TREATING SYMPTOMS; IGNORING THE DISEASE

On May 22, 2017, The Wall Street Journal ran an article about the legal profession’s enduring problem: psychological distress. For decades, attorneys have led most occupations in the incidence of serious psychological afflictions — depression, substance abuse, even suicide. Now some law firms are “tackling a taboo,” namely, the mental health problems of their lawyers.

Some observers theorize that a special “lawyer personality” is the culprit. In other words, we have only ourselves to blame, so no one should feel sorry for us. Then again, no one ever feels sorry for lawyers anyway. But attorney psychological distress has become a sufficient problem that, as the Journal reports, some big law firms are now “offering on-site psychologists, training staff to spot problems, and incorporating mental health support alongside other wellness initiatives.”

Stated differently, law firms are following the unfortunate path that has become a dominant approach in the medical profession: treating symptoms rather than the disease. Perhaps that’s because law firm leaders know that curing it would cut into their personal annual incomes.

The Facts

Other workers have serious psychological challenges, too. But attorneys seem to suffer in disproportionately high numbers. The Journal article cites a 2016 study of US lawyers finding that 20.6 percent of those surveyed were heavy drinkers (compared to 15.4 percent for members of the American College of Surgeons). Likewise, 28 percent experienced symptoms of depression (compared with eight percent or less for the general population). According to a 2012 CDC study cited in the Journal, attorneys have the 11th-highest suicide rate.

Now add one more data point. According to an ABA survey in 2007, lawyers in big firms are the least satisfied with their jobs. Anyone familiar with the prevailing big firm environment knows that it has deteriorated dramatically since 1985.

The New World

What has changed? For starters, just getting a job at a big law firm is more difficult. Corporate clients have found cost-effective alternatives to young attorneys billing $300 an hour to review documents. At many firms, demand remains soft.

But the real psychological problems begin after a new associate enters the door. For most of them, promotion to equity partner has become a pipe dream. In 1985, 36 percent of all lawyers in The American Lawyer’s first survey of the nation’s fifty largest firms were equity partners. In  2016, the comparable number was under 22 percent. More than 40 percent of all AmLaw 100 partners are now non-equity partners. The leverage ratio of equity partners to all attorneys has doubled. Stated another way, it’s twice as difficult to become an equity partner today as it was in 1985. That’s what’s been happening at the financial pinnacle of the profession.

The Business Model

There is nothing inevitable about the underlying business model that produces these outcomes. It’s a choice. In 1985, average profits per partner for the Am Law 50 was $300,000 — or about $700,000 in 2017 dollars. Today’s it’s $1.7 million. And the gap within most equity partnerships reflects their eat-what-you-kill culture. Instead of 3-to-1 in 1985, the ratio of highest-to-lowest partner compensation within equity partnerships often exceeds 10-to-1. As the rich have become richer, annual equity partner earnings of many millions of dollars has become commonplace.

At what cost? The future. As law firm leaders rely upon short-term metrics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios — they’re pulling up the ladder on the next generation. Too many associates; too few equity slots. Let the contest begin!

But rather than revisit the wisdom of the model, some big firm leaders have made what the Journal characterizes as a daring move: bring in a psychologist. It’s better than nothing, but it’s a far cry from dealing with the core problem that starts with the billable hour, moves through metrics that managers use to maximize short-run partner profits, and ends in predictable psychological distress — even for the so-called winners. The Journal notes that a psychologist at one firm was offering this sad advice to its attorneys: Take a cellphone reprieve by turning off all electronic devices between 2:00 am and 6:00 am.

But even such input from mental health professionals seems anathema to some firm leaders. According to the Journal, Dentons’ chairman Joseph Andrew says that his fear of offering an on-site psychologist was that “competitors will say we have crazy lawyers.”

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates recently told the New Yorker about her father, an attorney who suffered from depression and committed suicide. “Tragically,” Yates said, “the fear of stigma then associated with depression prevented him from getting the treatment he needed.”

For some firm leaders, “then” is still “now.” And that’s truly crazy.

ANOTHER BIG LAW FIRM STUMBLES

King & Wood Mallesons was never really a law firm. For starters, it was a verein — a structure that allowed three distinct firms to create a branding opportunity — King & Wood in China, Mallesons in Australia, and SJ Berwin in the United Kingdom. As things turned out, when SJ Berwin came on board in 2013, the verein whole quickly became less than the sum of its parts.

As The American Lawyer’s Chris Johnson and Rose Walker put it in their recent article, a verein is “a holding structure that allows member firms to retain their existing form. The structure…enabled the three practices to combine quickly and keep their finances separate.”

But the structure also means that when one member of the verein hits hard times, the others can walk away. For KWM, “the Chinese and Australian partnerships have effectively been able to stand back and watch as the European practice burned.”

Not Just a Verein Problem

To be sure, the verein structure exacerbates SJ Berwin’s current difficulties. But before leaders of big non-verein firms become too self-satisfied, they might consider whether their own firms risk the same dangers now afflicting KWM.

As Johnson and Walker report, the firm’s compensation system produced bad behavior. KWM awarded client credit to the partner who physically signed the invoice. That effectively encouraged partners to refer work to rival firms, rather than other KWM partners.

Think about that last sentence for a minute.

“It was one of the things that killed the firm,” says one former London partner. “If I sent work to other [KWM] partners, it would be out of my numbers at the end of the year. It was better for me to send it to another firm, as I’d then still be the one invoicing the client, so I’d get the credit for everything.”

A Team of One, Not One Team

When it came to cross selling among offices and practice groups, management talked a good game. Indeed, the verein’s 2013 merger tag line was “The Power of Together.” But here, too, behavior followed internal financial incentives. The compensation committee focused on individual partner performance, not the “one team, one firm” sound bite on its “vision and values” website page.

“There was a complete disconnect between what management said we should do and what the remuneration committee would reward us for doing,” says a former partner.

Lessons Not Learned, Again

As KWM’s European arm disintegrates, most law firm leaders will probably draw the wrong conclusions about what went wrong. Emerging narratives include: SJ Berwin had been on shaky ground since the financial crisis hit in 2008; the firm lacked competent management; the principal idea behind the combination — creating a global platform — was sound; only a failure of execution produced the bad outcome.

For students of law firm failures, the list sounds familiar. It certainly echoes narratives that developed to explain the 2012 collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf. But the plight of KWM — especially the SJ Berwin piece — is best understood as the natural consequence of a partnership that ceased to become a partnership. In that sense, it resembles Dewey & LeBoeuf, too.

The organizational structure through which attorneys practice law together matters. The verein form allows King & Wood and Mallesons to back away from Sj Berwin with limited fear of direct financial exposure. But as SJ Berwin careens toward disaster, fellow verein members will suffer, at a minimum, collateral damage to the KWM brand.

What’s the Future Worth?

The lesson for big law firm leaders seems obvious. Since the demise of Dewey, that lesson has also gone unheeded. A true partnership requires a compensation structure that rewards partner-like behavior — collegially, mentoring, expansion and transition of client relationships to fellow partners, and a consensus to pursue long-term strategies promoting institutional stability rather than maximizing short-term profit metrics.

Firms that encourage attorneys to build individual client silos from which partners eat what they kill risk devastating long-term costs. They’re starving firm of their very futures. Unfortunately, too many big law firm leaders share a common attitude: the long-term will be someone else’s problem.

In a line that stretches back to Finley Kumble and includes Dewey & LeBoeuf, Bingham McCutchen, and a host of others, the names change, but the story remains the same. So does a single word that serves both as those firms’ central operating theme and as their final epitaph: greed.

BIG LAW’S SHORT-TERMISM PROBLEM

Recently, the New York Times devoted a special section of “Dealbook” to short-termism. Big law firms made a prominent appearance in an article focusing on leadership transition. Citing statistics at the managing partner level, the Times reports that only three percent of law firm managing partners are under age 50. Twelve percent are over 70. Almost half are between 60 and 70.

The Tip of the Graying Iceberg

The core problem of transition runs deeper than a single demographic data point about the age of those at the top of the big law pyramid. The developing crisis goes far beyond the question of who the next managing partner will be.

At most firms, aging partners at all partnership levels are hanging on to clients and billings. For them, it’s a matter of survival. Except for lock-step firms, equity partners “eat what they kill” — that is, their closely guarded silos of clients and billings determine their annual compensation.

In that culture, hoarding becomes essential to preserving annual compensation that partners come to regard as rightfully theirs — and theirs alone. Stated in language that many senior partners use in criticizing today’s young attorneys, these aging lawyers have developed a wrong-headed sense of entitlement.

The fact that they’re making far more than they dreamed of earning in law school doesn’t matter to them. Neither does the fact that they are compromising the future of their firms. But their short-term gains could become the institution’s long run catastrophe.

See the Problem

Surveys confirm that law firm leaders recognize the resulting problem. Seven years ago, Altman Weil issued the first of its annual “Law Firms in Transition” series. Since then, the survey has documented a fundamental failure of leadership on this issue.

For example, in the 2011 survey, Altman Weil asked firm leaders to name the areas in which they had the greatest concerns about their firms’ preparedness for change: “The top issue, identified by 47% of all firms, was the retirement and succession of Baby Boom lawyers in their law firms.”

In the 2012 survey, 70 percent of managing partners had “moderate” or “high” concern about client transition as senior partners retire. On a scale of one (no concern) to ten (extreme concern), the median score was seven.

In the 2013 survey, only 27 percent of managing partners reported that they had a formal succession planning process in place.

Ignore the Problem

How have these leaders responded to what they have identified for years as the most pressing long-term problem facing their firms? Poorly.

The 2015 survey observes, “In 63% of law firms, partners aged 60 or older control at least one quarter of total firm revenue, but only 31% of law firms have a formal succession planning process.”

