Two weeks ago, I wrote about one of Biglaw’s most pressing issues: the failure of senior partners to pass along clients to younger partners. But that is not the only problem some of Biglaw’s senior partners are causing for their firms and the industry as a whole. Unfortunately, a measurable portion of senior partners, those of the august titles and stratospheric billing rates, are among the worst offenders of one of Biglaw’s most notorious shortcuts to extreme profitability: creative time entry and billing.
While I hate to acknowledge, even though I have seen it firsthand, that partners make up time entries wholesale for work never performed, it is not hard to realize that in this age of the multimillion-dollar partner there exists a tremendous incentive for such behavior. Or at least for partners to “round up” time entries, a tacitly accepted practice within Biglaw.
Incentives matter, and the more richly compensated a senior partner is, the more pressure there is on them to put down a solid four to five hours for “reviewing and revising” a draft brief on Tuesday, only to make a similar entry when they review a more robust version of the same brief a few days later. And because senior partners are frequently responsible for a horde of timekeepers below them, the tone set by the lawyers at the top of the pyramid has an impact on the behavior of those lower on the chain….
The Biglaw year has a rhythm to it. As we approach Thanksgiving, there is an opportunity for each and everyone in Biglaw to take stock. Doing so is important, especially if one falls prey to the peculiar attempts by many to imbue meaning into Thanksgiving by “giving thanks,” before stuffing themselves into a stupor (followed by a six-hour-long “nap” on a relative’s couch and a frantic post-nap drive to some big-chain parking lot for the priceless opportunity to join the unwashed masses in a frenzied dash to save ten percent on the gadget du jour — if that is how people have their holiday fun, more power to them).
If you are going to make giving thanks a holiday focal point, at least do so mindfully. If you are still employed in Biglaw, you have a lot to think about.
If the events of this past year proved anything, it is that the change in Biglaw is irrevocable. In 2008, everyone suffered, driven by economic events bigger than the industry. In contrast, this year proved definitively that there are Biglaw firms that are winners, and getting stronger. But that list of firms is short. Most Biglaw firms are being challenged, and the responses they adopt to confront those challenges continues to be varied. Whether your firm is itching to merge at all costs, or continuing to whistle along as if nothing has changed (while frantically making moves under the radar to avoid giving even a whiff of being challenged), every Biglaw firm has wittingly or unwittingly decided on a future course. At a minimum, Biglaw lawyers should do the same on a personal level, with the understanding that for the great majority of Biglaw attorneys, career changes are more likely than career stability nowadays.
Checklists are helpful for assessing performance and ensuring that important considerations are not overlooked. While everyone’s personal checklist (or questionnaire, if you prefer) may look different, there are at least three categories that should be addressed on any Biglaw attorney’s year-end self-review: financial, professional, and personal. First, the financial….
Biglaw firms have a problem. They can’t get their senior partners to retire. Or to pass along their clients to younger partners fast enough.
The reasons for this unwelcome phenomenon are straightforward. First, today’s Biglaw senior partners are making too much money. Would you retire if you were making seven figures and billing 1200 to 1500 hours a year? Of course not. Especially if you are helping to support your children. Or in this age of the 70-year-old rainmaker, a grandchild’s “education” as a communications major at the top party school in this year’s rankings.
Kidding aside, I know that many senior partners have very valid reasons for continuing to maintain their Biglaw practices. But that does not mean that what works for them at an individual level is what is good for Biglaw as a whole. In fact, I think the “sticky senior” issue is the greatest long-term threat to the continued viability of many Biglaw firms….
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….
As we have discussed the past twoweeks, Biglaw business development is not easy. The available flavors at the Biglaw business development ice cream stand are hardest (cold calls), harder (intra-firm networking and beauty contests), and plain old hard. As in turning referrals and unsolicited contacts from prospective clients into engagements. That is hard to do, but nowhere near as difficult as trying to land the matter when the prospective client has not invested in contacting you beforehand, or at least heard about you from a source that they trust. There is a reason rainmakers take the largest share of the Biglaw pie, even at white-shoe lockstep firms.
