We had been talking for a while, when the conversation turned to Old School Partner’s experiences as a general counsel. He pulled no punches. “I was a very sophisticated consumer of legal services,” Old School Partner told me. In short, Old School Partner, when he turned to outside counsel, had high standards.
Having already decided to leave the security of a leadership position at a Biglaw firm for in-house life, Old School Partner demanded the same attention to detail and professionalism from his chosen outside counsel as he displayed when doing work for his former clients. As an example, he shared how he went about choosing litigation counsel.
“I was looking for counselors,” he told me, and that meant no fluffy credentials without real experience backing them up. “I wanted trial lawyers with real trial experience, who could have the confidence to forego a deposition that was not going to be of any value at trial.” Unlike many clients today, Old School Partner was willing to pay top dollar for real guidance, and did not default to assigning his cases to the lowest bidder or a firm that had a “preferred relationship” with his company. I got the sense that he viewed each case his company was engaged in as a business problem that needed solving, and was willing to pay handsomely for a solution — because he realized that throwing money at a litigation “team” was ultimately less effective and more costly than buying top-drawer help….
Of course, Old School Partner was the general counsel of a large and important corporation. He was therefore able to demand, as he did, that any top partner retained by him would need to service the work personally, and not delegate it down. In my experience, there is a measurable slice of the Biglaw partnership — a mostly older group, but including some young rainmakers — that simply does not want to do the “work.” Drafting briefs, talking to opposing counsel, taking or defending a deposition, traveling for a status hearing — all these tasks are below them, and thus pushed down the chain. While such an approach surely benefits younger partners like myself, the sands are shifting, and more clients seem to be adopting the Old School Partner approach — demanding that senior people “do the work.”
The problem for Biglaw is that frequently those senior people have not taken a deposition in years, and the case budget no longer allows for a team approach, where a junior partner or senior associate can draft the outline (or frequently the questions) for the more senior but actually less practically experienced lawyer. And good luck getting a young partner like me to do the outline for the senior lawyer for “free” — I’d rather spend my time on business development, or otherwise demand that the senior lawyer explain to the client that I am better suited to be taking the deposition anyway. Basically, clients today (of all sizes) can and should be demanding the level of service that Old School Partner did. If your firm’s clients are not yet, consider yourself lucky and assume it is a temporary situation.
Besides his insistence on partner-level service and attention while he was a general counsel, Old School Partner communicated very strong opinions on two issues that are endlessly discussed by firm management consultants and firm leadership: (1) the billable hour and (2) cross-selling.
Turning first to the billable hour, Old School Partner’s view of the prevailing system used to value services was simply stated: “It is ludicrous on its face.” From a client’s perspective, it is never a good idea to have “your lawyer create his own demand,” nor is the billable hour system a system that rewards great service. In fact, Old School Partner felt that the billable hour system hurts the top lawyers, and he was not surprised when I told him of a few examples, chronicled here on ATL, of top lawyers leaving Biglaw to start their own boutiques — e.g., John Desmarais leaving Kirkland & Ellis to start Desmarais LLP (intellectual property), and Steven Molo and Jeffrey Lamken leaving Shearman & Sterling and Baker Botts, respectively, to start MoloLamken (complex civil and criminal litigation).
(It seems pretty clear to me that if sophisticated clients are going to demand personal senior-partner-level handling of their matters, in exchange for premium fees, then many senior Biglaw lawyers may come to the conclusion that opening their own firms would be more lucrative and more professionally fulfilling, by affording them more control over their practices. Who needs the pressure to involve lesser attorneys, when clients are demanding, and willing to pay handsomely for, your personal attention?)
Turning back to Old School Partner, he made it clear that he was willing and able to pay a premium for the attention he demanded from the lawyers he hired — and thought that his approach benefited both his company and the lawyers he engaged.
On cross-selling, Old School Partner was similarly outspoken. At first, “I knew my partners — who had a drinking problem, who was having marital issues, who was lazy — when I was with my firm,” he told me. But as Biglaw firms got larger — and by the time he went in-house, they were getting pretty large — personal knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of fellow partners became harder and harder to acquire. While in-house, Old School Partner was not a very receptive audience to cross-selling attempts. “I would let the partners working for me know that any recommendation they made to another partner in their firm would be their responsibility,” and as a result, quite often the attempted cross-sell would be forgotten.
Now, Old School Partner was acutely aware of the (illusion of?) importance that cross-selling has for Biglaw firms, both from the perspective of recruiting laterals and giving existing partners the idea that easy originations are just a recommendation from their Denver-based colleague away. As a client, he just was not interested — but then again, he was an engaged client. As today’s Biglaw clients become more focused on controlling costs, it remains to be seen if current cross-selling efforts are really panning out for firms. Because even small victories on that front are often outlandishly celebrated by firm management, I suspect the answer is “not yet.” And as Biglaw firms today morph into Hugelaw shops, more and more “partners” barely know the people within the same elevator bank, much less the newest lateral to join in Singapore. You know the people in your group, the people you work cases or deals with, and the people you grow up in the firm with. That’s it.
(In my practice, I have had success — and am confident in — referring clients to fellow lawyers in my group who do certain things more often than I do, and can thus be more efficient at handling a certain task. In such a case, I have no problem telling the client that lawyer X (oftentimes an associate) can be perfect for the job. I am also happy to introduce colleagues in other practice groups, but only if I know them personally and have received a direct request from a client for help in that area. I make it clear that I expect them to let my client know if they are the right person for the job, or if our firm is the right firm for their budget and issue. My clients seem to appreciate these efforts. I could see them getting annoyed if I was trying to push on them partners I don’t know, in practice areas I do not really know about. I’d honestly rather spend my time trying to convince new clients that I am the right person to add into their mix than milk every last possible dollar out of an existing client — and thereby risk losing that relationship because of distaste at a hard-sell approach or some colleague’s poor service.)
Thanks again to Old School Partner for taking to time to share his perspective on where our slice of the profession has been and is heading. As time has passed since we spoke, I have found myself trying to inject a dose of his wisdom into my daily practice. “Old-fashioned” ideas — about client service, acting as a counselor, and investing in keeping your skills and those of your associates fresh — are actually more relevant than ever. The Biglaw model is currently under some stress. We all know that. But adopting what worked in the past and reaffirming those ideals as foundational principles can help today’s Biglaw partners adapt. Biglaw was built on the backs of men like Old School Partner, and he remains invested enough in Biglaw’s future to have shared his candid observations with me and with the Above the Law audience. For his continued concern with the future of the business that I have relatively recently borrowed money to “own,” I thank him.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.