It makes the case – in a responsible and sober tone – that we are producing far too many lawyers for far too small a segment of American society. It is a must-read for leaders of law firms, law schools, and the bar, as the legal profession continues its wrenching transition from a profession into just another business.”
—Daniel S. Bowling III, Senior Lecturing Fellow, Duke Law School

“In this superb book, Steven Harper documents, ties together and suggests remedies for the deceit that motivates expanding law school enrollment in the face of a shrinking job market, the gaming of law school rankings and the pernicious effect of greed on the leadership of many of our nation’s leading law firms. The lessons he draws are symptomatic, and go well beyond the documented particulars.”
—Robert Helman, Partner and former Chairman (1984-98), Mayer Brown LLP; Lecturer, University of Chicago Law School

“Every sentient lawyer realizes that the legal profession is in crisis, but nobody explains the extent of the problem as well as Steven Harper. Fortunately, he also proposes some solutions – so there is still room for hope. This is an essential book.”
—Steven Lubet, author of Fugitive Justice and Lawyers’ Poker

“Steven Harper’s The Lawyer Bubble is an expression of tough love for the law, law firms and the people who work in them. The clear message is take control of your destiny and your firm to avoid the serious jeopardy that confronts far too many firms today. Whether you are a partner, associate, or law student, you should read this compassionate and forceful work.”
—Edwin B. Reeser, Former managing partner, author, and consultant on law practice management

“Harper chronicles the disruption of his once-genteel profession with considerable sadness, and places the blame squarely at the wing-tipped feet of two breeds of scoundrel: law school deans, and executive committees that have run big law firms …” –“Bar Examined” – Book Review in The Washington Monthly (March/April 2013)

LAW SCHOOL DISEQUILIBRIUM

It sure seems odd. On January 30, The New York Times reported this year’s dramatic decline in law school applications. A day later, a Wall Street Journal article described the many new schools that are in the works. Economists might call that “market disequilibrium.” More appropriate concepts might be incentivized idiocy and subsidized stupidity. U.S. News rankings incentivize the idiocy; taxpayer dollars subsidize the stupidity.

The WSJ article suggested that some administrators began implementing plans to add law schools “before the current drop [in applicants] became apparent.” However, the two schools in the article, Indiana Tech and the University of North Texas-Dallas College of Law, don’t have that excuse.

Indiana Tech didn’t complete its feasibility study of a proposed new law school until May 2011. The Texas legislature authorized the creation of the UNT-Dallas College of Law in 2009, as the Great Recession deepened. In the 2011-2012 state budget, it earmarked $5 million in funding. The school plans to start classes in 2014.

As for other new schools, what exactly wasn’t apparent when they came to life? Only obvious things that those responsible for creating the schools didn’t want to see.

Follow four numbers

First, from 2003 to 2008, the number of law school applicants dropped steadily — from 100,000 to 83,000. As the Great Recession made law school an attractive place to wait out a dismal economy, total applicants rose to 88,000 before resuming a downward trajectory, perhaps to as few as 54,000 for fall 2013 admission.

Second, in the face of an applicant pool that began shrinking ten years ago, first-year enrollment from 2003 to 2009 remained around 49,000. Refugees from the Great Recession pushed it over 51,000 in 2009 and 2010 before it settled back to 48,700 in 2011.

Third, when these 40,000+ students graduate, there will be full-time legal jobs for about half of them. But that’s not a new development, only a newly disclosed one. To game the U.S. News rankings, law schools have been fudging their employment numbers for years, and they know it.

Finally, at the end of 2003, there were 187 accredited law schools in the United States. Today, there are 201. Attempting to convey the magnitude of the current crisis, University of Chicago Law Professor Brian Leiter told the Times that he expects “as many as 10 schools to close over the next decade.” But over the past ten years alone, the ABA has accredited 14.

What are the lessons?

First, a decline in applications alone doesn’t assure any change in the profession’s errant direction. The real-life experiment from 2003 to 2008 proves that for as long as the number of applicants exceeds the number of available places in law school, academic leaders who think they can make money on law students will continue to build schools.

Second, in an effort to reverse the downward trend in applications, some deans beat the bushes for additional students, even as the job market for their graduates shrinks. Case Western Reserve Law School dean Lawrence Mitchell’s recent op-ed in the NY Times is an example. Another example is an article that Professor Carla Pratt, associate dean of academic affairs at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law, wrote last September for The National Law Journal: “Law School Is Still a Good Investment for African-Americans.