There’s a reason that law firm leaders balk at meaningful transition planning. It requires them to accept the fact that they won’t run their firms forever. But contemplating one’s own mortality can be unpleasant.

It also requires them to rethink their missions. Leadership is not about maximizing this year’s partner profits or pursuing growth for the sake of growth to create illusory empires over which a dictator can preside. It requires a willingness to create incentive structures that encourage long-term institutional stability.

Toward that end, lofty aspirations are easier to state than to achieve. But here are a few governing principles:

— Client service should be central to everything a law firm does.

— Partner cooperation should trump partner competition.

— Clients and billings should flow seamlessly to the next generation while allowing aging partners to retain a sense of self-worth as firms encourage them to prepare for their “second acts,” whatever they may be.

— The culture of a firm should encourage partners to sacrifice some short-term financial self-interest in the effort to leave the firm better than they found it — just as their mentors did for most of them.

Become the Problem

The most creative leaders understand that all of this means thinking outside the conventional billable hour box that remains central to the short-term growth and profit-maximizing mindset. In that respect, the contrast between the absence of true leadership and clients’ desires is striking.

Since 2009, Altman Weil has done an annual survey of corporate chief legal officers, too. The survey asks the CLOs: “How serious are law firms about changing their legal service delivery model to provide greater value to clients?”

The responses are on a scale of one (not at all serious) to ten (doing everything they can), Every year since the survey began, the median score has been three. Three out of ten. Stated differently, as far as clients are concerned, their outside lawyers have little interest in responding to demands for change.

Likewise, LexisNexis/Counsel Link’s most recent semi-annual report analyzing six key metrics confirms the impact of short-termism:

— Clients want alternative fee arrangements. AFAs account for only seven percent of all billings.

— Clients want relief from high hourly rates. For the trailing 12-month period ending on June 30, 2015, big firms of more than 750 attorneys had a median partner billing rate of $711 an hour — up 6 percent from the period ending on December 31, 2014. (For firms of 501-750 lawyers the median hourly rate during the same period increased by only $5 an hour.)

The Future Is Here

As big firm leaders drag their feet, clients aren’t waiting for them. They have figured out that the biggest of big law premiums isn’t always worth it. An October 2013 study of $10 billion in client fee invoices by LexisNexis/Counsel Link concluded the “large enough” firms of 201-500 lawyers are eating into the market share of firms with more than 750 lawyers.

From 2010 to 2013, the biggest firms saw their market share drop from 26 percent to 22 percent. Meanwhile, the market share of the “large enough” firms increased from 18 to 22 percent. For high-fee matters totaling $1 million or more, the shift was even more dramatic: “large enough” firms increased their market share from 22 to 41 percent.

Anyone believing that most big law firm leaders are long-term thinkers preparing their firms for a challenging future is ignoring the actual behavior of those leaders. Most of them are focused on getting rich today. That’s not a strategy for success tomorrow.

THE PERVASIVE AMAZON JUNGLE

Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, hates the recent New York Times article about his company. He says it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know.” Rather, it depicts “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.” He doesn’t think any company adopting such an approach could survive, much less thrive. Anyone working in such a company, he continues, “would be crazy to stay” and he counts himself among those likely departures.

The day after the Times’ article appeared, the front page of the paper carried a seemingly unrelated article, “Work Policies May Be Kinder, But Brutal Competition Isn’t.” It’s not about Amazon; it’s about the top ranks of the legal profession and the corporate world. Both are places where the Times’ version of Amazon’s culture is pervasive — and where such institutions survive and thrive.

The articles have two unstated but common themes: the impact of short-termism on working environments, and how a leader’s view of his company’s culture can diverge from the experience of those outside the leadership circle.

Short-termism: “Rank and Yank”

Bezos is hard-driving and demanding. According to the Times, his 1997 letter to shareholders boasted, “You can work long, hard or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three.”

The Times reports that Amazon weeds out employees on an annual basis: “[T]eam members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year.” Jack Welch pioneered such a “rank and yank” system at General Electric long ago and many companies followed his lead. Likewise, big law firms built associate attrition into their business models.

Theoretically, a “rank and yank” system produces a higher quality workforce. But in recent years, a new generation of business thinkers has challenged that premise. Even GE has abandoned Welch’s brainchild.

As currently applied, the system makes no sense to Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Bob Sutton, who observed, “When you look at the evidence about stack ranking…. The kind of stuff that they were doing [at GE], which was essentially creating a bigger distribution between the haves and the have nots in their workforce, then firing 10% of them, it just amazed me.”

If Amazon uses that system, which focuses on annual short-term evaluations, it’s behind the times, not ahead of the curve.

Haves and Have Nots

Professor Sutton’s comment about creating a bigger gap between the haves and the have nots describes pervasive law firm trends as well. The trend could also explain why Bezos and the Times may both be correct in their contradictory assessments of Amazon’s culture. That’s because any negative cultural consequences of Bezos’ management style probably don’t seem real to him. Bezos is at the top; the view from below is a lot different.

This phenomenon of dramatically divergent perspectives certainly applies to most big law firms. As firms moved from lock-step to eat-what-you-kill partner compensation systems, the gap between those at the top and everyone else exploded. Often, the result has been a small group — a partnership within the partnership — that actually controls the institution.

Those leaders have figured out an easy way to maximize short-term partner profits for themselves: make the road to equity partner twice as difficult than it was for them. As big firm attorney-partner leverage ratios have doubled since 1985, today’s managers are pulling up the ladder on the next generation. It’s no surprise that those leaders view their firms favorably.

Their associates have a decidedly different impression of the work environment. Regular attrition began as a method of quality control. At many firms, it has morphed into something insidious. Leadership’s prime directive now is preserving partner profits, not securing the long-run health of the institution. Short-term leverage calculations — not the quality of a young attorney’s lawyering — govern the determination of whether there is “room” for potential new entrants.

About the Long-Run

Such short-term thinking weakens the institutions that pursue it. As Professor Sutton observes: “We looked at every peer reviewed study we could find, and in every one when there was a bigger difference between the pay at of the people at the bottom and the top there was worse performance.”

That’s understandable. After all, workers behave according to signals that leadership sends down the food chain. Dissent is not a cherished value. Resulting self-censorship means the king and the members of his court hear only what they want to hear. People inside the organization who want to advance become cheerleaders who suppress bad news. Being a team player is the ultimate compliment and the likeliest path to promotion.

One More Thing

Bezos’ letter to his employees about the Times article encourages anyone who knows of any stories “like those reported…to escalate to HR.” He says that he doesn’t recognize the Amazon in the article and “very much hopes you don’t, either.”

One former employee frames Bezos’ unstated conundrum correctly: “How do you possibly convey to your manager the intolerable nature of your working conditions when your manager is the one telling you, point blank, that the impossible hours are simply what’s expected?”

Note to Jeff B: Escalating to HR won’t eliminate embedded cultural attitudes.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong about all of this. On the same day the Times published its piece on the increasingly harsh law firm business model, the Wall Street Journal ran Harvard Law School Professor Mark J. Roe’s op-ed: “The Imaginary Problem of Corporate Short-Termism.”

It’s all imaginary. That should come as a relief to those working inside law firms and businesses that focus myopically on near-term results without regard to the toll it is taking on the young people who comprise our collective future.

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.

WHY THE BILLABLE HOUR ENDURES

Last month, I wrote a New York Times op-ed discussing the billable hour regime and its unfortunate consequences for the legal profession. The piece generated a lot of response, most of which supported my themes. Readers generally agreed that the system rewards unproductive behavior, invites abuse, and pits attorneys’ financial self-interest against their clients’ goals.

Defending the billable hour

Even so, the Times published a responsive letter to the editor from the general counsel of Veolia Transportation — “the largest private sector operator of multiple modes of transit in North America,” according to its website — who defended hourly billing. He noted that alternatives to the billable hour “have not caught on because they do not allow the client the same opportunity to see the work as it is being done, evaluate its worth, and challenge when appropriate the relationship of time, task and cost.”

Theoretically, he has a point. In fact, the billable hour system arose from a desire for greater transparency. Before it gained widespread use, clients typically received a bill that included a single line: “For services rendered.” When today’s senior partners entered the profession, firms kept track of their time but didn’t impose mandatory minimum billable hour requirements. In fact, a 1958 ABA pamphlet recommended that attorneys maintain better time records and strive to bill clients 1,300 hours a year.

Unfortunately, transparency gave way to short-term profit-maximizing behavior that distorted the billable hour into an internal law firm measure of “productivity.” Quantity of time billed became more important than the quality or effectiveness of effort expended. Today’s required annual minimum hours typically run close to 2,000 — and most associates understand that enhancing their prospects for advancement requires many more.

Transparency yields to abuse

In theory, Veolia’s general counsel is correct about the billable hour’s transparency. But in practice, few clients are well-positioned to challenge “the relationship of time, task and cost.” For a complex case, what motions should be filed and how much time should their preparation take? How many witness depositions are needed? And of what length? What’s the right level of staffing to maximize the chances for success?

Some in-house counsel possess the sophistication to provide meaningful answers to these and other questions that underlie any effort to assess the relationship of hourly fees to “time, task and cost.” But most don’t. They trust their lawyers to do the right thing under an incentive structure that pushes those lawyers in the opposite direction.

Bankruptcy as a poster child

Embarrassing reports of billing deceit are rare. But the real problem isn’t such well-publicized abuses. Rather, it’s the cultural impact of the incentive structure. In most large law firms, one practice area is particularly revealing: big bankruptcy cases.

Large numbers of bodies billed at enormous hourly rates get thrown into such matters. All of the activity shows up in detailed time records accompanying massive fee petitions that courts routinely approve. Like the U.S. Trustee’s office that also reviews such filings, courts lack the resources to provide meaningful scrutiny of “time, task and cost.”

