Biglaw, Partner Issues, Partner Profits

A Discussion About Biglaw’s Present: My Turn (Part 2)

As discussed last week, I agreed to answer some questions from Professor Bill Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of law in exchange for his kind agreement to be interviewed (parts 1 and 2 of that interview available here and here) for this column. This week, I conclude our exchange by answering his final three questions. In so doing, another year of writing for ATL will come to a close, and I wanted to take the opportunity to thank everyone who interacts with this column, whether as reader, commenter, interview subject, or editor. May 2014 be a year of success, health, and growth for us all.

BH: You have chided your fellow lawyers to give back to the next generation of lawyers. I certainly agree. However, between moral exhortation to do the right thing, or changing incentives within law firms, where should we focus our efforts?

This is a critical question, and I have previously given some of my thoughts in my A Sturdy Profession column from earlier this year. The biggest issue I see right now in Biglaw is that the people who can implement changes are those least incentivized to make those changes. By that I mean firm management and rainmakers. But there are a number of things they can do, and I think it starts by increasing the pool of junior associates, while changing the traditional associate model in the process. I wrote of one potential approach in my column More Associates… Making Less. The idea is to use Biglaw’s buying power to give more young lawyers an opportunity, while also delivering better client service through greater use of technology. At the same time, firms have to get more serious about grooming their next round of firm leaders, as well as their future rainmakers.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe the PPP-driven “arms race” needs to end. To have an entire industry revolve around a manipulated, backwards-looking, and frankly client-insulting financial metric is simply stupid. The firms that have institutional clients have no need to broadcast the financial rewards those relationships have bestowed. And everyone else chasing market share does not need to report on how well or poorly they are doing as a group of partners/salespeople. It is time for Biglaw to stop pretending that all firms are equal. Before many firms can do that publicly, however, they need to get their internal messaging right. A good test is how closely matched the firm’s lateral sales pitch is to the actual experience of lawyers at the firm. I think many in Biglaw share the belief that the entire industry operates with a significant honesty deficit — to clients, to prospective and current employees, and to its core constituency of current partners. Curing that deficit will go a long way to making sure Biglaw is both a viable career path and business model going forward.

BH: Can you say something about the type of law firm leader who (a) you would support, (b) could win over your older and younger colleagues, and (c) build a firm strong enough to weather the seas ahead? Don’t be afraid to inspire us a bit.

I gave some of my thoughts on this topic in a column that ran on April 30th. Your question appears to assume that the best model for a Biglaw leader is a Chairman Mao-type, and by and large I happen to agree (at least for the next few years, as the industry tries to regain its footing and chart a sustainable path forward). Obviously, it would be easy to rally around someone with a Mayor Bloomberg-like profile in that regard, i.e., someone who: (1) doesn’t need the money, (2) loves the firm as an institution and wants to see it flourish, and (3) is not afraid to take a position and execute on turning ideas into reality.

The other option I see, and what I have previously advocated for, is for Biglaw firms to look younger. Find a promising and institution-loving young partner unsullied by the indignities of twenty-years as a service partner and make him the boss. As important is for that young partner to have tasted some success as a budding rainmaker but not to have “lived” as a Biglaw rainmaker, with the corrosive effects that status has on many. If you want your leadership to plan for the long-term, it only makes sense to have someone who depends on the firm being around in the long-term.

BH: Do you have a best friend at work (that is a damn good predictor of personal happiness)?

It depends how you define friend. I have had the good fortune throughout my Biglaw career to have developed friendships with a number of people — but always in a professional more than a personal sense. Because whenever I have had the chance to leave work and spend time with my family I have done so. With some rare exceptions, I was never one to forgo a meal with my wife or a Sunday with my kids for socializing with work colleagues. That said, I have always worked a lot, including many trips, and my work interactions and satisfactions have always been enhanced by the good people I have been lucky to work with.

In my experience, Biglaw has been a great place to develop a lot of friendly relationships, but a very difficult place to develop a deep personal friendship with someone. The atmosphere is too competitive, and the personalities of most people who stay in Biglaw too extreme, for breeding personal relationships of the kind that one would find in law school or a boutique, for example. If I had been single during my associate days, perhaps I would have had more “work friends” turn into personal friends. I definitely agree that having a variety of work friends is an important component of a satisfying Biglaw career.

Nothing beats balance, and I have been exceedingly fortunate to have enjoyed great personal and professional relationships, at home and at work. Maintaining those relationships while in the midst of a Biglaw career is hard work, of course, but well worth the sacrifice and effort.

Thanks again to Professor Henderson for the stimulating questions. Again, I hope everyone enjoys all the best in the New Year, in their personal and professional lives.

What do you think was the most important Biglaw story of 2013? Let me know your thoughts by email or in the comments.

Earlier: A Discussion About Biglaw’s Present: My Turn (Part 1)

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

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