I hear from recent law school graduates who can’t find jobs. (I can’t help.) I hear from law firm associates looking to move to relatively junior in-house jobs. (I can’t help.) And I hear from partners with decades of experience who’d like to replicate my relatively recent move and jump from a big-firm partnership to a relatively senior in-house job. (I can’t help there, either.)
I’m devoting this column to thinking about the third of those three groups: disaffected partners.
The plight of the recent graduate is easy to understand: You’re massively in debt, looking for work, and can’t find a job. I get it. The plight of the associate is also easy to understand: You’re working too hard, not enjoying much of what you do, and have only an uncertain future. I get it.
But the plight of the big firm partner is different: You succeeded at law school, succeeded at your law firm, have hot and cold running associates at your disposal, are being paid the riches of Croesus every year, and are perceived by the world as being wonderfully successful. What the heck are you complaining about?
Remarkably, it seems as though you’re all complaining about essentially the same thing . . .
I’ve recently spoken to three partners at three different law firms seeking advice about how they could jump ship. Each shared a résumé with me, so I have a sense of these folks’ credentials. All of these people glitter on paper; they’re highly perfumed. These three all graduated from top law schools — Harvard, Michigan, and Stanford — in the 1980s. They all served on their respective law reviews. They all clerked and ended up (directly or indirectly) at prestigious large firms as associates. They all ran the partnership gauntlet successfully. One of the three is an equity partner at his or her firm; I’m uncertain whether the other two are equity or non-equity partners. One I knew in passing from my days in private practice, where we’d occasionally speak on different panels during the course of a day-long seminar; that person, at least, maintains a relatively high public profile and seems to generate a fair amount of business (although perhaps from a single client). I don’t know how successful the other two have been at generating business. Perhaps needless to say, none is part of the small leadership group — typically referred to as the “compensation committee” or “points committee” — that actually runs the joint at which he or she works.
And what is the partner’s lament?
None of these people complains about having been mistreated as an associate. (It’s possible they all were mistreated, of course, but none is complaining about it anymore; memory is such a fleeting thing.) Each had plenty of work to do as an associate and presumably did it well; each was, after all, elected to partnership. And none of these people complains about having been mistreated as a junior partner. Each still had plenty of work to do and felt as though he (or she) was being treated, and compensated, fairly. Indeed, each of these people, in separate conversations on separate days, noted that his (or her) law firm felt like an actual partnership for a fair number of years after the partnership decision. Senior partners were still relying on these junior partners for work, permitting the then-junior partners to feel engaged and productive.
But a funny thing happened on the way to retirement: As these folks aged in the partnership ranks, they felt increasingly disaffected. There were fewer senior people to bestow work on them, so these folks were forced to generate their own business. (As I said, I don’t have a very good sense of how they fared in this regard.)
Each of these folks said that his (or her) firm was run by a small group of people who did two unfair things: People in the small group (1) arrogated to themselves institutional opportunities and (2) did little to advance the careers of their relatively senior peers. Thus, these partners lamented, when new clients approached the firm, the cabal chose one of the cabal’s ranks to lead the pitch. When high-profile stuff happened in lawsuits or on deals, the member of the cabal stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight. And when my shoulder-crying acquaintances sought help to bolster their own practices, they received little assistance. One complained that he (or she) had recently published a scholarly article, but senior colleagues refused even to mail courtesy copies to other clients who might be interested in the subject matter. Another said when the press called for comments on deals in which the firm was not involved, the firm’s public relations folks always routed the calls to the same member of the cabal, raising that person’s profile, but not helping others.
As one person memorably (at least in my paraphrase) put it: “I always figured that I could earn my way into the inner sanctum. If I worked hard enough, achieved great results for clients, and brought in enough business, then eventually the powers that be would let me into the club. But it doesn’t really work that way. And, once you realize that the guys who run the joint refuse to share opportunities with you, you realize that you’d be crazy to share opportunities with them. Instead of working in partnership with your law firm, you’re working in parallel to it.”
(When I heard those words, I flashed back to the time, more than a decade earlier, when a partner at yet another law firm told me over lunch: “We have three different categories of lawyers at my firm. We have the associates, the partners, and the owners.”)
None of my three new acquaintances complained directly about compensation. But all three worried about how they might be treated in the future. “I see what’s happening to my colleagues, and I know that I’m just a missed step away from being thrown under the bus with the rest of the crowd,” said one. And all three complained about how the profession had changed out from under them: When they left law school, they entered a profession; now, they found themselves in a business. One of them said, in words I’d heard elsewhere before: “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.” (Writing this column is so good for me: The miracle of the internet just taught me that Elie Wiesel is credited with having first spoken those words.) “I don’t hate where I work. I just run on a parallel track to the place. The firm does nothing for me, so I do nothing for it. It’s like a bad marriage; we survive, but there’s no passion.”
My three recent acquaintances are hardly the first big-firm partners to speak words such as these. Steven Harper (a 30-year veteran of Big Law) devotes his blog (and an undergraduate class) to discussing many of these issues. But it was odd for me, at least, to hear the same concerns expressed over and over again by people who are seemingly so successful.
I suspect that many readers of this column have no sympathy for these partners’ lamentations: You chose the game; play it. If you have no business and can do no more than service the clients of others, then you’re simply a senior associate who’s outlived his usefulness; you never should have been made a partner. Life is tough; “America isn’t easy . . . You’ve got to want it bad.”
What about the partner who seems to have a fair amount of business from a single client? Life’s good now; enjoy it. Beat the bushes and generate another client. If you’re worried that you might lose your client — because of an acquisition or the arrival of a new general counsel — that’s what a free market means. Buck it up and get tough.
I personally am a softer touch than my harsh hypothetical readers. I understand what these folks are saying — just as I understand what the recent graduates and junior associates are saying — and I wish I had a solution.
But I don’t. I don’t have jobs to offer, and I can’t change the nature of your law firms.
All I can do is share your stories. Maybe sharing the stories will either educate junior lawyers about the footsteps in which they’re walking or prompt the leadership of some law firms to act slightly differently.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at [email protected].