Petitions seeking hourly rates of $700 for associates and $1,000 for partners routinely go unchallenged, as do the listed activities that consume these attorneys’ time. Last year, when the U.S. Trustee proposed that firms disclose whether they charge higher hourly rates for the same attorneys performing non-bankruptcy work, the profession united in opposition.

The moral

The billable hour regime endures because, like the general counsel of Veolia, clients think they have it under control. But that requires a leap of faith as outside lawyers resolve the ongoing dilemma of a system that pits fiduciary responsibility to a client against the attorneys’ financial self-interest. With law firms obsessing over current year profits and partners seeking to maximize personal books of business to preserve their own positions in an eat-what-you-kill world of frenetic lateral partner movement, that dilemma becomes profound.

As for the billable hour’s impact on other aspects of the profession’s culture, another Times letter to the editor offered this: “Appearing before St. Peter, a young law firm associate asked why he was being taken at age 29. Taken aback, St. Peter said the associate’s billable hours made the associate appear to be 95.”

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.

FED TO DEATH

Most of today’s big law leaders think they’ll be able to avoid traps that have destroyed great firms of the recent past. Are they that much smarter than their predecessors? Or are they oblivious to the lessons of history?

My article, “Fed to Death,” in the December issue of The American Lawyer, suggests that most respondents to the magazine’s annual survey of Am Law 200 firm leaders have have forgotten what true leadership is. Consider it my seasonal gift to those who need it most — and want it least.

Happy Holidays and thanks for your continuing attention to my musings. I’m especially grateful to the thousands who have kept my novel, The Partnership, on Amazon’s Kindle e-book Legal Thrillers Best-Seller list for the past six months.

OCCUPY BIG LAW

The encampments are gone, but Occupy Wall Street leaves behind a slogan that should make any history student shudder and some big law leaders squirm:

“We’re the 99-percenters.”

It’s not a leftist fringe rant. During a recent Commonwealth Club of California appearance, presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer said that, if becoming President turned on the answer to a single question, he’d pose this one to every candidate:

“What are you going to do about the growing disparity of wealth in the United States of America?”

Once-great civilizations collapsed under such weight. A similar internal phenomenon is quietly weakening some mighty law firms.

Destabilizing trends

“Don’t redistribute wealth — that’s class warfare” has become a popular rhetorical rallying cry. (See, for example, the Wall Street Journal‘s lead editorials on December 2  and 7.) But a stealth class war has already produced massive economic redistribution — from the 99-percenters to the one-percenters.

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz writes in Vanity Fair that the top one percent control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth — up from 33 percent 25 years ago. In a recent interview, Jeffrey Winters of Northwestern University notes: “[In America], wealth is two times as concentrated as imperial Rome, which was a slave and farmer society. That’s how huge the gap is.”

Both Winters and Stiglitz suggest that today’s oligarchs use wealth to preserve power. One effective tactic is to encourage the pursuit of dreams that, for most 99-percenters, are largely illusory. My favorite New Yorker cartoon is a bar scene with a scruffy man in a T-shirt telling a well-dressed fellow patron: “As a potential lottery winner, I totally support tax cuts for the wealthy.”

For today’s young attorneys, one largely illusory dream has become the brass ring of a big firm equity partnership atop the leveraged pyramid.

Big law winners

So far, wealthy lawyers have avoided public outrage. But between 1979 and 2005, the top one percent of attorneys doubled their share of America’s income — from 0.61 to 1.22 percent. For the Am Law 50, average equity partner profits soared from $300,000 in 1985 ($630,000 in today’s dollars) to $1.5 million in 2010.

Even so, the really big gap — in society and within large law firms — is inside the ranks of the privileged, and it has been growing. By one estimate, the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans captured half of all gains going to the top one percent. Similarly, management consultant Kristin Stark of Hildebrandt Baker Robbins observes that before the recession, the top-to-bottom ratio within equity partnerships “was typically five-to-one in many firms. Very often today, we’re seeing that spread at 10-to-1, even 12-to-1.”

So what?

Meritocracies are vital and valuable, but for nations as well as for institutions, extreme income inequality reveals something about the culture that produces it. A recent study found that only three nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — Chile, Mexico and Turkey — have greater income inequality than America. Perhaps it’s coincidental, but all OECD countries with less inequality — including Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Germany, Austria, and Britain — likewise surpass the U.S. in almost every quality of life measure.

In big law, exploding inequality is one symptom of a profound ailment: The myopic focus on short-term compensation metrics that reward bad behavior — hoarding clients, demanding more billables, raising leverage ratios. As the prevailing model creates stunning wealth for a few, it encourages attitudes that poison working environments and diminish the profession.

Unlike imperial Rome, today’s large firms won’t fall prey to Huns and Vandals. Rather, modern casualties include mentoring, training, collegiality, community, loyalty, and building institutional connections between clients and young lawyers. Those characteristics once defined the very concept of professional partnership. Today’s business of law makes precious little room for them. Clients who think that these relatively new trends aren’t compromising the quality and cost of their legal services are kidding themselves.

A meaningful Occupy Big Law movement would require that: 1) clients (and courts approving attorneys’ fees petitions) finally say, “Enough!” and 2) would-be protesters stop viewing themselves as future equity partner lottery winners. Meanwhile, senior partners need not worry about disaffected lawyers and staff taking to the streets.

After all, there’s no way to bill that time.

A MODERN TRAGEDY IN FIVE ACTS

The American Lawyer‘s November cover story tells the sad tale of Jonathan Bristol. His client, Ken Starr, was a high-profile financial adviser to celebrities. (Starr is no relation to his namesake, the former Whitewater special prosecutor and current president of Baylor University.) In 2009, one of Starr’s clients, Uma Thurman, began asking tough questions for which he had no answers. Last year, he pleaded guilty to investment adviser fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering.

Starr’s scheme doesn’t interest me; his lawyer does. Bristol’s saga reflects the 30-year evolution of an attorney and his profession. Indeed, because many of Bristol’s experiences look so familiar, some lawyers will find his story unsettling. At least, they should.

ACT ONE

His path into the law was typical — Amherst College (magna cum laude), followed by the University of Virginia Law School. Undergraduates throughout the country still identify with ambitions that Bristol probably held when he was their age — do well at a top college; get into a first-rate law school; enjoy a rewarding career. What could go wrong?

ACT TWO

After graduating in 1981, he went to a boutique Manhattan firm, Dreyer & Traub, where he practiced real estate finance law. Many would say that, today, such a job looks even more appealing as a big law alternative than it was then: smaller, more collegial, better sense of community.

ALM reporter Ross Todd writes, “as a junior partner in Dreyer & Traub’s waning days, Bristol needed to find clients and bill hours.” That was true in the mid-1990s and it’s worse today. Most big firm senior partners say they want aggressive attorney-entrepreneurs, but they ignore the perilous downside. Bristol found clients all right, but eventually he, they, and his firm became defendants themselves. I don’t know why Dreyer & Traub collapsed, but along with a lot of other small firms, it’s gone. So are some bigger ones.

ACT THREE

After leaving Dreyer & Taub in the spring of 1995, Bristol went through a succession of firms before landing at Brown, Raysman, Millstein, Felder & Steiner. In December 2006, Brown Raysman joined Thelen, Reid & Priest in the largest merger of that year. Some blame that transaction for Thelen’s dissolution less than two years later. Since then, lots of mergers have failed; more will follow.

ACT FOUR

In November 2008, Winston & Strawn picked up Bristol and 18 other former Thelen lawyers. Although his annual compensation for 2009 and 2010 was set at $1.35 million, in mid-2009 he agreed to reduce his guaranteed amount to $500,000. His metrics — billables, billable hours, and leverage ratio — must have been in deep trouble. That’s how most big firms measure value.

Bristol’s world continued to collapse as his biggest client, Starr, got behind on his legal bills. The amount — $750,000 — may not seem large for a firm with gross revenues of more than $700 million in 2010. But for a partner already wilting under the heat of the short-term metrics spotlight, it provided tippping-point pressure. Bristol allowed Starr to transfer stolen funds through his personal attorney escrow accounts.

ACT FIVE

In a request to delay sentencing, Bristol’s lawyer wrote that his client’s childhood left considerable emotional scarring: “For much of his adult life, Mr. Bristol has been in therapy to treat depression and anxiety.” If he suffered from those afflictions in college, he couldn’t have chosen a less suitable career.

From all of this, endless lessons emerge: know yourself; know your partners; scrutinize lateral hires; don’t assume anything about an attorney just because he or she comes from a great school or well-respected firm; being entrepreneurial is a two-edged sword; think beyond short-term metrics; character counts; and so forth.

But maybe the most important message is a universal one that few will heed. Perhaps inadvertently, one of Bristol’s former partners at Dreyer & Traub, Edward Harris, Jr., summarized it in The American Lawyer article:

“If you’ve got your eyes on the prize, sometimes you might ignore caution signs or something along the way.”

While enjoying the holiday season with family and friends, consider this addendum: Think about whether the prize you eye is the right one.

THE OTHER BIG 10 SCANDAL

Penn State dominates the headlines, but another Big 10 scandal symbolizes what ails legal education and much of the profession. The two situations aren’t morally equivalent, but it’s too bad there isn’t an attention-getting JoePa at the University of Illinois.

On August 26, the university’s ethics office received a tip about a problem with the U of I College of Law’s LSAT and GPA stats. The resulting ABA investigation continues, but the U of I’s November 7 report identifies a rogue villain.

I think it’s more complicated.

The rogue

Shortly after Paul Pless graduated in 2003, his alma mater hired him (at a salary of $38,500/year) as assistant director for admissions and financial aid. (For years, putting unemployed new grads on the temporary payroll for paltry wages has bolstered schools’ U.S. News rankings. Starting next year, they’ll have to disclose it.) Pless stayed on and, by December 2004, was earning $72,000/year as an assistant dean.