Getting other lawyers to refer you matters, even from within your own firm, is hard. The foundation one needs to generate referrals is the exact same one that is required to have success generating business through other methods. But there is an extra ingredient, or at least a greater emphasis on a particular ingredient, that needs to be there if you hope to get referrals. That ingredient? Let’s call it likability. No matter how skilled a lawyer you are, or how hallowed your reputation, you simply must be likable in order to generate referrals. Of course, the definition of likability becomes quite a bit more expansive when applied to lawyers considered at the top of their fields. Simply put, the person referring you has to feel good about making the referral, and they are much more likely to feel good if they consider you an agreeable person, at least to do business with.
Unsurprisingly, the definition of likability in the Biglaw context is quite different from the standards we normally apply when talking about the real world. For those who like analogies, consider that Biglaw likability is to indisputable real-world likability as Biglaw “hot” is to indisputable real-world hotness….
Last week we discussed the high-risk, high-reward approach of making cold calls to develop business. Because of the low percentage of success even the most personable and sales-skilled Biglaw lawyers have when adopting that approach, any business development effort that relies on cold-calling exclusively is almost impossible to sustain in a Biglaw setting. And there is a valid argument that one does not really need Biglaw if they are able to establish a strong track record developing business through cold calls. In fact, the successful legal “cold-caller” would likely thrive without the artificial constraints the Biglaw business model (e.g., rates, types of matters) places on its partners. Again though, it is the rare Biglaw attorney who generates a single matter via a “cold call” (or a single new client for their firm actually), and rarer still to find one capable of doing it with enough regularity as to sustain a Biglaw career.
So while trying a cold call on occasion is an important element of a comprehensive business development approach, you need to “work” the resources of your firm to try and generate business. That means selling yourself to existing firm clients, participating in client pitches for new business that are generated by the firm, and making a good impression on your colleagues. The latter is important, because you never know which of your colleagues will go in-house and be in a position to give you work down the road. In many ways, trying to use your firm’s resources for business development is the traditional Biglaw approach to business development. As the contracting ranks of Biglaw equity partners suggest, it is a hard way of generating business — and getting harder…
Anyone who has worked at a Biglaw firm understands the importance of developing business of one’s own. There is nothing as liberating for a Biglaw lawyer, nor as career-sustaining, as acquiring the proverbial “book of business” that is the golden ticket for a long and lucrative stint as a Biglaw partner.
Of course, acquiring that book of business is an all-encompassing challenge for all but the most privileged of Biglaw attorneys, many of whom resent the fact that it even needs to be done in the first place. In their view, business development is the province of salesmen, not noble professionals, a form of hucksterism that fails to reward the academic and perhaps even legal achievements that brought them into Biglaw in the first place. In fact, many Biglaw lawyers fortunate enough to have cultivated a client base of their own can sometimes be self-effacing or even apologetic about their achievements, particularly when in the company of other Biglaw lawyers — yet another example of Biglaw’s unique ability to render even the most accomplished insecure….
Why go big when you can supersize? As has been reported recently, one of Biglaw’s most aggressive firms in terms of growth, Dentons (née Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and some foreign counterparts cobbled together just a few years ago), is now in serious discussions about a combination with McKenna Long & Aldridge. Both firms are products of recent tie-ups themselves, and the combined firm should the transaction go through will be instantly one of the world’s largest, at least in terms of number of lawyers. Welcome to the age of the global Megalaw franchise, in which a firm can raise its profile by connecting with other firms in the interest of getting bigger, all the while creating a new global brand in the process. Dentons is sure giving it a try.
It is actually unfair to say that Dentons is the Biglaw equivalent of McDonald’s, or even Burger King. Biglaw brands of that stature would be Baker & McKenzie or even DLA Piper, and not only because they are bigger….