Yet another example comes from the UNT-Dallas College of Law. According to the January 31 WSJ article, professor and associate dean for academic affairs Ellen S. Pryor, acknowledges that applications have plummeted, but “the fact that the nationwide numbers are down doesn’t dishearten us from thinking we’ll get really good students and fulfill our mission.”

And what might that mission be? According to the Journal, UNT-Dallas hopes to draw a different pool of applicants than other north Texas law schools. In other words, even undergraduates who never before gave serious thought to law school should prepare themselves for an onslaught of sales pitches.

Limited accountability

Here’s one reason for the profound disconnect: Administrators and deans maintain an unhealthy distance from the economic hardships that their worst decisions inflict on graduates. Federally-guaranteed student loans fuel a system that relieves law schools of financial accountability.

Imagine how the world might change if the government as guarantor had recourse to a student’s law school for that graduate’s subsequent loan default. In the absence of such a market solution, educational debt collection has become a growth industry as law schools avoid the messes they’ve made.

Welcome to The Lawyer Bubble.

IS IT REALLY MORE COMPLEX THAN GREED?

Revisionism is already obfuscating the story of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s demise. If facts get lost, the profession’s leaders will learn precious little from an important tragedy.

For example, the day after Dewey & LeBoeuf filed its bankruptcy petition, Clifford Winston and Robert W. Crandall, two non-lawyer fellows at the Brookings Institution, wrote an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal offering this analysis: “Dewey’s collapse has been attributed to the firm being highly leveraged and unable to attract investment from businesses outside the legal profession.”

Attributed by whom? They don’t say. Anyone paying attention knows that outside investors bought $150 million in Dewey bonds. But apparently for commentators whose agenda includes proving that overregulation is the cause of everyone’s problems — including the legal profession’s — there’s no reason to let facts get in the way.

Another miss

On the same day that the Winston & Crandall article appeared, a less egregious but equally mistaken assessment came from Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor William Henderson in the Am Law Daily: “More Complex than Greed.” Bill and I agree on many things. I consider him a friend and an important voice in a troubled profession. But I think his analysis of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s failure misses the mark.

Henderson suggests, “One storyline that will attract many followers is that large law firm lawyers, long viewed as the profession’s elite class, have lost their way, betraying their professional ideals in the pursuit of money and glory. This narrative reinforces that lawyer-joke mentality that lawyers just need to become better people. That narrative is wrong.”

What’s wrong with it? In my view, not much, as “House of Cards” in the July/August issue of The American Lawyer now makes painfully clear.

What happened?

Rather than the greed that pervades “House of Cards,” Henderson suggests that Dewey & LeBoeuf reveals the failure of law firms to innovate in response to growing threats from new business models, such as Axiom and Novus Law. Innovation is an important issue and Henderson is right to push it. But as the story of Dewey’s failure unfolds, the inability to innovate in the ways that Henderson suggests — using technology and cheaper labor to achieve efficiencies and cost savings — won’t emerge as the leading culprit.

Rather, greed and the betrayal of professional ideals lie at the heart of what is destabilizing many big law firms. In that respect, most current leaders have changed the model from what it was 25 years ago. Am Law 100 firms’ average partner profits soared from $325,000 in 1987 to $1.4 million in 2011. Behind that stunning increase are leadership choices, some of which eroded partnership values. As a result, many big firms have become more fragile. If greed doesn’t explain the following pervasive trends, what does?

— Short-term metrics — billings, billlable hours, leverage — drive partner compensation decisions in most big firms. Values that can’t be measured — collegiality, community, sense of shared purpose — get ignored. When a K-1 becomes the glue that holds partnerships together, disintegration comes rapidly with a financial setback.

— Yawning gaps in the highest-to-lowest equity partner compensation. Twenty-five years ago at non-lockstep firms, the typical spread was 4-to-1 or 5-to-1; now it often exceeds 10-to-1 and is growing. That happens because people at the top decide that “more” is better (for them). Among other things, the concomitant loss of the equity partner “middle class” reduces the accountability of senior leaders.

— Leverage has more than doubled since 1985 and the ranks of non-equity partners have swelled. That happens when people in charge pull up the ladder.

— Lateral hiring and merger frenzy is rampant. One reason is that many law firm leaders have decided that bigger is better. The fact that “everybody else is doing it” reinforces errant behavior. Growth also allows managers to rationalize their bigger paychecks on the grounds that they’re presiding over larger institutions.