Metrics mania

One of the final report’s first section headings is key:

“Institutional Emphasis on USNWR [U.S. News & World Report] Ranking.”

Not until its 2005 annual report did the school — not Pless — explicitly adopt two new goals: increasing the incoming class’s median LSAT from 163 to 165 and its GPA from 3.42 to 3.5. When the median LSAT came in at 166, then-Dean Heidi Hurd sang Pless’s praises:

“Had we been able to report this increase last year, holding all else equal, we would have moved from 26th to 20th in the U.S. News rankings.”

Except the school hadn’t held “all else equal” to get its historic LSAT boost. The median GPA had plummeted to 3.32 and its overall ranking dropped to 27th. In May 2006, a new strategic plan noted that the admissions emphasis on LSATs had left it “with a GPA profile worse than any other top-50 school.” The new goal: raising the incoming class median LSAT/GPA to 168/3.7 by 2011.

In July, Hurd sought a big pay raise for Pless because, she said, he was “in the hiring sights of every dean in America who wants to improve student rankings.” His salary jumped to $98,000. Up to this point, investigators concluded, there had been relatively minor flaws in the data submitted to the ABA and U.S. News.

The heat is on

Two interim deans served from September 2007 through January 2009. But investigators found that a handful of 2008 discrepancies between actual and reported data for the incoming class of 2011 marked the beginning of a “sustained pattern…that increased in practice and scope through the class of 2014.”

In February 2009, Bruce Smith became dean and had to resolve an open question: should the incoming class of 2012’s median LSAT/GPA target be 165/3.8 or 166/3.7? There had been ongoing internal debate over which combination would maximize the school’s overall U.S. News ranking. Smith described his response to the board of visitors:

“I told Paul [Pless] to push the envelope, think outside the box, take some risk, do things differently…Strive for a 166 [LSAT]/3.8 [GPA]….”

The report exonerates Smith from wrongdoing. But footnote 3 observes that his management style “is goal-oriented and intense, and occasionally intimidating, and that it is not inconceivable that certain employees subordinate to him would be uncomfortable bringing bad news to him.”

For the next two years, Pless didn’t.

“I haven’t let a Dean down yet, and I don’t plan on starting with you Boss,” he’d assured Smith in April 2009.

Median LSATs and GPAs showed continuing improvement; Pless’s salary jumped to $130,000 on the strength of Smith’s glowing review. Indeed, Pless’s exploding compensation at a public university in tough financial straits reveals the power of rankings and deans.

On August 22, 2011, Pless touted the class of 2014’s median LSAT (168) and GPA (3.81). By then, the actual numbers were 163 and 3.7.

Who is to blame? The U of I report says Pless and no one else because he made the data entries. I say read it carefully, draw your own conclusions, and ponder the larger picture. The power of U.S. News rankings and other equally misguided metrics comes from people who rely upon them as definitive measures of the things that matter.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars…”

THE ARROGANCE OF OVERCONFIDENCE

Most of us hate admitting our mistakes, especially errors in judgment. Lawyers make lots of judgments, which is why they should pay special attention to two recent and seemingly unrelated NY Times articles.

In the October 23 NYT Magazine, psychologist and economics Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes an early encounter with his own character flaw that led him to research its universality. Assigned to observe a team-buidling exercise, he was so sure of his predictions about the participants’ future prospects that he disregarded incontrovertible data proving him wrong — again, and again, and again.

In subsequent experiments, he discovered that he wasn’t alone. A similar arrogance of overconfidence explains why, for example, individual investors insist on picking their own stocks year after year, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence that their portfolios are worse for it.

In the same Sunday edition of the Times, philosopher Robert P. Crease discusses the two different measurement systems. One relates to traditional notions: how much something weighs or how far a person runs. Representatives from 55 nations met recently to finalize state-of-the-art definitions for basic units of such measurements — the meter, the second, the kilogram, and so forth.

The second system is less susceptible to quantification. Crease notes: “Aristotle…called the truly moral person a ‘measure,’ because our encounters with such a person show us our shortcomings.” Ignoring this second type in favor of numerical assessments gets us into trouble, individually and as a society. Examples include equating intelligence to a single number, such as I.Q. or brain size, or evaluating students (and their teachers) solely by reference to standardized test scores.

Lessons for lawyers — and everyone else

Now consider the intersection of these two phenomena — the arrogance of overconfidence and the reliance on numbers alone to measure value. For example, in recent years, a single metric — partner profits — has come to dominate every internal law firm conversation about attorney worth. Billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios have become the criteria by which most big law leaders judge themselves, fellow partners, their associates, and competitors. They teach to the same test — the one that produces annual Am Law rankings.

The arrogance of overconfidence exacerbates these tendencies. It’s one thing to press onward, as Kahneman concludes most of us do, in the face data proving that we’re moving in the wrong direction. Imagine how bad things can get when a measurement technique appears to validate what are really errors.

I’m not an anarchist. (I offer my advanced degree in economics as modest support.) But the relatively recent notion that there is only one set of law firm measures for defining success — revenues, short-term profits, leverage — has become a plague on our profession. Of course, we’re not alone. According to the Times, during the academic year 2005-2006, one-quarter of the advanced degrees awarded in the United States were MBAs. Business school-type metrics are ubiquitous and, regrettably, often viewed as outcome determinative.

But lawyers know better than to get lost in them, or once upon a time they did. The metrics that most big firm leaders now worship were irrelevant to them as students two or three decades ago. Like today’s undergraduates, they were pursuing a noble calling. Few went to law school seeking a job where their principal missions would be maximizing client billings and this year’s partner profits.

Will the profession’s leaders in the next generation make room for the other kind of measure — the one Aristotle had in mind — that informs the quality of a person’s life, not merely it’s quantitative output? Might they consider the possibility that focusing on short-term metrics imposes long-run costs that aren’t easily measured numerically but are far more profound?

Reviewing the damage that their predecessors’ failures in that regard have inflicted — as measured imprecisely by unsettling levels of career dissatisfaction, substance abuse, depression, and worse — should motivate them to try.

Meanwhile, they’ll have to contend with wealthy senior partners telling them to keep their hours up — a directive that those partners themselves never heard. Good luck to all of us.

AGING GRACEFULLY — OR NOT

A recent NY Times article revealed the baby boomer’s dilemma: await marginalization or hog opportunities. It has profound implications for big law attorneys of all ages.

“[I]n my experience, it is much harder for older partners to maintain their position if their billable hours decline,” an employment lawyer told the Times.

So a law firm consultant suggested this strategy: “Very few people are so skilled that they can’t be replaced by a younger, more current practitioner. You’ve got to be so connected to important clients that the firm is going to fear your departure.”

That’s unfortunate advice, but not surprising. Most elders don’t mentor talented proteges to assume increasing responsibilities, persuade clients that others can do equally first-rate work, or institutionalize relationships so that the firm weathers senior partner departures and prospers over the long run. Instead, they create silos — self-contained practice groups of clients and attorneys who will give them leverage in the internal battles to retain money, power, and status. (See, e.g., The Partnership) Rather than waste time gaining fellow partners’ respect, the prevailing big law model prefers fear — or, more precisely, fear of a senior partner’s lost billings.

Over time, intergenerational antagonisms result. Older partners become blockage because the leveraged pyramid that pervades big law requires adherence to short-term metrics. Artificial constraints block the promotion of well-qualified candidates who’ve given years of personal sacrifice. If there’s not economic room at equity partner decision time, their efforts will have been for naught; they’re left behind.

Meanwhile, young attorneys learn by example. “Firm” clients cease to exist; they’re absorbed into jealously guarded fiefdoms that become transportable business units. Traditional partnership principles of mutual respect and support yield to unrestrained self-interest.

Eventually, everyone loses. Young attorneys resent elders; wealthy equity partners erect futile defenses against their own inevitable decline to an unhappy place; firms lose the stability that comes with loyal clients.

For some aging big law partners, greed never retires. But for many others, hanging on isn’t about the money. As mortality rears its head, their real quest is for continuing relevance — the belief that they still have something to offer and are making a difference.

Another Times article suggested a possible way out of big law’s conundrum: encouraging partners to redirect their skills. The New York Legal Aid Society program, Second Acts, taps into the growing army of retired lawyers:

“The point is not to have distinct phases of working life and after-working life, but to meld the two by having pro bono work be part of a lawyer’s career. Therefore, when lawyers retire, they can somewhat seamlessly slip into meaningful volunteer work, said Miriam Buhl, pro bono counsel at…Weil, Gotshal & Manges.”

The article described 68-year-old Steven B. Rosenfield, a former Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison partner who traded his commercial securities practice for work in juvenile rights.

Behavior follows embedded economic structures and the incentives they create. In big law, the myopic emphasis on a handful of short-term profit-maximizing metics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios — has produced blinding wealth for a few. But sometimes those metrics become less satisfying as organizing principles of life.

Firm demands have left all lawyers with little time to reflect on what their lives after big law might be. Someday, most successful big law partners will pay the price and need help finding a path that reshapes self-identity while preserving dignity. The challenge is to permit disengagement with honor.

Firms could do a great service — and improve their own long-term stability in the process — if they relieved the stigma of economic decline in ways that encouraged aging colleagues to do the right thing. But it requires thinking beyond today’s metrics that determine a partner’s current year compensation. It requires valuing what can’t be easily measured and embedding it in a firm’s culture so that reaching retirement age isn’t a shock, it’s a blessing. It requires empathy, compassion, and — most of all — leadership.

In short, it requires things that are, tragically, in very short supply throughout big law.

FAMILY FRIENDLY?

Lawyers know that definitions dictate outcomes. That’s why the Yale Law Women’s latest list of the “Top Ten Family Friendly Firms” includes some surprising names. At least, some surprised me.

