Anonymous Partner

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

Posts by Anonymous Partner

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…

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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….

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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….

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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?

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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….

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There is plenty of negativity surrounding Biglaw nowadays. Time for a little positivity, with some help from the audience. I want to hear about young partners in Biglaw who are making a difference in their firms, for their clients, or in the lives of their colleagues. Good examples for us to learn from and emulate. If you know of someone deserving of recognition, let me know. The nominations will be kept anonymous, and I will only follow up with the permission of the person doing the nominating, and the nominated young partner as well.

Ground rules? Age matters. The younger the better, if only because the younger the partner the longer the potential Biglaw career. And nominees must be succeeding within the Biglaw framework. This is not a generic “great young lawyer” award. I know there are plenty of great young lawyers out there. I want to know about the ones doing cool things within the Biglaw framework. The same framework that usually skews older than your typical post-golf round brunch at a Scottsdale resort.

What kinds of cool things? Succeeding at business development, and especially helping others do the same. Using technology in a way that improves client service, and the lives of colleagues as well. Introducing new management techniques to a practice group, or teaching associates the skills that they need to move forward. All the things that we used to expect older partners to do, before clients decided to add a zero to the profits-per-partner of many firms, and everyone from Biglaw’s gold-laden generation developed the attention span of a four-year old with a confiscated iPad when it came to anything other than money. Take a broad view. There are at least one or two such innovative, dynamic, and pleasant junior partners at every Biglaw firm. Let’s hear about them….

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About a month ago, I read an article about a new position available for experienced attorneys at a certain Biglaw firm. The firm? Kilpatrick Townsend. The position? Something called a “department attorney.”

Before we get into what that is, and some of the implications for Biglaw if this new kind of position takes hold, let’s take a look at the listing of open positions on Kilpatrick’s website. Currently, the firm is advertising for nine associate positions, six of which are in the patent area (including two for patent “prosection” (sic) associates, who hopefully will be better at including all the letters in a word than the firm’s recruiting staff).

Want to be a department attorney? Well, for you there are ten open positions. The breakdown? Eight in trademarks, two in patent prosecution. The common denominator of those disciplines? Shrinking margins for Biglaw, in the face of competition from IP boutiques specializing in volume work, and bulked-up in-house departments doing more on their own. In light of those shrinking margins, the firm’s desire to hire more department attorneys than full-bore associates is understandable. At least they are hiring….

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For my generation, carrying a BlackBerry was synonymous with employment in Biglaw. For over a decade, my BlackBerry was a constant companion. At the peak of my billable-hours craziness, I would literally wake up when the little red LED light signaling a new email started blinking. No matter the hour. For the sake of my marriage, I kept my BlackBerry on silent late at night. Despite that, my wife would occasionally complain in the morning about hearing me type reply emails from bed in the wee hours.

Even though I recently gave up my BlackBerry for a more robust smartphone, I still get the occasional vibrating “BlackBerry leg.” And despite having a “modern” phone now, it is hard to not miss my BlackBerry when typing an involved email. Perhaps the introduction of non-qwerty keyboards on smartphones has led to shorter emails generally. I am not sure, but it is clear that BlackBerry’s problem was not in providing a certain capability to its clients — BlackBerry was always the best mobile email platform, and BBM was always the best mobile instant messaging one as well. What changed was the public’s conception of what a smartphone could and should do.

Like many others in Biglaw, my BlackBerry was part of my work identity. I remember getting my first one, a black-and-white model with a rotating disc to scroll between emails. And I was an early devotee of the (j)ohn (q)uinn approach to responding to emails — check constantly, and respond often. For associates who are wondering — partners do take note of who responds promptly. And which associates respond substantively, too….

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Partners versus associates in Biglaw. I am not referring to the annual end-of-summer softball game. This is more serious. Many groups are flat or slow. Even though associates leave firms and get replaced very slowly, or not at all, and even though incoming associate classes have shrunk, Biglaw firms make every effort to keep associates as busy as possible. For one, associates are expensive, with their high salaries and real benefits packages. Plus, it is always easy to generate some make-work for them, particularly when there are not as many around as there used to be.

These efforts are surely welcomed by associates, but at what cost to the firm’s other timekeeping employees — the partners? Does the fact that a partner “got elected,” has the title, signed a partnership agreement, and has money (either their own or a friendly bank’s) in the firm’s capital account mean that he or she should have first dibs on all available work? Put another way, do I have the right to insist that a fellow partner assign me work rather than an associate? Do I need to make sure my fellow partners are all fully busy before I assign some of my hard-earned client matters to them? Assuming that the clients do not care about who services a particular matter (e.g., it is a new client who only cares about the price and not who is providing the service), these are very difficult questions. Unfortunately for many in Biglaw today, they are also timely….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “The Hunger Games: Partners v. Associates”

To pass the time while commuting, I like to listen to podcasts. If ATL had a podcast I would add that to my listening rotation (especially if Lat is able to pull in sitting judges to guest host or as interview subjects). But this is not a column about podcasts. Though the idea for this contest came from a podcast I was listening to, the B.S. Report with Bill Simmons. The host was interviewing a former ESPN colleague, and they were discussing how certain statistics in baseball are misleading.

An example? Wins for pitchers. Apparently there is a movement to abolish that statistic. Why? Because a pitcher can pitch a terrible game, and still come away with the win, assuming his lineup bails him out. Conversely, a pitcher can pitch a beautiful game, and lose just because his hitters decide to approach their at-bats like the pudgy partner from bankruptcy at the annual intra-firm softball game. To prove the limited utility of using wins as a proxy for determining who is the best pitcher, consider the following. By nearly all accounts, Clayton Kershaw of the L.A. Dodgers is the single most dominant pitcher in baseball today. Unsurprisingly, he is reportedly in line for the richest (around $30 million a year or so) contract extension for a pitcher — ever. But he has fewer wins this season (so far) than Bartolo Colon, a 40-year-old journeyman pitcher (on his sixth team, and nearly a decade removed from his last All-Star game appearance), who is making non-equity service partner money ($3 million) by baseball standards. Wins simply do not tell the whole story.

Biglaw has its share of statistical shortcomings….

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