“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?

“SEND THE ELEVATOR BACK DOWN…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer: A multi-pronged attack.

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

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

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

Where will they go?

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

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

Now what?

28 DAYS – The Big Squeeze Continues

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

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

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

Not NALP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“AND THE CHILDREN SHALL LEAD…”

It was a great Star Trek episode, and not just because one of the most famous trial lawyers of his time, Melvin Belli, played a villain who tried to take control of every child on planet Triacus. The episode reveals the potency of two great powers: youth and truth.

The moral of the story endures, as I realized while reading an article in the National Law Journal earlier this week. (http://www.alliancealert.org/2010/04/20/law-students-push-schools-for-better-employment-numbers/)

The best prospects for improving the profession will come from new entrants who refuse to settle for answers that others would like them to accept. So it’s gratifying when youth seeks truth as law students start asking the right questions.

Two Vanderbilt students have realized that most law school information about graduates’ employment and compensation is incomplete — and sometimes misleading. Law schools tend to mask reality in aggregate statistical compilations that make them look good. (See Mark Twain on the three kinds of lies: “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.”)

For example, when a school reports to US News that 95% of a recent class was employed at graduation, what does that mean? For jobs that involved temporary research for a professor because nothing else was available, not much.

Likewise, when the median salary at a first-tier school is also the top of the range because many graduates went to big firms, isn’t the overall distribution meaningful? And two or three years later, what happens to the young attorneys in those firms? For too many, nothing good, according to NALP’s associate attrition data.

So two Vanderbilt students are trying to build and publish their own database of detailed information about individual students. The most encouraging aspect of the initiative has less to do with trying to collect what the law schools probably won’t divulge. Rather, it’s the fact that these students — and hopefully many others — are thinking in concrete terms about what their legal careers will actually be like.

Moving away from statistical aggregations and abstract images that don’t educate anyone about life as a real lawyer, they want specific information about their options and prospects (or lack thereof). This initial inquiry — how much individual graduates earn and what happens to them — should lead immediately to a second: what type of work are young attorneys performing and do they enjoy their jobs?

If undergraduates started this deliberative process before they took the LSAT, the profession could begin curing its worst problem: growing attorney unhappiness.

How? The profession is filled with too many lawyers who never should have gone to law school in the first place. If only they had known the truth…and then thought about it…

WILL ANYONE NOTICE ON APRIL 27?

When is a partner not a partner?

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

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

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

Hmmmm…..

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

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

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

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

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