It turns out that the YLW’s definition of family friendly is more restrictive than the plain meaning of the words. According to the survey methodology, it’s mostly a function of firms’ attention to particular issues relating primarily to women. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it shouldn’t be confused with what really undermines the family-friendliness of any big firm — its devotion to billable hours and billings as metrics that determine success. That problem isn’t gender-specific.

To compile the annual list, YLW surveyed the Vault Top 100 Law Firms. What would happen if they included all of the NLJ 250 or an even larger group that included small firms? I don’t know, but I’ll bet the list would look a lot different.

Now consider the survey categories and YLW commentary:

— Percentage of female attorneys: “Although YLW found that, on average, 45% of associates at responding law firms are women, women make up only 17% of equity partners and 18% of firm executive management committees. Additionally, on average, women made up just 27% of newly promoted partners in 2010.”

— Access to and use of parental leave: Virtually all firms have them. Big deal.

— Emergency and on-site child care: I understand the advantages, but how much family friendly credit should a firm get for providing a place where young lawyers can leave their babies and pre-schoolers while they work all day?

— Part-time and flex-time work policies: “98% offer a flex-time option, in which attorneys bill full-time hours while regularly working outside the office.” So what? I know senior partners without families who’ve done that for years.

— Usage of part-time and flex-time policies: “On average, 7% of attorneys at these firms were working part-time in 2010.” Will they become equity partners? “Of the 7% of attorneys working part-time, only 11% were partners, a number that may also include partners approaching retirement. Only 5% of the partners promoted in 2010 had worked part-time in the past, on average, and only 4% were working part-time when they were promoted.”

— Billable hours and compensation practices: “[I]t remains to be seen whether it is truly possible to work part-time at all. Our statistics indicate that while part-time attorneys appear to be fairly compensated, many may work more hours than originally planned. Most firms (93%) provide additional compensation if part-time attorneys work more than the planned number of hours or make part-time attorneys eligible for bonuses (96%). However, part-time attorneys received bonuses at higher rates than full-time attorneys (25% compared to 23% on average), suggesting that many part-time schedules may ultimately morph into full-time hours over the course of a year.”

— Alternative career programs: What’s that? Outplacement support?

All of this gets weighted according to another survey of Yale Law School alumni who ranked the relative importance of the surveyed policies and practices.

Continuing efforts to achieve greater big law transparency are laudable. But one problem with lists and rankings is that they take on a life of their own, wholly apart from methodological limitations and the caveats accompanying the results. (See, e.g., U.S. News rankings). Here, the YLW cautioned that it “remains concerned about the low rates of retention for women, the dearth of women in leadership positions, the gender gap in those who take advantage of family friendly policies, and the possibility that part-time work can derail an otherwise successful career.”

The honored firms will gloss over that warning, issue press releases, and delude themselves into believing that they are something they’re not. Someone truly interested in whether a place is family friendly should find out where it ranks on the “Misery Index.” Partners won’t tell you, but that metric would reveal a firm’s true commitment to the long-term health and welfare of its attorneys and their families.

If you really love someone, you should set them free — even if it’s only every other weekend.

A NEW LAW SCHOOL MISSION

What ails the profession and is there a cure?

If you haven’t already seen it, you might want to take a look at Part I of my article, “Great Expectations Meet Painful Realities,” in the Spring 2011 issue of Circuit Rider. My latest contribution to the debate on the profession’s growing crisis begins on page 24 of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association’s semi-annual publication.

Part II begins at page 26 of the December 2011 issue.

BIG LAW INCIVILITY

Attorney incivility is nothing new. Noting that the problem dated to the nineteenth century, Chief Justice Warren Burger addressed it in 1971 remarks to the American Law Institute. He criticized the lawyer who equated zealous advocacy with “how loud he can shout or how close he can come to insulting all those he encounters.” (“The Necessity for Civility,” 52 FRD 211, 213 (1971))

Here’s a more recent example from a deposition, cited in Judge Marvin E. Aspen’s oft-quoted 1998 article on the erosion of civility:

Mr. V: Please don’t throw it at me.

Mr. A: Take it.

Mr. V: Don’t throw it at me.

Mr. A: Don’t be a child, [Mr. V]. You look like a slob the way you’re dressed, but you don’t have to act like a slob….

Mr. V: Stop yelling at me. Let’s get on with it.

Mr. A: You deny I have given you a copy of every document?

Mr. V: You just refused to give it to me.

Mr. A: Do you deny it?

Mr. V: Eventually you threw it at me.

Mr. A: Oh, [Mr. V], you’re about as childish as you can get. You look like a slob, you act like a slob.

Mr. V: Keep it up.

Mr. A: Your mind belongs in the gutter.

Evidence of incivility among adversaries is largely anecdotal; the best examples don’t lend themselves to statistical analysis. A recent Above the Law post led me to ponder this question: does the prevailing big law business model contribute to incivility?

Mark Herrmann, a former big law partner, writes “Inside Straight” from his relatively new vantage point as in-house counsel. “How to Be a Crappy Partner” isn’t about civility, but some of his readers’ comments led me to this observation: when lawyers inside a law firm treat each other poorly, no one should expect their behavior to improve for outside opponents.

Unpleasant personalities are everywhere. Big firm lawyers as a group may be no worse than those in other practice settings; jerks exist across the spectrum. Likewise, drawing conclusions from any potpourri of Above the Law comments is dangerous. Even so, the most coherent “Crappy Partner” reactions fall into the following categories, each of which has a counterpart in external incivility:

— Disrespect for People’s Time

“Give me 10 minutes as an associate in a world without Blackberrys–please.” Other examples: delaying assignments until they conflict with an associate’s long-planned (and widely known) vacation; imposing tight deadlines only to let the completed work sit undisturbed on the assigning partner’s desk for two weeks; Friday night forwarding of a client’s earlier request for answers by the following Monday with a message revealing that the partner sat on the client’s request for five days.

Incivility counterpart: Fighting over inconsequential scheduling matters; taking actions, such as so-called emergency motions, solely to disrupt opponents’ personal lives.

— Flagrant Misbehavior

“Believe it or not, I’m on your side.” Examples: partners who yell, scream, and act in ways that most parents wouldn’t tolerate from a two-year-old; verbal abuse; sexist comments; narcissism.

Incivility counterpart: Ad hominem attacks.

— Lack of Candor About the Big Law Model

“I’m smart; that’s why you hired me. I can do the math.” Examples: pretending that associates don’t notice as fewer than ten percent of earlier new hires advance to equity partner after years of 2,000+ billables; bragging about the firm’s tenth year of increasing partner profits while laying off associates and staff; giving lip-service to mentoring and professional development when short-term profits drive decisions based on metrics that exclude such considerations.

Incivility counterpart: Lawyers believing their own press releases–and acting the role.

Send the purveyors (and victims) of such hubris into the world and what do you expect? More than most occupations, lawyers learn from role models and mentors. The culture that undermines morale at many large firms isn’t self-limiting. The prevailing business model often rewards “crappy partner” behavior and rarely penalizes it. External incivility is one byproduct of that internal ethos.

Large firms aren’t solely to blame for incivility; far from it. But for good and ill, they exert vastly disproportionate influence over the profession. Among other failings, the prevailing big law business model isn’t helping the cause of civility. Tellingly, here’s one commenter’s sad advice on how to avoid becoming a crappy partner:

“Please say please and thank you.”

I wonder what their mothers would say.

A NEW METRIC: THE MISERY INDEX

Let’s call it what it is.

Large law firms and their management consultants have redefined a word — productivity — to contradict its true meaning. Recent reports from Hildebrandt and Citi measure it as everyone does: average billable hours per attorney.

No one questions this perversion because the prevailing business model’s primary goal is maximizing partner profits. Billables times hourly rates produce gross revenues. More is better and the misnomer — productivity — persists.

The Business Dictionary defines productivity as the “relative measure of the efficiency of a person [or] system…in converting inputs into useful outputs.” But the relevant output for an attorney shouldn’t be total hours spent on tasks; it’s useful work product that meets client needs. Total elapsed time without regard to the quality of the result reveals nothing about a worker’s value. More hours often mean the opposite of true productivity.

Common sense says that effort on the fourteenth hour of a day can’t be as valuable as that exerted during hour six. Fatigue compromises effectiveness. That’s why the Department of Transportation imposes rest periods after interstate truckers’ prolonged stints behind the wheel. Logically, absurdly high billables should result in compensation penalties, but prevailing big law economics dictate otherwise.

Here’s a partial cure. Rather than mislabel attorney billables as measures of productivity, an index should permit excessive hours to convey their true meaning: attorney misery. The Misery Index would be a natural corollary to NALP’s survey of minimum billable hour requirements. Attorneys now accept as given the 2,000 hour threshold that most firms maintain, even though current big law leaders faced no mandatory minimum levels when they were associates. As Yale Law School describes in a useful memo, 2,000 is a lot. But even if the 2,000-hour bell can’t be unrung, the Misery Index could reveal a firm’s culture.

To construct this metric for a given firm, start with attorneys billing fewer than 2,000 hours annually (including pro bono and genuine firm-related activities such as recruiting, training, mentoring, client development, and management); those lawyers wouldn’t count toward their firm’s Misery Index. However, at each 100-hour increment above 2,000, the percentage of attorneys reaching each higher numerical category would be added. To reflect the increasing lifestyle costs of marginal billables, attorneys with the most hours would count at every 100-hour interval preceding their own. Separate indices should exist for associates (AMI) and partners (PMI).

