Biglaw, Partner Issues, Partner Profits, Pro Bono

Buying In: Partner Meetings (Part 1) – What Happens

Every firm has them. And partners dutifully show up. Mostly for the free lunch. This month we are serving Tex-Mex. One percenters’s loading up on the free food like a Soviet-era pensioner given the keys to the potato warehouse. It can be a gruesome scene.

So what happens at these monthly gatherings of Biglaw’s barons and baronesses? Nothing important. (You want important stuff, you need to crash an Executive Committee meeting. Or for the increasingly common Biglaw dictatorships, you need to bug Chairman Mao’s office.) At least at the scheduled monthly partner meetings. “Special” partner meetings are a different story. You want those to be boring, like calling for a vote on a group of laterals. “Exciting” special meetings, while good for Lat, are not good news for the average partner usually. Stability is one of the biggest draws of a Biglaw partnership. Stability means no shocking announcements, over which you have no control.

Anyway, here is how the typical monthly partner meeting goes….

Everyone sits in a conference room, speakerphones on the table muted (unless you are unfortunate enough to be in the office where the managing partner is “hosting” — as if it were an episode of Family Feud), and waits. About ten minutes or so past the promised start time, the “host” calls the meeting to order. The meeting takes place over videoconference or teleconference.

If your firm has a Chairman Mao, he or she will surely be leading the call. Occasionally, the “Chairman” will not be able to lead the meeting, with the given excuse that deadly important “firm business” required their immediate attention (otherwise known as a long weekend in Aspen or in-depth research as to the potential viability of a Cayman branch office). So one of their lackeys gets to run the show that month. Give Brutus a taste of Ceaser’s power, as if he needed more fuel for his dreams of leading a coup d’etat one day.

Of course, not every firm has such interesting leadership drama on display. Most Biglaw firms still pretend to be partnerships, so for them it is the elected managing partner kicking things off.

Because Biglaw firms are even inwardly shy about their true purpose — to make partners as rich as possible — partner meetings usually start with a “cultural” bent. Maybe introducing a new lateral. Or a congratulations to a rainmaker for closing a big deal or winning at trial. Everyone chews happily during this part of the meeting. Non-dinosaur partners who have finished their lunch fire up their iPads. Everyone is off the clock, so it is a good time to check on your fantasy team, or text the nanny, or check out which unfortunate firm is today’s whipping boy on ATL.

Nod to culture aside, the serious business begins. At firms with a Blessed Leader, an important update on the firm’s financial performance is usually preceded with some directive about how “things are good but they could be better.” Always a passive-aggressive sheen of optimism to Biglaw’s chieftains. Otherwise, the managing partner just hands the meeting off to the firm’s comptroller, or finance director, for the financial update.

At this point, the iPads get stowed away. It’s money discussion time. Look up at the screen, everyone, for a PowerPoint on how we did last month. Collections, budgets, hours, headcount — all neatly charted. Comparisons to last year, or to 1997 (if you need to make the numbers look better), and breakdowns by firm office. Meaningless numbers, all in summary form, with little or no insight or analysis. You are a partner, so you get a financial update. Here it is. Keep praying that your draws get released on time.

By now it is a half-hour or so into the meeting. The heftier partners start looking wistfully at the diminishing options on the dessert tray, debating whether that third eclair is worth the effort of extricating themselves from the plush conference room chair. Financial update over, the iPads and BlackBerrys come back out. (Again, if you are in the same room as the managing partner, or someone who actually gets to report to the managing partner, you are usually screwed. No checking your stock portfolio during this meeting. You are hanging on every word like Candy Crowley waiting to throw Obama another debate lifeline.)

On to an update on “associate issues.” Oh wait, it’s 2012. No need to give them raises or real bonuses anymore. Everyone is just happy to have a job. Next.

Now it is time for an update from Biglaw Pro Bono Partner. (What a gig. I am jealous, but am skeptical that there is a lot of long-term viability for such positions in the new Biglaw. Luxuries like paying someone $400,000 a year for coordinating pro bono activities seem very 2006.) Pro Bono Partner is happy to announce that last month, firm lawyers successfully fought for the rights of “enemy combatants” to enjoy video-conferencing sessions with family and friends back home at taxpayer expense. Portable video-conference units are being shipped to the desert on the firm’s dime as we speak. And a team of three intrepid associates just saved 13 wrongfully convicted (because their lawyer fell asleep during the testimony of the victim’s great-aunt) death row inmates from their impending 2037 execution dates. Everyone should be proud and look to get involved.

Because “we know everyone is busy and needs to get back to work,” two or three other puff pieces that were on the agenda get skipped. Fast forward to the closing festivities — a report from the managing partner of the Denver office on how great things are going “out here” and how happy the office is to be part of the team. Some plugs for the Denver partners, a mild joke about how the Broncos are doing, and it’s back to the boss to wrap things up. “Thanks for the report Denver, I can’t wait to see everyone during their reviews,” followed by a short ode to cross-selling and we are done.

A tap on the shoulder for the new partners with the disappointed “that’s all there is to this partner meeting thing?” look on their face. Yes, that’s all you get. That’s all most partners will ever get. Enjoy.

And don’t forget to grab a can of soda or two for your office on your way out. See you next month — I think the receptionist is ordering Thai food.


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

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