Blink and it is October. The last quarter of the Biglaw year is officially in play. Unfortunately, there is no indication that this fourth quarter will see the flurry of pre-tax-law-changes deal activity that salvaged 2012 for a lot of Biglaw firms. So firm leaders will actually have to manage, over the next few months, (1) the usual expectations from the partnership regarding end-of-year bonuses and distributions; (2) the lateral activity “silly season” we’re now in, especially if the firm is recruiting laterals for the purposes of adding talent and not just a short-term revenue boost; (3) the broken associate system at many Biglaw firms, where attrition is celebrated with a fervor that used to welcome the huge Biglaw first-year classes of yore with their promise of profit-driving leverage; and (4) the decision on whether to invite any of their surviving counsels and associates into the partnership. Yes, Biglaw firms will continue to make new partners. The smarter non-lockstep one-tier shops will make as many as they can. Or at least should.
And people who are gunning for partner in today’s Biglaw should be more vocal about making the business case for their candidacy. If they can’t, they have their answer. But if they can and don’t, then they are actually proving that they are not yet partner material. Because for most Biglaw firms, more partners, especially younger ones, are essential. And trying to buy that young core on the lateral market is a difficult and expensive task.
Why should Biglaw firms be thinking of minting more rather than fewer partners?
If you work in Biglaw, there is a very good chance that you represent at least a few publicly traded companies. For these companies, and their employees, thinking about business performance is usually framed temporally in quarters — as in “it was a great quarter” or “we need to close out this case by the end of the quarter.” Of course, investors and the public are kept apprised of company performance through quarterly reports as well.
I must confess that this time increment, the “quarter,” took some adjusting to. In fact, until I joined Biglaw, and worked on a case for a publicly-traded client, I had never used the term in a temporal context. By now, after over a decade of working with publicly traded corporations and their employees, corporate-speak such as references to quarters has become much more familiar to me. And while I would never ask my kids what their expectations are for school performance this quarter, I see definite value in measuring professional performance along that time frame….
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past six years. You can reach them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We currently have a very exciting and rare type of in-house opening in China at one of the world’s leading internet and social media companies. Our client is looking for an IP Transactional / TMT / Licensing attorney with 2 to 6 years experience. The new hire will be based in Shenzhen or Shanghai. Mandarin is not required (deal documentation will be in English) but is preferred. A solid reason to be in China and a commitment to that market is required of course. This new hire will likely be US qualified (but could also be qualified in UK or other jurisdictions) and with experience and training at a top law firm’s IP transactional / TMT practice and could be currently at a law firm or in-house. Qualified candidates currently Asia based, Europe based or US based will be considered. The new hire’s supervisors in this technology transactions in-house team are very well regarded US trained IP transactional lawyers, with substantial experience at Silicon Valley firms. The culture and atmosphere in this in-house group and the company in general is entrepreneurial, team oriented, and the work is cutting edge, even for a cutting edge industry. The upside of being in an important strategic in-house position in this fast growing and world leading internet company is of the “sky is the limit” variety. Its a very exciting place to be in China for a rising IP transactional lawyer in our opinion, for many reasons beyond the basic info we can share here in this ad / post. This is a special A+ opportunity.
If your firm is in ‘go’ mode when it comes to recruiting lateral partners with loyal clients, then take this quiz to see how well you measure up. Keep track of your ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses.
1. Does your firm have a clearly defined strategy of practice groups that are priorities of growth for your office? Nothing gets done by random chance, but with a clear vision for the future. Identify the top practice areas for which you wish to add lateral partners. Seek input from practice group leaders and get specifics on needs, outcomes, and ideal target profiles.
2. In addition to clarifying your firm’s growth strategy, are you still open to the hire of a partner outside of your plan? I’ve made several placements that fit this category. The partner’s practice was not within the strategic growth plan of my client, but once the two parties started talking with each other, we all saw how it could indeed be a seamless fit. Be open to “Opportunistic Hires.” You never know where your next producing partner might come from, so you have to be open to it. I will be the first to admit that there is a quirky element of randomness in recruiting.
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