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.

BIGLAW AND THE BLACK SWAN

After reading my novel, The Partnership, an insightful observer wrote that its themes “sound like a biglaw version of The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Drawing out the comparisons between your book and Taleb could fill many blog posts.”

This is the first.

Taleb’s title derives from the discovery of what everyone knew didn’t exist. In the Old World, universally reported human experience pointed unambiguously to a single conclusion: All swans were white. Then came the discovery of Australia and its black swans.

The lesson: Widely accepted truths often turn out to be false. Relying on models of the past to anticipate the future can be a fool’s errand, especially if it ignores the wholly unexpected Black Swans that actually shape history. Who imagined that Bill Gates’ boyhood fascination with computers would lead to Microsoft, or that Mark Zuckerberg’s college dorm room at Harvard would be the birthplace of a revolutionary social networking phenomenon?

Black Swans can be good or bad — but they are always transformative. Most of us fail to consider them because we tend to theorize about the future in specific and limited ways from prior experience. For example, Taleb notes, the French built the Maginot Line to defend against German attack following the Great War, only to watch Hitler zip around it during a greater one, World War II.

“What did people learn from the 9/11 episode?” he continues. “Did they learn that some events, owing to their dynamics, stand largely outside the realm of the predictable? No. Did they learn the built-in defect of conventional wisdom? No. What did they figure out? They learned precise rules for avoiding proislamic terrorists and tall buildings.”

The Black Swan came out in 2007 and was a best-seller before the Great Recession — an event that others began calling a Black Swan, although Taleb said it didn’t qualify. Rather, that downturn replays previous Black Swan events — including the 1982 bank failures, 1987 market crash, and 1998 collapse of Long-Term Capital Management — from which intelligent people persistently failed to learn. So-called financial experts with MBAs had lost fortunes betting that such Black Swans were so improbable that they could be ignored. According to Taleb, these empty suits persevered and suckered others into accepting their discredited models, only to have them fail yet again.

So how could this relate to Biglaw? After all, it has enjoyed a 30-year run as straightforward metrics — billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios — enabled large firms to produce staggering wealth for their owners. Even as many positions disappeared and revenues remained flat or declined at some firms, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 continued to rise.

The dominant Biglaw model is working, right?

Only until a Black Swan appears. It would be presumptuous to predict its form or timing. Indeed, the Black Swan’s essence is its serendipity, coupled with its power. It strikes when overconfidence creates complacency and vigilance takes a vacation.

So for Biglaw, accepting conventional wisdom means following managers (few of whom are leaders — a crucial distinction) who focus on  supposedly proven metrics that have made them rich. They let free markets dictate decisions; they ignore things that don’t impact this year’s bottom-line; they watch their equity partner profits trees grow to the sky.

Where in all of this might Biglaw’s Black Swans lurk?

The candidates are too numerous for thoughtful consideration in a single article. Some examples: increasing attorney dissatisfaction at all levels; client resistance to hourly billing regimes; the displacement of a professional ethos with business-school metrics aimed at short-term profit-maximization; prospective lawyers’ growing awareness of Biglaw’s darker side.

But many of us already know about these difficulties, which makes them less likely Black Swan candidates. Then again, the Black Swan need not come as a surprise to everyone. For too long, most Biglaw managers have been oblivious to the profession’s growing challenges; too many behave as if they still are. As Taleb notes, a well-fed turkey that becomes fatter as Thanksgiving approaches is amazed to encounter the ultimate Black Swan event — its slaughter. But the butcher always knew what was coming.

I’ll add one more to the list:

Australia has pioneered a new regulatory regime that allows outsiders — non-lawyers — to invest in private law firms. Some are now publicly traded. http://www.abanet.org/legaled/committees/Standards%20Review%20documents/AnthonyDavis.pdf

Lawyers in Great Britain have begun preparing to follow that lead when the Legal Services Act becomes effective next year.  http://www.law.com/jsp/law/international/LawArticleIntl.jsp?id=1202463691626

Could Biglaw’s ongoing transformation to a species of Big Business culminate in non-lawyer shareholders and boards? It’s a frightening prospect — but not so scary that equity partners are likely to forego the enormous short-term windfalls they’d reap from initial public offerings (IPOs) of their firms’ stock. Most view themselves as disproportionately responsible for their own success and will be content to let the next generations fend for themselves in a bleak professional landscape.

Could the same country that introduced the first black swan to the world be exporting something far more momentous?