A DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

The Wall Street Journal’s front page headline tells only part of story: “Legal Fees Cross New Mark: $1500.” The February 9 article lists the range of partner hourly rates at some big firms: Proskauer Rose from $925 to $1475; Ropes & Gray from $895 to $1450; Kirkland & Ellis from $875 to $1445; and so on and so on and so on.

That’s great if you can get it, but most firms can’t. The 2016 Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor “State of the Legal Profession” tells a second part of the story: realization and collection rates have plummeted. How much a firm bills doesn’t matter; what it actually brings in the door does. In 2005, collections totaled 93 percent of standard rates. By the end of 2015, it was down to 83 percent.

The Music Stopped, Almost

Annual standard hourly rate increases have blunted the profit impact of declining collections, but trees stopped growing to the sky about ten years ago. Except in bankruptcy courts. That’s the third element of the story and the profession’s dirty little secret: one of the most lucrative big law practice areas has no client accountability for its fees. Even worse, the process facilitates pricing behavior that spills over into other practice areas.

Take the recent Journal article. Where did the reporters get the detailed hourly rates for the firms it identified? A note at the bottom of the chart reveals the answer: “Source: Bankruptcy court filings.” If managing partners exchanged their firms’ hourly rates privately, it would raise serious antitrust issues. But in bankruptcy, publicly filed fee petitions do all of that work for them.

It gets worse. In bankruptcy, no one forces attorneys into the discounting that produces the current 83 percent overall average collections rate. Remember the infamous “Churn that bill, baby” email involving DLA Piper a few years ago? That was a bankruptcy case. Traditional mechanisms of accountability are ineffective. Unlike a solvent corporate client, a company in trouble has little leverage in dealing with its outside counsel. Until it emerges from a Chapter 11 reorganization, the days of minimizing legal expenses to maximize shareholder value are suspended. If it winds up in Chapter 7 liquidation, those days are gone forever.

At the same, time, the lawyers handling the bankruptcy have little risk. They get paid ahead of everyone else. Lawyers for creditor committees are a theoretical check only. They, too, get paid first and the members of the exclusive club of big law firm attorneys reappear. Their roles may change — debtor’s counsel in one bankruptcy may be creditors’ attorney in another and the liquidating trustee’s lawyer in yet another. In none of those capacities is there any incentive to rock the long-term, “paid-in-full hourly rate” boat.

More Theoretical Accountability

The U.S. Trustee receives all attorneys’ fees petitions before courts approve them. The Trustee can object, but it doesn’t have sufficient resources to analyze detailed line item time and expense entries on the thousands of pages that firms submit. The Trustee issued new guidelines that became effective for cases filed after November 1, 2013. Perhaps they will make a difference. But in the end, they are still guidelines and the final decision on attorneys fees resides with the bankruptcy judge.

As hourly rates have increased to the $1500 level that the Journal highlights, courts have given their rubber stamps of approval to the trend. Rather than challenge the high rates that all firms charge, bankruptcy judges determine merely that they are “reasonable and customary” because, after all, comparable firms are charging them for comparable work. The circularity is as obvious as the resulting payday for the lawyers. Someday, media attention and popular outrage may force meaningful change that has yet to occur.

Worse Than It Seems

Considering the 83 percent collection rate in the context of the nearly 100 percent rate for bankruptcy lawyers yields an insight relevant to the fourth and final part of the larger big law firm story. In particular, the current 83 percent collection rate is deceptively high. If a firm’s average is 83 percent and its bankruptcy lawyers collect close to 100 percent, then firms with large bankruptcy practices have non-bankruptcy clients pushing some practice areas into deep concessions off standard rates.

Likewise, combining this fact with two conclusions from the Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report produces ominous implications for such firms:

— “Demand for law firm services…was essentially flat in 2015,” and

— Bankruptcy experienced the largest negative growth rate in demand by practice area.

Unless the country heads into a recession that few economists expect, the continuing reduction in bankruptcies will drive overall average collections dramatically lower. That’s bad news for big law firms with significant bankruptcy practices.

Back in 2011, an icon of the bankruptcy bar, the late Harvey Miller of Weil, Gotshal and Manges, defended his firm’s approach to legal fees: “The underlying principle is, if you can get it, get it.”