The Misery Index would reveal distinctions that firmwide averages blur. For example, Firm A has an Associate Misery Index of 125, calculated as follows:

50% of associates bill fewer than 2,000 hours = 0 AMI points

50% > 2,000 = 50  AMI points

40% > 2,100 = 40

25% > 2,200 = 25

10% > 2,300 = 10

None > 2,400

AMI: 125

Firm B’s AMI of 315 describes a much different place:

10% of associates bill fewer than 2,000 hours = 0 AMI points

90% > 2,000 = 90 points

75% > 2,100 = 75

60% > 2,200 = 60

45% > 2,300 = 45

30% > 2,400 = 30

15% > 2,500 = 15

None > 2,600

AMI: 315

A Misery Index would aid decision-making, especially for new graduates. Some would prefer firms with a high one; most wouldn’t. A Misery Index above 300 might prompt questions about the physical health of a firm’s attorneys; a Misery Index of zero — no one working more than 2,000 hours — might prompt questions about the health of the firm itself. Big disparities between partners (PMI) and associates (AMI) would be revealing, too.

Data collection is problematic. NALP won’t ask for the information and most firms won’t supply it — unless clients demand it. (In an earlier article, I explained why they should.) Alternatively, individual attorneys could provide the information anonymously, similar to The American Lawyer’s annual mid-level associate surveys.

Complementing the Misery Index would be firm-specific Attrition Rates by class year from starting associate to first year equity partner. NALP’s last report — before the 2008 financial crisis — showed big law’s five-year associate attrition rates skyrocketing to more than eighty percent, but significant differences existed among firms.

The Misery Index and Attrition Rates would be interesting additions to Am Law‘s “A-List” criteria that many big firms heed. Imagine an equity partner meeting that included this agenda item: “Reducing Our Misery Index and Attrition Rates.” It would certainly be a departure from scenes and themes in my best-selling legal thriller, The Partnership.

Big law is filled with free market disciples who urge better information as a panacea, as well as metrics to communicate it. Here’s their chance.

THE GOLDMAN MODEL FOR BIG LAW?

Goldman Sachs has been in the news a lot lately. Taken together, several articles suggest parallels to big law. Anyone wondering where many large law firm leaders want to take their institutions — and how they might get there — should look closely at Goldman. As law firms have embraced metrics that maximize short-term partner profits, they’ve moved steadily in Goldman’s direction. If America follows Australia and the UK in permitting non-attorneys to invest in law firms, a tipping point could arrive.

Others ponder this possibility. Professor Mitt Regan, Co-Director of the Georgetown Center for the Study of the Legal Profession, has been thinking, writing, and speaking thoughtfully about non-lawyer investment in law firms for a long time. Understandably, most academic observers focus on the outside — how smaller firms’ access to capital could affect competition, the interaction with attorneys’ ethical obligations, and the like.

Those are important issues, but I’m more interested on the inside. Presumably, the process would involve current equity partners selling ownership interests to investors. Many of those in big law who already take a short-term economic view of their institutions would leap at the opportunity for a one-time payday that discounted future cash flows to today’s dollar. In fact, a big lump sum will tempt every equity partner who worries about next year’s annual review.

Then what? Perhaps Goldman has devised an adaptable mechanism. When it went public in 1999, Goldman Sachs retained a partnership system within a larger corporate structure. As the Times notes, “Goldman’s partners are its highest paid executives and it biggest stars….”

Consider the similarities to big law:

— Management

Traders displaced traditional investment bankers and chairman Lloyd Blankfein surrounded himself with “like-minded executives — ‘Lloyd loyalists,'” according to the Times. Transactional attorneys have similarly risen to lead many big law firms; dissent is not always a cherished value.

— Resulting culture changes

Seeking to represent all sides of a deal, Goldman became adept at managing conflicts rather than avoiding them, a former insider told the Times. Large law firms have developed standard retention letters that maximize their representational flexibility to take on more lucrative matters that might arise.

— Metrics

Goldman’s leverage ratio is stunning: 475 partners out of more than 35,000 employees. As a group, large firms have pulled up ladders, widened the top-to-bottom range within equity partnerships, and doubled attorney-to-equity partner leverage ratios between 1985 and 2010.

— Partner Wealth

Goldman’s partners are famously rich. Many big firm equity partners now enjoy seven-figure incomes previously reserved for media celebrities, professional athletes, and investment bankers.

All of this raises an important question: How well is the model working — and for whom? Maintaining the stability of such a regime presents challenges. Goldman partners maximize their continuing influence as minority shareholders by acting in unison on shareholder votes. But the cast of characters constantly changes. According to the Times, “Every two years, roughly 70 executives leave the club, by choice or because they are no longer pulling their weight. The average tenure is about seven years…Within five years of the IPO, almost 60 percent of the original partners were gone…”

In the end, the environment is problematic for many, as one former Goldman partner told the Times:

“It’s a very Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest firm.”

It could also be big law’s future. Then again, some firms may already be there.

Here’s a concluding thought: perhaps Goldman Sachs will become a big law outside investor that buys its way into the legal profession. That shouldn’t bother anyone. After all, Lloyd Blankfein graduated from Harvard Law School.

HOWREY’S LESSONS: A NATIONAL CONVERSATION

My latest “Commendable Comments” award goes to a non-lawyer, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Steven Pearlstein.

Since I started my blog a year ago, two of my most popular articles have been “Howrey’s Lessons” and “Howrey’s Lessons — Part II.” Versions recently ran on Am Law Daily, where they also attracted widespread attention.

I don’t know if Pearlstein was among the thousands who saw my analysis of Howrey’s end and its relationship to ubiquitous big law trends, but his March 20 column reinforces my themes. If I hadn’t been attending the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville to discuss The Partnership, I might have missed it. I’m glad I didn’t.

Both of my Howrey articles focused on a central point: What matters most are not the things that make the once venerable institution different from other large firms. Rather, the true significance of its death lies in what makes the firm similar to many, many others. Intelligent lawyers who specialize in distinguishing adverse precedent prefer to think otherwise; they do so at their peril.

Noting as I had that, as recently as 2008, the DC-oriented Legal Times hailed Howrey’s final chairman, Robert Ruyak, as one of 30 “visionaries,” Pearlstein describes how quickly the world turned. In the end, I found Ruyak’s litany of claimed contributors to the firm’s demise — clients demanding contingency fee arrangements; conflict problems that made European growth problematic; and the rise of competitive electronic discovery vendors — unpersuasive; I explained why in “Howrey’s Lessons — Part II.” Pearlstein is more charitable in accepting such excuses at face value. That’s understandable because he’s never worked in a large firm.

But on the big picture, his assessment echoes my earlier observations:

1. Howrey’s global expansion through lateral hiring created a firm of free agents who lacked the deep loyalties that once characterized the firm. That phenomenon wasn’t unique to Howrey.

2. Pearlstein notes that profits per partner has become “not only the key determinant of how much partners take home, but it is the metric by which the very competitive and ambitious people in the legal business keep score.” My regular readers know that the business school mentality of misguided metrics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios aimed at increasing partners’ short-term profits — has transformed a once noble profession in unfortunate ways.

3.  Pearlstein observes that when Howrey’s average partner profits took a downward turn, the partnership — which wasn’t really a partnership in the way most people understand that concept — found that its “bonds of loyalty [were] not strong enough to hold Howrey together.” In “Howrey’s Lessons,” I put it this way: “[W]hen cash becomes king, partnership bonds remain only as tight as the glue that next year’s predicted equity partner profits provide….”

Likewise, Pearlstein’s overall conclusion is identical to mine: The most troubling aspect of Howrey’s death is that “the industry seems to have learned nothing from such episodes.”  He closes with an acknowledgement of the widespread problem of partner and associate dissatisfaction that the prevailing big law culture has exacerbated.

On only one point would I offer this limited qualification to Pearlstein’s survey of the legal blogosphere concerning Howrey. He suggests that the media (press and blogs) offer “the same uncritical acceptance of…a world in which firms are held together by nothing more than a collective determination to increase profit per partner.” Respectfully, I offer my ongoing commentary over the past year as a consistent voice in challenging the prevailing big law model.

When an intelligent, sophisticated observer such as Steven Pearlstein takes a seemingly isolated issue involving lawyers — that is, Howrey’s disintegration — and uses his national platform to shine a welcome light on a deeper professional problem, it becomes that much more difficult for big law leaders to ignore. They’ll continue to turn a blind eye to the incubating crisis, but perhaps they’ll rest just a little bit less easily in doing so.

Pearlstein’s prize is a copy of The Partnership, which I will send him this week. I’m confident that, as an interested outsider, he’ll find it fascinating.

Are You Worth $5 Million?

The Wall Street Journal’s front page reported that litigator Jamie Wareham “will make about $5 million a year, a significant raise from his pay at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, where he has been one of the highest paid partners.”

This phenomenon – superstar lateral hiring – is nothing new, but in recent years it has become more common. For those who remember the 1980s, it’s vaguely reminiscent of the period when ill-fated Finley Kumble turned that strategy into a losing business model.

Of course, Finley failed for many reasons that may distinguish it from current trends. Still, those running that firm into extinction as they signed up marquee players who couldn’t carry their own economic weight probably wished they’d asked this question:

How can you determine whether a lawyer is worth $5 million?

Reserved for another day are the broader implications, including the challenges that significant lateral desertions and insertions at the top present to the very concept of firm partnership. This article focuses solely on underlying financial considerations associated with the superstar lateral hire.

Presumably, bringing in a big-name player makes economic sense for a firm operating under the prevailing business model, which means that at least one of the following conditions are met:

First, the proposed lateral has an independent book of business suitable for delivery to the new firm. That would be simple, but for the clients themselves. Even if they hired and regularly use a particular partner, they probably also like his or her package of assembled talent. Consequently, the lateral must bring along a team of capable junior lawyers. Alternatively, the new firm may have excess attorney inventory that it can deploy, but that requires the lateral to persuade clients to use new lawyers who can quickly and efficiently climb their learning curves.

