Biglaw, Lateral Moves, Musical Chairs, Partner Issues, Sports

Buying In: Euro Fever and Biglaw Transfer Value

Ed. note: This is the latest column by our newest writer, Anonymous Partner. In case you missed his prior posts, check them out here and here.

Devotees of international soccer, and I have come across quite a number of them in my Biglaw career (from foreign-born colleagues to more recent converts like myself), are currently enjoying one of the world’s foremost tournaments, the European Championship or the “Euros.” Because the tournament is played in Europe, the games have been on during lunchtime and the early-afternoon hours here on the East Coast, perfect for sneaking out to a local bar for a slightly longer than usual lunch break to watch. I would imagine that most Biglaw Euro watching is being done via Espn3.com, on the “second screen” that most IT departments insist on hooking up in order to enhance the lawyer’s “productivity.” Truth is that when it comes to work, the second screen is fantastic — but it is more fun when it acts as a substitute television.

Now, ESPN’s wall-to-wall coverage of this year’s Poland/Ukraine-based tournament has definitely raised the Euros’ profile in the USA — but for those unaware or uninterested in the proceedings, realize that each match draws as much interest and television viewership as the Super Bowl. And the level of play on display is absolutely top-notch, as each team is composed of hardened veterans of the top European leagues, those renowned for attracting the top soccer talent worldwide with the allure of riches and fame.

As an aside, knowing something about soccer, just like speaking a foreign language, is a great normalizer when dealing with clients and colleagues in overseas offices. Sports and business are intertwined, and as professional services providers in increasingly international businesses serving an increasingly global clientele, it behooves firms to ensure that both partners and associates have some familiarity with the world’s most popular game (in both amount of fans and corporate support).

In what way is soccer like Biglaw, and what lessons might it have for those of us who toil in law firms?

Like all professional sports, soccer is at bottom a meritocracy — and results-driven. Many Biglaw adversarial practices are the same way, with the easy example being litigation — clients hire firms to “win” for them. Winning requires talent, and soccer has what to teach Biglaw about cultivating, nurturing, and retaining talent, particularly at the junior partner level. Furthermore, top European soccer teams have sponsors, the equivalent of institutional clients, who provide a nice revenue base and stability. They invest in talent to get bigger, richer sponsors, and attract more fans (new clients) — just like Biglaw. And like Biglaw firms, all elite professional soccer teams are constantly looking for new talent. Players get injured, retire, or simply get worn out by grueling schedules. So how do soccer teams do it? They try everything, but in particular I am thinking about the idea of “loans” and “transfer value,” two talent management concepts employed in professional European soccer that could be effectively implemented within the Biglaw lateral market.

Before getting to that, we can easily analogize the top and bottom of the Biglaw pyramid to the soccer “transfer market.” For example, the typical player in the Euros is at the very peak of his powers — he is fit, in his athletic prime, and has been chosen as the best in his country at his position. These players command huge transfer fees — in the tens of millions in some cases, paid to their old teams — when they move to new club teams. These players, or “internationals” as they are called, are the equivalent of a Chambers-rated Biglaw superstar partner or rainmaker. We all know these kinds of partners are the lifeblood of Biglaw, and Biglaw is always trying to develop more of them — usually a career-long process. In fact, in most cases, such partners are more akin to a soccer manager than even a superstar player — they lead practice groups, make personnel decisions, and serve as the public face of their firms. These types would never get loaned, and would command crippling transfer fees. You want their services, join the line and pay for them. Firms do everything to keep them happy — and on board.

In contrast, at the most junior level, the richest teams (think Chelsea or Barcelona) have academies, where they identify promising young recruits and literally have them “move in” — for an immersive introduction into the team culture, style of play, and youth squad. Think summer associate programs, clerkship bonuses, and hiring armies of young associates. Not every academy graduate will pan out, but the process can produce home-grown superstars and alumni to spread around, and as such it is worth it. These unblooded recruits, the equivalents of summer associates and the overwhelmingly majority of regular associates, command very little transfer value, and are usually not worth “loaning out” to a different club. Better to see if they can sink or swim in the crucible you control.

But it gets more interesting when you start to think about experienced partner-track associates, and junior partners with future leadership potential. These lawyers would definitely command some “transfer value,” and are in the position to benefit most from strategic “loaning” to other firms — for purposes of gaining experience they would otherwise be unlikely to get at their current employer.

Let us try to illustrate this. Imagine you are the manager/rainmaker at the head of a Chambers-rated bankruptcy practice — the Real Madrid of bankruptcy if you wish — thinking about your team. You have your trusted lieutenants, who have been through the wars with you, and are accomplished practitioners in their own right. You need them for your practice, but understand they are very attractive lateral candidates — be it for a firm looking to supercharge an existing practice, or one looking to get into bankruptcy with a splash. Accordingly, you would assign an very high transfer value to such lawyers — partly informed by their track record, and also taking into account their future value as business generators and producers. The same goes for your younger partners and near-future partners, who have slightly lower but still measurable “transfer values” of their own. At the same time, you are always looking to poach budding superstars from rival firms — it is always better to be known as a “buying club” than a “selling club,” and show ambition to retain and elevate hard-earned market positions.

Now we all know that mid-career lawyers are the most mobile within Biglaw, but imagine how much healthier the lateral market would be if there was some payment to the old firm in recompense for taking over his or her rights — Jewel v. Boxer debate, anyone? I can see the ATL siren blaring now: “TTT Firm A pays $10 million for the rights to newly-minted Davis Polk partner!!!”, followed by the usual cacophony of quotes from partners at both firms about how exciting the transaction was, a win-win for all involved. We could really amp up the fun by having bi-yearly “transfer windows” like in soccer, with firms announcing which partners are available at what price, followed by a frenzied two-week period of trying to get deals done. Lat’s head just blew up.

I am having fun, but there is a serious undercurrent here. There are real financial ramifications (and risks undertaken on all signs) when partners move around, and a surprising lack of market transparency surrounding the entire process. A concept like “transfer value” would require some real economic analysis by both firms and partners, and a realistic view of their respective marketplace positions vis–à–vis competitive firms and partners. It could also be a revenue stream for struggling firms, and for stronger firms with good talent-development pipelines as well. Just like soccer teams are willing to overpay for strikers with a strong current goal tally, so do firms routinely overpay for laterals based on current books of business — the flashiest metric drives the transaction. Maybe if a firm also had to make some form of payment to the firm the lawyer is coming from, in addition to securing the lateral’s consent to the move and hammering out a compensation agreement with him or her, we would have a healthier and more transparent lateral marketplace.

This has already been too long, so I think I will try to expand on the “loan” issue in a later column. Ultimately, giving some thought to your “transfer value” is probably a useful exercise, if only because it is always worthwhile to be forthright about your current value as shaped by your past experience, and especially your remaining potential as a viable contributor in Biglaw.

What’s your “transfer value”? What would be realistic “transfer values” for Biglaw types? And enjoy the Euros!

Leave your answers in the comments….


Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at atlpartnercolumn@gmail.com.

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