Miller isn’t around anymore, but his unfortunate credo for a noble profession survives — for now.

[NOTE: The trade paperback edition of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books) — complete with an extensive new AFTERWORD — will be released on March 8, 2016 and is now available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.]

DEWEY: PROFILES IN SOMETHING

Some key players in the Dewey & LeBoeuf debacle are also among the profession’s leaders; that makes them role models. Some teach at law schools; that means they’re shaping tomorrow’s attorneys, too. But how do they look and sound without the Dewey spin machine?

Some readers might worry that spotlighting them erodes civility. But civility goes to the nature of discourse; it can never mean turning a blind eye to terrible things that a few powerful people do to innocent victims. Sadly, the personalities and trends that unraveled Dewey aren’t unique to it.

As to former chairman Steven H. Davis, David Lat’s analysis at Above the Law and Peter Lattman’s report at the NY Times  are sufficient; there’s no reason to pile on. Rather, I’ll look at the “Gang of Four” plus one: the men comprising the four-man office of the chairman who replaced Davis as the firm came unglued, and Morton Pierce. Here’s a preview.

Morton Pierce was chairman of Dewey Ballantine when merger discussions with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe failed and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & McRae entered the picture. After spearheading the deal with Davis, Pierce locked in a multi-year $6 million annual contract that he reportedly enhanced in the fall of 2011. In his May 3 resignation later, he reportedly claimed that the firm owed him $61 million.

As he spoke with The Wall Street Journal while packing boxes for White & Case, Pierce said that he hadn’t been actively involved in firm management since 2010. But the Dewey & LeBoeuf website said otherwise: “Morton Pierce is a Vice Chair of Dewey & LeBoeuf and co-chair of the Mergers and Acquisitions Practice Group. He is also a member of the firm’s global Executive Committee.” [UPDATE: Two days after this May 15 post, Pierce’s page on the Dewey & LeBoeuf website finally disappeared. Such are the perils of losing an IT department too early in the unraveling process.] My post on Pierce will be titled “Accepting Responsibility.”

Martin Bienenstock, one of the Gang of Four, was an early big name hire for the newly formed Dewey & LeBoeuf. In November 2007, he left Weil, Gotshal & Manges after 30 years there. He got a guaranteed compensation deal and sat on the Executive Committee as his new firm careened toward disaster. As Dewey & LeBoeuf’s end neared, he maintained a consistent position throughout: “There are no plans to file bankruptcy. And anyone who says differently doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

No one asked if he had a realistic plan for the firm’s survival. Ten days later, he and members of his bankruptcy group were on the way to Proskauer Rose. The title of my upcoming post on Pierce could work for Bienenstock, too. But because he teaches at Harvard Law School, I’m going to call it “Partnership, Professionalism, and What To Tell the Kids.”

Jeffrey Kessler, another of the Gang of Four, was also a lateral hire from Weil, Gotshal & Manges. He joined Dewey Ballantine in 2003. As a member of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Executive Committee, he became a vocal proponent of the firm’s star system that gave top producers multi-year, multimillion-dollar contracts — one of which was his.

A sports law expert, Kessler analogized big-name attorneys to top athletes: “The value for the stars has gone up, while the value of service partners has gone down.” The title of my post on Kessler will be “Stars In Their Eyes.”

Richard Shutran, the third of the Gang of Four, was a Dewey Ballantine partner before the 2007 merger. He became co-chair of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Corporate Department and Chairman of its Global Finance Practice Group. At the time of the firm’s $125 million bond offering in 2010, he told Bloomberg News that the bonds’ interest rates were more favorable than those from the firm’s bank. In March 2012, he said Dewey was in routine negotiations with lenders over its credit line. He also dismissed The American Lawyer’s retroactive revision of Dewey’s 2010 and 2011 financial performance numbers as much ado about nothing. My post on Shutran will be “Running the Numbers.”

L. Charles Landgraf, the last of the four, began his career at LeBoeuf Lamb 34 years ago. I don’t know him (or any of  the others), but my hunch is that Charley (as people call him) is a decent guy. My post on him will be called “The Plight of the Loyal Company Man.”

In future installments, we’ll take a closer look at each of them. Sometimes it won’t be pretty, but neither is what some of them personify about the profession’s evolution.