THE DEWEY TRIAL: FOUR EXAMPLES OF NOT-SO-FUNNY COMIC RELIEF

The ongoing criminal trial against three former leaders of Dewey & LeBoeuf has consumed six weeks. Time flies when you’re having fun. For example:

#1: Funny, If It Weren’t So Sad

For a bunch of smart people, some senior partners did some dumb things. One of the prosecution’s first witnesses was a former member of Dewey’s executive committee who retired at the end of 2010. She had contributed more than $600,000 in capital to the firm and, upon retirement, expected to get it back. Although the partnership agreement permitted the firm to spread the payments to her over three annual installments, she testified that chairman Steve Davis had discretion to accelerate them.

Davis declined her request to do so. Instead, he encouraged her to get a bank loan from Barclays for the full amount and told her that over the subsequent three years the firm would repay the loan for her. She followed his recommendation and borrowed the money.

The firm failed to repay the Barclays loan. She remained on the hook and paid the full amount herself. Adding insult to injury, she lost again when the firm filed for bankruptcy and her $175,000 annual pension disappeared.

#2: Funny, If You Were Not a Fellow Partner

For a bunch of high-powered former Dewey partners who rose to the very top of the firm, titles typically associated with power didn’t mean leadership. Likewise, becoming a member of the firm’s governing structure apparently didn’t result in any duties or responsibilities that involved actual knowledge of the firm’s finances or operations.

For example, during the fifth week of trial, Ralph Ferrara testified that even though he had no equity stake in the firm, he held an impressive title — vice chairman — and had an agreement whereby the firm paid him a salary around $5 million a year. He told the jury that former chairman Steven Davis’ announcement that Ferrara would assume the vice-chairmanship became an offer that he couldn’t refuse.

“I’m embarrassed to say, my ego overcame my good judgment,” Ferrara, a former general counsel of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, said on the witness stand.

That line could describe leaders of big law firms everywhere. But it’s a flimsy excuse for abdicating responsibilities that come with power. So is another of Ferrara’s quoted lines: “I’m a practicing lawyer. I’m not a law firm administrator.”

Dewey’s other vice-chairman was Mort Pierce. As the firm was failing and Pierce was jumping ship in 2012, he similarly disclaimed any leadership responsibilities associated with his title and position.

#3: Funny, For a Lawyer

For a bunch of lawyers who make a lot of money advising clients not to write stupid stuff, some of them sure wrote stupid stuff. As the trial plodded through its fifth week, the jury saw these colorful messages from former Dewey partner Alexander Dye:

“Fellas: Time to start spending Momma LeBoeuf’s money like its water.”

“Steve DiCarmine, if you are reading this, I’ll have your f-cking head on a stick.”

During week six, one former executive committee member, Richard Shutran, testified about his internal firm emails, including these nuggets:

“I spend most days bulls–ing people…”

“Do what I do. Work out a lot and do drugs…”

“If he calls me, I’ll kill him…”

A defense attorney for Dewey’s former chief financial officer Joel Sanders had Shutran explain that these were all jokes. Apparently, the strategy is to convince the jury that Shutran’s email jests were part of a culture producing defendants’ supposed email “jokes” about finding “a clueless auditor” and using “fake income” in crafting the firm’s financial statements. Good luck with that one.

#4: Funny, If You’re Not A Juror

At the end of week six, jurors listened as the presiding trial judge, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Robert Stoltz, interrupted Stephen DiCarmine’s defense counsel in mid-question. He wanted counsel to explain a term he was using in cross-examining Dewey’s former budget and planning director:

“What does the phrase ‘unreconciled expense write-off’ mean?”

Riveting.

Only three more months to go.

HAPPINESS IS…CRAVATH?

Big law’s future has become big news. On September 25, The New York Times published a special section that included several articles on large firms; two are particularly interesting.