Second, even absent a short-term economic justification, a firm could rationally conclude that anticipated events make the talent investment worthwhile for its future strategic positioning. Recent examples include firms that loaded up on bankruptcy attorneys when the economy was still strong. The crash of 2008 made them look like geniuses. More speculative are the “if you hire them, clients will come” bets that managers sometimes make. Former government employees, along with high-profile attorneys who lack a portable client following but are on everyone’s short-list of best lawyers, fall into this category.

For the first category, short-term value is simple arithmetic. According to the latest Am Law 100 report, Wareham’s old firm, Paul Hastings, had a 41% profit margin in 2009. If the “substantially less” than $5 million he’ll make at DLA Piper was — say, $4 million – he would have needed revenues of $10 million to earn his keep there, assuming no other equity partners claimed any part of that gross. At a total blended attorney rate for all attorneys on his client matters of $500/hour, that translates into 20,000 billable hours.

But at DLA Piper and its reportedly lower profit margin (26%), Wareham will have to produce almost $20 million to support a $5 million share of firm profits. At a blended hourly rate of $500, that means more than 40,000 hours. (If he is selling clients on a move with him on the promise of lower hourly rates, the billables requirement at DLA Piper would become even higher.)

If one of the 20 or so attorneys on Wareham’s team is another equity partner earning, say, $1 million, then the minimum break-even billables bogey moves proportionately higher. (Assuming a 26% profit ratio, it takes about $4 million gross — 8,000 hours at a blended rate of $500/hour — to net $1 million.)

Insofar as the lateral acquisition’s value relates to the second category – future payoff — big name players get a grace period. But at some point, the economic imperatives of the first category will surface. When that happens, they’ll feel the revenue and related billable hours heat even more than everyone else — except, of course, the attorneys working for them.

Such is the economically successful lateral hire outcome. Failure on a sufficiently large scale produces Finley Kumble.

CULTURE SHOCK

On December 30, K&L Gates Chairman Peter Kalis sent an email that recently reached the legal blogosphere. Bluntly, he reminded fellow partners to get their outstanding client bills paid before the firm’s fiscal year-end. Above the Law reproduced it [complete with typos purportedly from the original]:

“Let me be clear about a couple of things. First, partners and administrators at this law firm are expected to run through the tape at midnight on December 31. Many of you came from different cultures. I don’t care about your prior acculturation. We didn’t conscript you into service at this law firm. You came volunatrily [sic]. What we are you are as well.

“And that brings me to my second point. We are a US-based global law firm. US law firms operate on a cash basis of accounting. Our fees must be collected by midnight within the fiscal year in which they are due. You don’t get to opt out of this feasture [sic] because it doesn’t appeal to you. Again, I couldn’t care less whether it appeals to you. It is who we are and therefore it is who you are. Get us paid by tomrrow [sic].” (http://abovethelaw.com/2011/01/the-two-faces-of-kl-gates/)

The message demonstrates three things — from the predictably banal to the inadvertently profound.

First, although the tone is a bit harsh, the substantive content doesn’t surprise any big law partner. Most lawyers aren’t particularly good businessmen. Reminding them that aging invoices require follow-up isn’t evil or wrong; it’s necessary. No attorney enjoys nagging clients about an overdue receivable. Presumably, the December 30 message was just the final step in a sustained year-end drive asking partners to complete a task that they’d otherwise avoid (as I did).

Second, email is perilous. Speedy communication can be great, but it’s fraught with danger. In less than a minute, you can address, type, and send a message to an entire group (and eventually reach many more blog readers). If you don’t take the time to proofread for typos, much less reflect on how others might later analyze your statements, no one will stop you from hitting the send button. Once released, the words assume a life of their own and context disappears. Every trial lawyer who has sought to explain away a client’s unflattering email message understands the problem. Surprisingly, some of those same lawyers fail to apply the lesson to their own writings. Next time, Kalis will probably prepare a script and deliver his thoughts via voicemail.

The third point has nothing to do with substance — that is, chiding partners to get client bills paid. Rather, the message acknowledges an unintended consequence of the prevailing big law business model: It has produced unprecedented lateral partner mobility that, in turn, erodes distinctive firm cultures. Two sentences make the point:

“Many of you came from different cultures. I don’t care about your prior acculturation.”

Six months ago, I praised Kalis for encouraging prospective associates to put interviewing partners on the spot when he urged: “[Recruits] should ask searching questions. How practice has changed over the years and how you deal with the changing demands. And how hard it is to reconcile your life at work with the rest of your life…I don’t believe lawyers should bow to icons. I want them to look me in the eye and ask tough questions.”  (http://thecareerist.typepad.com/thecareerist/2010/06/kl-gates-likes-them-sassy.htmlhttps://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/summer-associates-take-note-inadvertent-revelations/)

Although they probably won’t pose them, recruits now have more tough questions for him and other big law attorneys: As partners lateral into equity partnerships, what does the culture of the receiving firms become? Does it coalesce around the common denominator of maximizing current-year profits? Or is there room for other, non-monetary values that have traditionally defined the profession? If it’s the latter, how does the firm encourage them?

The answers matter because Kalis’s email emphasizes (twice): “What we are you are as well.”

I don’t know about K&L Gates, but what passes for culture in too many big firms is his message’s final exhortation: “Get us paid by tomrrow [sic].”

LAW SCHOOL DECEPTION

Last Sunday, the NY Times asked: Are law schools deceiving prospective students into incurring huge debt for degrees that aren’t worth it?

Of course they are. The U.S. News is an aider and abettor. As the market for new lawyers shrinks, a key statistic in compiling the publication’s infamous rankings is “graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation.” Any job qualifies — from joining Cravath to waiting tables. According to the Times, the most recent average for all law schools is 93%. If gaming the system to produce that number doesn’t cause students to ignore the U.S. News’ rankings altogether, nothing will.

My friend, Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law Professor Bill Henderson, told the Times that looking at law schools’ self-reported employment numbers made him feel “dirty.” I assume he’s concerned that prospective students rely on that data in deciding whether and where to attend law school. I agree with him.

But an equally telling kick in the head is buried in the lengthy Times article: Most graduates who achieve their initial objectives — starting positions in big firms paying $160,000 salaries — quickly lose the feeling that they’re winners. Certainly, they must be better off than the individuals chronicled in the article. What could be worse than student debt equal to a home mortgage, albeit without the home?

Try a legal job with grueling hours, boring work, and little prospect of a long-term career. Times reporter David Segal summarized the cliche’: “Law school is a pie-eating contest where first prize is more pie.”

These distressing outcomes for students and associates aren’t inevitable. In fact, they’re relatively new phenomena with a common denominator: Business school-type metrics that make short-term pursuit of the bottom line sterile, objective, and laudable. Numbers prove who’s best and they don’t lie.

Law school administrators manipulate employment data because they have ceded their reasoned judgment to mindless ranking criteria. (“[M]illions of dollars [are] riding on students’ decisions about where to go to law school, and that creates real institutional pressures,” says one dean who believes that pandering to U.S. News rankings isn’t gaming the system; it’s making a school better.)

Likewise, today’s dominant large firm culture results from forces that produced the surge in average equity partner income for the Am Law 50 — from $300,000 in 1985 to $1.5 million in 2009. Leveraged pyramids might work for a few at the top; for everyone else — not so much.

The glut of law school applicants, as well as graduates seeking big firm jobs to repay their loans, leaves law school administrators and firm managers with no economic incentive to change their ways. The profession needs visionaries who are willing to resist perpetuating the world in which debt-laden graduates are becoming the 21st century equivalent of indentured servants.

Henderson calls for law school transparency in the form of quality employment statistics. I endorse his request and offer a parallel suggestion: Through their universities’ undergraduate prelaw programs, law schools should warn prospective students about the path ahead before their legal journeys begin.

Some students enter law school expecting to become Atticus Finch or the lead attorneys on Law & Order. Others pursue large firm equity partnerships as a way to riches. Few realize that career dissatisfaction plagues most of the so-called winners who land what they once thought were the big firm jobs of their dreams.

A legal degree can lead to many different careers. The urgency of loan repayment schedules creates a practical reality that pushes most students in big law’s direction. If past is prologue, the vast majority of them will not be happy there. They should know the truth — the whole truth — before they make their first law school tuition payments. Minimizing unwelcome surprises will create a more satisfied profession.

Meanwhile, can we all agree to ignore U.S. News rankings and rely on our own judgments instead of its stupid criteria? Likewise, can big law managers move away from their myopic focus on the current year’s equity partner profits as a definitive culture-determining metric? I didn’t think so.

COCKROACHES, MEDICINE, AND THE BILLABLE HOUR

Cockroaches should take lessons from the billable hour. Detractors notwithstanding, it has survived every economic downturn of the last 30 years including, apparently, this one. Although a recent ALM survey noted that almost 75% of client payments in 2009 were pursuant to “alternative fee arrangements,” almost 80% of those were simply discounts from attorneys’ hourly rates. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/10/billing.html)

Here’s the real problem: Whenever the regime eventually crumbles, the worst aspects of the billable hours culture will persist. Take fixed fee caps, for example. Even if they benefit some clients financially — a big “if” that’s a separate discussion — they create a Hobson’s choice for associates.

On one side is the pressure not to log all time. Keeping matters within internal budgets makes billing partners look good in their year-end reviews.

On the other side stands the billable hour as the definitive metric for measuring individual productivity. They might be working on fixed fee matters, but attorneys must still account for their time. Large firm minimum hours requirements aren’t going away.

What happens when externally fixed fees meet internal billable hours cultures? Ask your doctor.

Do you sometimes get the impression that your family physician is rushing through an appointment? That’s because the doctor is responding rationally to something called the relative value unit (RVU) — medicine’s equivalent to the billable hour.

