The year-end Biglaw management machine is starting to grind into motion. The compensation committee is starting to look at the numbers for individual partners — to decide who will be rewarded and who will be de-equitized. And the firm’s A/R collections crew is starting to pressure the partnership to get bills out the door and talk to clients about what will be paid by year’s end. The associate bonus committee? If one still exists, is must be having a hard time reserving conference room space to meet.
The end of the year is a serious time for law firms. For many individual lawyers in Biglaw, it is the time of year when their die may be cast, in terms of compensation, lateral movement options, or even their continued employment. As anyone who follows Biglaw knows, we are living in interesting times, with many firms navigating choppy seas in terms of client demand, financial performance, and expense management. And at many firms, there has never been a wider gulf between the rank-and-file partner and firm management when it comes to the ability to make or influence decisions about the firm. Partners at many firms are often clueless about what the firm is doing and why, to the extent that partners are asked to vote on lateral candidates or even mergers based solely on the “reassurances” and “enthusiastic outlook” of management.
The net effect of this divide between management and the partnership? An increasing sense among partners that they are simply assets of legal “brands” rather than owners or even stewards of a professional enterprise. For many, it is a bit of a hopeless feeling, especially when they consider the Biglaw options down the street, which usually present the same level of management opacity to the putative “owners” as their current firm. But just because management likes to tell the partnership to “leave the managing to us, you just focus on building your practice” does not mean partners aren’t entitled to information — even if it’s just the personal views of the managing partner on certain issues.
Here are five questions for your managing partner. The topics are varied, but the answers given should give partners a good sense of both their relative standing within their firms and the values that drive the business decisions of their leadership….
Question 1: What should our partnership compensation spread be and why?
The answer to this question will say a lot about your managing partner. Of course, the content of the answer will vary widely from firm to firm, but what you want to see in response to this question is conviction — that the firm’s partner pay policy is the best one going. If your managing partner can’t sell that belief, it signals trouble on a number of fronts. For one, you can bet you will have a hard time recruiting lateral partners, given the prominent role managing partners play in closing those deals and the fact that compensation is usually reason 1(a), (b), and (c) behind any lateral move. Plus you always want your managing partner to be the best public and internal advocate for your firm’s culture. Any equivocation on their part is not encouraging, especially on such a key topic as partner comp structure.
Question 2: What practice groups do you consider essential to the firm’s future?
Biglaw firms today are increasingly being managed at the practice group level. You want to make sure your practice group is an important one for your firm. If not, you are on the slow march to the cliff’s edge, where the best you can hope for is a few frantic months on the lateral market looking for a new home. With money tight, the only investment your firm is likely to make is in mission-critical practice areas. Better to know this sooner than later.
Question 3: Which office is the firm most interested in growing?
Resources in Biglaw are scarce, and the answer to this question will be telling. For some firms, the answer might be none. For others, it may be an office that is not yet opened. Either way, it is important for partners to be able to anticipate where the firm’s resources may be diverted, and plan accordingly. Feel free to celebrate a bit if you hear that both your office and practice area are considered growth spots for the firm. That is the closest thing to employment insurance (with upside) that Biglaw offers today.
Question 4: Why can’t we get rid of the summer associate program?
For many Biglaw firms, summer associate programs are more of an unnecessary marketing expense than a sound investment in the firm’s future pool of talent. How your managing partner answers this question will illustrate their general willingness to consider radical changes to the typical Biglaw model. You may or not be comfortable with the ramifications, but it is an important thing to know.
Question 5: What client(s) do you feel the firm should be representing but is not yet?
Again, the answer to this question will give you a sense of your managing partner’s sense of the firm’s place in the market, and the value proposition it can offer to potential clients. The answer will also tell you quite a bit about the firm’s strategy to deploy existing assets in the pursuit of new business. Hopefully the client(s) on the firm’s wish list are those that you can personally be involved in securing work from and servicing. If not, you may need to consider trying to get on the radar screen of the firms that are already representing your dream clients.
Ultimately, the answers to these questions (an idiosyncratic selection for sure) should provide you a window into your managing partner’s ambitions and management focus. If anything, for Biglaw to survive and flourish, information flow between management and the partnership needs to improve, particularly as firms continue to try and get either large/global or more boutiquey and focused on key practice areas. One question for you before we go: Can you really call yourself a (prospective or current) Biglaw partner if you would be scared to ask questions of this type to your firm’s current managing partner?
What question would you ask your managing partner? Let me know by email or in the comments.
P.S. Of course, if you are currently a Biglaw managing partner and want to answer these questions for the ATL audience, let me know and we will figure out a way to let you do that — anonymously or publicly.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.