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.