Biglaw, Partner Issues

Buying In: Conflicting Opportunities

Conflict checks. A necessary evil in today’s incestous Biglaw, where every partner is a potential lateral, and client loyalty is fickle. Biglaw’s insurance companies demand them, so every firm goes through the motions — at sizable expense, given the size of your typical firm’s “Intake” or “Risk Management” department. Conflicts themselves are an old story, of course. Everyone would be a rainmaker, but for them. Blaming a lack of performance on conflicts is a time-honored Biglaw tradition. But who cares about excuses.

Let’s talk opportunities. There is plenty of information an enterprising Biglaw partner (or partner-aspirant) can glean from the firm’s hourly-daily-weekly conflicts report. Free information, as in not requiring the expenditure of political capital to obtain. (Practice tip: every Biglaw interaction is political in nature. At least you should treat them that way.)

Back to conflict reports. For many, they are simply another email to be skimmed and dragged into “Deleted Items” with all dispatch. A good percentage of Biglaw attorneys probably ignore them outright. That is a mistake. Why ignore a potentially valuable resource and real-time look into the health of your firm? Especially when your other option is to wait for the firm’s executive committee to update you on the firm’s performance — usually using financial metrics that present their own “management” abilities in the best possible light. Associates and other non-partners are not even usually dignified with any such information — but everyone gets a peek at the conflict check.

So what can we learn from conflict reports?

First and foremost, they reveal who is bringing in the business. While frequently seeing the names of the firm’s known rainmakers is to be expected, there are often a smattering of unexpected names attached to potential matters. A one-off by a junior partner in your group can usually be dismissed, but if you see a pattern developing and that same partner opening a matter every other month, you should take notice. If that budding rainmaker is not a friend, it may make sense to start correcting that situation. Power shifts in Biglaw do not happen overnight. You want to be ahead of the curve, and while most partners building a practice are circumspect about their business development successes (at least initially), there is no hiding on the conflict report.

Conversely, if you see that the rainmaker or two in your group are not opening matters with the frequency you had seen in the past, that might be a warning sign that drier days are ahead. Biglaw firms are quick on the trigger nowadays, and what used to take years to develop (like a shift in department chair) can now happen within a fiscal year. Be mindful of the names of the originators. Both associates and partners need to know whom to kiss up to.

Just as you want to be keeping track of the originators on the conflicts report, you also want to have an eye on the client names. It’s good to know, for example, if an institutional client for corporate work is now starting to give the firm some litigations to handle. Maybe there is a new opportunity to cross-sell your practice now that the firm has broken the ice and expanded its relationship with the client.

Likewise, you want to keep an eye out for new clients to the firm. Are they household names with a lot of potential? Or are they seemingly down-market companies that the firm would never have needed to represent pre-Biglaw Black Death? And is the firm making headway in a particular industry where you have contacts? If so, you could potentially let your contacts know that the firm is up to speed on legal issues that they and their competitors are facing. Anything to get an edge. Also, don’t discount the “halo effect” of premium clients the firm already represents on smaller companies you are pitching. Keep current with the firm’s client base by scanning the conflicts report.

Do not ignore the types of matters that are being opened either. Be mindful of any downgrades in the size and quality of matters that institutional clients are throwing the firm’s way. If you were previously seeing patent litigation from a pharmaceutical company, and the only new matters that seem to be opening up relate to preparation of non-disclosure and non-compete agreements, that might be a sign of trouble. Conversely, if a large company that was previously using the firm as local counsel in a few cases is now handing off larger litigations in different jurisdictions, there may be new opportunities with respect to that client — either for hours, if you can sneak on one of the litigation teams, or potentially for cross-selling, now that the relationship with the firm is deepening. Matters matter.

Ultimately, you need to read the conflicts report anyway. So do it. Take what may have previously been a mindless exercise and turn it to your advantage. If something on the report catches your eye, act on it. Reach out to the originator, make some small talk, and ask if you can help with the client in any way. Point out an article you wrote that may be of interest to her new client, or offer some free perspective from your experience with a similar matter in the past. Or learn a little about the business of one or two new clients for the firm on the list, and try to identify a cross-selling opportunity.

Eventually something will come of your efforts, and worst case you get to interact with your partners in a low-stress and positive way. Congratulate them on their success, offer to help, and see if they have any tips you can try to enhance your own business development opportunities. Try something, anything. Or keep hitting delete and then acting surprised when you find out that things are not as they seem at your firm. Your choice.

Have you ever used information from a conflicts report productively? Let me know by email or 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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