Throughout it all, associate satisfaction languishes at historic lows. No one surveys partners systematically, but plenty of them are unhappy, too. Unfortunately, such metrics that don’t connect directly to the short-term bottom line often get ignored.

Innovation won’t solve the problem

A few successful, stable law firms have shunned the now prevailing big law model. They innovate as needed, but far more important has been their ability to create a culture in which some short-term profit gives way to the profession’s long-term values. What is now missing from most big law firms was once pervasive: a long-run institutional vision and the willingness to implement it. Too often, greed gets in the way.

With all due respect to Messrs. Winston, Crandall and Henderson, sometimes the simplest explanation may also be the correct one.

DEWEY’S JEFFREY KESSLER: STARS IN THEIR EYES

This is the third in a series profiling Dewey & LeBoeuf’s former leaders. Apparently, Jeffrey Kessler (Columbia University, B.A., 1975; Columbia Law School, J.D., 1977) has become a prisoner of his celebrity clients’ mentality. A prominent sports lawyer, he analogizes big-name attorneys to top athletes: “The value for the stars has gone up, while the value of service partners has gone down.”

Kessler was a long-time partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges before joining Dewey Ballantine in 2003. After the firm’s 2007 merger with LeBoeuf Lamb, he became chairman of the Global Litigation Department, co-chairman of the Sports Litigation Practice Group and a member of the Executive and Leadership Committees. Long before he became a member of the Gang of Four in Dewey & LeBoeuf’s office of the chairman, he was a powerhouse in the firm.

Blinded by their own light

Some attorneys have difficulty resisting the urge to absorb the ambitions and ethos of their clients. Many corporate transactional attorneys have long been investment banker and venture capital wannabees, at least when it comes to the money they’d like to make.

Of course, not all corporate practitioners are myopic thinkers. Kessler proves that narrow vision isn’t limited to transactional attorneys. But the rise of such attitudes to the top of many large law firms has occurred simultaneously with the profession’s devolution to models aimed at maximizing short-term profits and growth.

Kessler was a vocal proponent of the Dewey & LeBoeuf star system that produced staggering spreads between people like him — reportedly earning $5.5 million a year — and the service partners, some of whom made about five percent of that. It was the “barbell” system: top partners on one side; everybody else on the other.

In such a regime, there’s no shared sacrifice. What kind of partnership issues IOUs to star partners when the firm doesn’t make its target profits? Something that isn’t a partnership at all.

Lost in their own press releases

Kessler regularly finds himself in the presence of celebrity athletes. That can be a challenging environment. But once you start believing your own press releases, the result can be the plan that he and fellow Dewey & LeBoeuf partner Charles Landgraf “spearheaded” (according to fellow Gang of Four member Martin Bienenstock).

To deal with outstanding IOUs to Dewey partners whose guaranteed compensation couldn’t be paid when the firm underperformed for the year, Kessler helped to mortgage its future: for “a six- or seven-year period, starting in 2014, [a]bout six percent of the firm’s income would be put away to pay for this….”

It’s a remarkable notion. Partners didn’t get all of their previously guaranteed earnings because the firm didn’t do well enough to pay it. But rather than rethink the entire house of cards, it morphed into a scheme whereby future partnership earnings — for six or seven years — would satisfy the shortfall. Never mind that there was no way to know who would be among the firm’s partners in those future years. The money had to be promised away because the stars had to be paid.

Sense of entitlement

Kessler gives voice to the pervasive big law firm attitude that without stars there is no firm. It’s certainly true that every firm has to attract business and that some lawyers are more adept at that task than others. But Kessler’s approach produced yawning income gaps at Dewey. Similar attitudes have contributed to exploding inequality afflicting many equity partnerships. For insight into the resulting destabilization, read the recent article by Edwin Reeser and Patrick McKenna. “Spread Too Thin.”

But does Kessler really think that he and a handful of his fellow former Dewey partners are the first-ever generation of attorney stars? Twenty-five years ago when average partner profits for the Am Law 100 were $325,000 a year, did his mentors at Weil Gotshal earn twenty times more than some of their partners — or anything close in absolute dollars to what Kessler thinks he’s worth today? Does he believe that there are no stars at firms such as Skadden Arps, Simpson Thacher or other firms that have retained top-to-bottom spreads of 5-to-1 or less?

Beyond his prominence in the profession, Kessler is shaping tomorrow’s legal minds as a Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia. For anyone who cares about the future, that’s worth pondering.