Culture Keeps Firms Together in Trying Times” discusses the handful of large firms that have shunned the widespread eat-what-you-kill approach to partner compensation. It focuses on three firms, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Debevoise & Plimpton, and Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, all of which have retained lock-step compensation systems. For any class of associates, those who survive to partner continue advancing together throughout their careers.

“The only way a partner does better is if the firm does better,” says Debevoise presiding partner Michael W. Blair describing the behavior that follows such structural incentives.

Lock-step is a sharp contrast to most other big firms, which follow what Dewey & LeBoeuf’s management called the “barbell” system: Lots of service partners on one side of the barbell balance out a handful of star partners on the other side. Then-Dewey partner Jeffrey Kessler rationalized the yawning equity partner compensation gaps that this approach creates: “The value for the stars has gone up, while the value of service partners has gone down.”

Not worth it

The Times quotes Cleary managing partner Mark Leddy’s answer to the Kesslers of the world: “People who want to be a star and make $10 million a year don’t fit in here…Breaking the lock-step system for them would be an unacceptable cost to our culture.”

Why does culture matter? There are many answers, but Major, Lindsey & Africa’s recent compensation survey may have identified an important one. Almost eighty percent of partners in lock-step compensation systems are satisfied or very satisfied with their work. A closer look at the MLA survey reveals that the combined group of satisfied and very satisfied partners is about the same for lock-step as for non-lock-step firms. But the lock-step firms’ have a big advantage in the very satisfied group — fifty-five percent compared to only twenty-six percent for non-lock-step firms.

Satisfied versus very satisfied

That leads to James B. Stewart’s observations about Cravath, where he was an associate in the 1970s. In “A Law Firm Where Money Seemed Secondary,” Stewart notes that all attorneys in his firm were intelligent, well-credentialed and hard working, but those advancing to partner had something else in common: They loved their work. It gave them a huge competitive advantage over those who didn’t. Returning to the MLA survey, I think Stewart may have captured a significant difference between the lawyers who are very satisfied and those who are merely satisfied: Attitudes about work affect performance.

Stewart also notes that “of the 20 or so associates hired each year, one or two might be chosen to be a partner.” He concludes that “over the ensuing decades, Cravath doesn’t seem to have changed much.” He’s right.

But the rest of the large law firm segment of the profession has. In fact, many have modeled themselves after the Cravath attrition-and-leverage model, but they added an unfortunate twist away from lock-step compensation: Partners eat what they kill, so every year’s compensation review is a new self-justification exercise. That incentive structure produces a much different culture; most of it is ugly and little of it enhances a firm’s long-run stability.

About the associates…

Before getting too misty-eyed over life at Cravath, it’s worth pausing on one more data point. In the most recent Am Law Survey of Midlevel Associate Satisfaction, Cravath placed 119 out of 129 firms — down from 111 in 2011. The firm has been dropping steadily on that list since 2010, when it placed 84th out of 137. (Both Cleary Gottlieb and Debevoise did much better.)

A closer analysis suggests that Cravath associates do, indeed, enjoy their work. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to enjoy it enough to offset the things that place the firm near the bottom of the satisfaction survey.

Cravath scored above the all-firm averages in work-related subcategories, including quality of work assigned, opportunities to work with partners, and level of responsibility. But it received low marks in other subcategories, including likelihood of staying two years, morale, communication about partnership prospects, and family-friendliness. Lock-step partner compensation isn’t a panacea, but imagine how much worse a place like Cravath would be without it.

Following the money

Perhaps the most telling comment about the interaction between compensation and firm culture comes from former Dewey & LeBoeuf partner Ralph Ferrara who spent twenty-three years at lock-step Debevoise before making what he describes as “an imprudent decision” in leaving: “In my heart, I never left Debevoise; it’s a place that I still love to this day.”

If the bankruptcy judge approves the proposed former partners compensation plan, Ferrara will pay almost $3.4 million to help fund repayments to Dewey’s creditors. Even so, given the amounts he reportedly made at Dewey, his move in 2005 was probably advantageous financially. I wonder if the additional money was worth it to him — and how his heirs will spend it.