In 1964, the AMA created reimbursement codes for the newly enacted Medicare program. Fifteen years later, a Harvard School of Public Health economist began investigating ways to compare the seemingly incomparable: the time and effort associated with doctors’ diverse tasks. The typical economist’s study sought to develop relative values for measuring productivity across a range of different activities — from well-child checkups to brain surgery.

The academic exercise remained theoretical until 1985 when Medicare expanded the inquiry: Might such a scale be used to control costs associated with spiraling “reasonable, customary and prevailing fee-for-services” payment schedules? In 1992, Congress linked the relative value unit system to the Medicare codes used for reimbursing more than 7,000 different physician tasks. Private health insurers soon adopted RVUs for reimbursement, too.

Physicians now generate RVUs to earn a living, but time becomes a critical limiting factor. For example, whether a family physician spends 10 or 30 minutes on a routine office visit, Medicare and insurance companies set physician reimbursement at the activity’s predetermined RVU value (0.7). That gets multiplied by the uniform RVU rate (about $40/RVU) for a total of $28. (The final bill exceeds $28 because practice expense and malpractice RVU-factors get added.)

Specialists’ tasks have greater RVU values than general practitioners.’ Compared to a 15-minute routine visit worth 0.7 RVU, a 30-minute colonoscopy is worth several times that. Such differences relate to physician training, skills, mental effort, judgment, stress, and other aspects of the work. But cynics note that specialists have dominated Medicare’s RVU schedule advisory boards.

Behavior has followed incentive structures:

— RVU-driven compensation differences have created shortages of family physicians.

— Specialists mean well, but they tend to view patients myopically through the prism of their expertise, rather than as entire beings. Piecemeal medicine results.

— The system encourages pills, procedures, and tests. Prescription drugs promise quick fixes that move patients out of their doctors’ offices sooner. Procedures generate high RVU values; tests requiring expensive equipment likewise reap generous reimbursement.

Meanwhile, doctors must meet minimum annual RVUs, sometimes pursuant to explicit contractual requirements. That should sound familiar to any big law associate.

As physicians ceded control of hospitals to lay managers, RVUs became a key tool by which the MBA mentality of misguided metrics overtook that profession. Don’t take my word for it. Ask your doctor — if he’ll give you the time.

What would happen if clients and the courts that approve fee petitions started “fee-capping” lawyers the way Medicare and insurance companies have sliced into doctors’ incomes since 1992? Probably unintended consequences no less dramatic than those still surprising the medical profession. Many haven’t been pretty.

Here’s the real kicker: Unlike the legal profession, most physicians have always liked their jobs.

“LIES, DAMN LIES, AND STATISTICS”

ALM editor-in-chief Aric Press penned a provocative article about Indiana Law Professor Bill Henderson’s for-profit venture on recruiting, retention, and promotion. (http://amlawdaily.typepad.com/amlawdaily/2010/11/pressconventionalwisdom.html) The WSJ law blog and ABA Journal covered it, too. (http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2010/11/15/on-law-firms-and-hiring-is-a-new-paradigm-on-the-way/) Henderson is analyzing why some attorneys succeed in Biglaw and others don’t.

Does anyone else find his project vaguely unsettling?

At first, I thought of the venerable computer programming maxim, “garbage in, garbage out.” That’s because he’s asking Am Law 200 partners to identify values and traits they want in their lawyers — and he’s assuming they’ll tell him the truth. But will they admit to seeking bright, ambitious associates wearing blinders in pursuit of elusive equity partnerships typically awarded to fewer than 10% of large firm entering classes? Or that such low “success” rates inhere in the predominant Biglaw business model that requires attrition and limits equity entrants to preserve staggering profits?

Then I considered Mark Twain’s reflections on the three kinds of falsehoods: “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” It came to mind because Henderson’s researchers “pour over the resumes and evaluations of associates and partners trying to identify characteristics shared by those who have become ‘franchise players’ and those who haven’t.” Here’s what those resumes and evaluations won’t reveal: the internal politics driving decisions.

Most Biglaw equity partners are talented, but equally deserving candidates fail to advance for reasons unrelated to their abilities. Rather, as the business model incentivizes senior partners to hoard billings that justify personal economic positions, those at the top wield power that makes or breaks young careers — and everybody knows it. Doing a superior job is important, but working for the “right” people is outcome determinative. Merit sometimes loses out to idiosyncrasy that is impervious to Henderson’s data collection methods.

But perhaps the biggest problem with Henderson’s plan is it’s goal: identifying factors correlating with individual success. Does the magic formula include “a few years in the military, a few years in the job force, or a few years as a law review editor?”

If managers warm to Henderson’s conclusions (after paying his company to develop them), they’ll leap from correlation to causation, develop checklists of supposed characteristics common to superstars like themselves, and hire accordingly. Law schools pandering to the Biglaw sliver of the profession (it’s less than 15% of all attorneys) could take such criteria even more seriously. Before long, prospective students will incorporate the acquisition of “success” credentials into their life plans.

The difficulty is that today’s Biglaw partners already favor like-minded proteges. That inhibits diversity as typically measured — gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and the like — along with equally important diversity of views and a willingness to entertain them. Even today, concerned insiders are reluctant to voice dissent from Biglaw’s prevailing raison d’etre — maximizing short-term profits at the expense competing professional values and longer-term institutional vitality. Won’t meaningful diversity — of backgrounds, life experiences, and resulting attitudes about professional mission — suffer as groupthink makes firms even more insular? Meanwhile, trying to improve overall “success” rates is a futile goal; they won’t budge until the leveraged pyramid disappears.

I don’t fault Henderson, who bypassed Biglaw practice for academia after his 2001 graduation. But Press’s warning is important: “To some extent, it doesn’t matter what Henderson and Co. discover. What matters is that the inquiries have begun…If we’ve learned anything from the last decade, it’s that we can’t predict the consequences of new information beyond acknowledging its power to disrupt.”

Consider two unfortunate examples. The flawed methodology behind U.S. News’ law school rankings hasn’t deterred most students from blindly choosing the highest-rated one that accepts them. (Exorbitant tuition and limited job prospects may be changing that.) Likewise, Biglaw’s transformation from a collegial profession to a short-term bottom-line business accelerated after publication of average partner profits at the nation’s largest firms (then the Am Law 50), beginning in 1985; I just published a legal thriller describing that phenomenon. (http://www.amazon.com/Partnership-Novel-Steven-J-Harper/dp/0984369104)

The most important things that happened to me — in Biglaw and in life — were fortuitous. No statistical model could have predicted them. Still, I hope Henderson’s study answers an important question: Would his likely-to-succeed factors have led any firm to hire me?

ACCELERATING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION

Recently, law firm management consultant Hildebrandt Baker Robbins’ Kristin Stark offered her solution to problems that she sees with many large firm compensation systems:

“Firms need to be talking to their partners about their performance every year — and throughout the year. Ongoing coaching of partners on their performance and helping them make improvements has become a powerful tool for driving partner and firm performance in successful firms. High-performing partners want to work in an environment where co-owners are engaged and actively contributing to firm growth. Without this, a firm’s top performers are at risk.” (http://www.law.com/jsp/law/article.jsp?id=1202472843670&Partner_Compensation_The_Downturns_New_Touchy_Subject)

Stark buried the lead, but her key point appears to be that a firm’s principal mission should be to keep its rainmakers happy. Otherwise, they’re “at risk” — meaning that they’ll leave to make more money elsewhere.

Wait a minute. A few lines earlier, Stark described the growing gap in high-to-low partner compensation: “Before the recession, [it] was typically five-to-one in many firms. Very often today, we’re seeing that spread at 10-to-1, even 12-to-1.”

“You can imagine that creates a lot of problems,” she continued. “It drives further tension between partners over compensation and creates an environment of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in law firms.”

What should firms that have become beholden to a few rainmakers and their often oversized egos do? Whatever it takes to keep them? Won’t that exacerbate the resentment of those whom Stark calls the “have-nots”? What are the limits of tolerably bad behavior by the “haves”? Big billers always get a pass for hoarding clients. How about verbally abusing subordinates? Or worse?

Meanwhile, she suggests, firms should coach other lawyers on the importance of “improving performance.” That’s code for billing more hours and bringing in more business. Forget about mentoring the next generation, encouraging collegiality, enhancing attorney career satisfaction, or focusing on other professional values for which the dominant large law firm model lacks a metrics link to bottom-line equity partner profits.

It also means reconciling the “have-nots” to their proper places in the firm:

“In this market firms have to constantly reevaluate the expectations of a partner, communicate with partners about what is required of them, and incorporate partner goals and expectations into the compensation process,” Stark said.

In other words, everyone should understand the need to work harder so that the highest paid equity partners widen their already enormous compensation advantages over all others.

All of this is an interesting commentary on a group of extraordinarily talented men and women — a firm’s longstanding (but non-rainmaker) equity partners who, apparently, somehow lost the intelligence and personality traits that caused them to excel in the first place. As students, their brains and hard work took most of them to the best colleges and law schools. As associates, their ambitions carried them past peers into equity partnerships. Presumably, they served clients who valued their work.

When did they lose it? Admittedly, a few never deserved promotion, but internal firm political stars aligned in a way that allowed them to bypass quality control criteria. Success made others fat, happy, and lazy; still others burned out. But most equity partners achieved their status because they had a lot going for them — and still do. If they continue to enjoy the practice of law, that alone pushes them as it always has.

Not so, says Stark. They need coaching to keep their expectations in check. They must pander to top billers whose eternal answer to the question “How much is enough?” will always be “More.” They should live with the anxiety accompanying ongoing performance evaluations throughout the year. Never mind that, in Biglaw as in life, individual careers experience peaks and valleys; rarely is any overall upward trajectory a straight line.

Fear isn’t a productive ingredient in the recipe for motivating talent. But try telling that to some large firm managing partners and their outside consultants. On second thought, don’t bother. They already know everything.