I did not plan to write an anniversary column this week. But since I try and write about the things that are on my mind, I have no choice.
A year ago, my first column appeared. I did not know what to expect. All I hoped was that it would be an interesting experience. And that I would be able to contribute to the discussion about what it means to be a partner in Biglaw. The Biglaw of today — not the Biglaw of yore, with its WASP firms and its Jewish ones, white-shoes and Wall Street, single offices and “friendly competition.” Because that world has died, and anyone reading this has an interest in thriving in the current one….
In last week’s column, I focused on vacation planning for those in Biglaw looking to take some time off with their families. Weekends do not count as vacations. If the best lasting memories you can create for your children involve a stop at the bagel store for an ET with olive cream cheese on a random Sunday morning before you head into the office, you need to take a real family vacation.
But even those without families need and deserve time to recharge. As with anything in Biglaw, you just need to be smart about it. First off, you need to be a bit more assertive about your right and need for some time off. There is a perception in Biglaw that singles or childless couples have plenty of fun on the weekends, and as such do not need vacation time as much as families. That is bunk, but perceptions matter….
Time for a break from the bad news. There is no fun in checking ATL and seeing layoff news on a daily basis. Even though that sort of action is likely to continue, as firms finally come to grips with what sophisticated clients are willing to pay for. Which is basically partner time, with allowances for some associate and paralegal time on occasion. In the good years when clients were gorging on legal services as if sitting at a ten-course chef’s dinner, partner time was the indulgent dessert. Now clients are eating at the local diner, and partner time is the eggs and sausage $4.99 main course. You hope the customer is willing to pay for a cup of coffee too, and get kind of worried that the diner across the highway is giving away the coffee for free. Because they are, and their glop tastes just as wonderful as your glop.
Vacations and Biglaw have an interesting relationship. For partners, late August and the end of the year were usually guaranteed time off, barring a trial or a deal in progress. For associates, it was a different story….
If you are a Biglaw partner and have only one title to hawk, I hope you are at a really top-tier firm. Because “partner” is no longer enough to impress clients. Especially in this age of multiple industry “guides” eager to anoint mortal lawyers with honorifics befitting your typical episode of Game of Thrones. (I am sure there is a female head of litigation somewhere who would relish being called Mother of Dragons, or a managing partner in Silicon Valley who would not mind being thought of as Lord of the Vale.) Between Chambers, Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers in America, and others, there are plenty of possibilities to supplement “partner” with something more.
Of course, the race for titles happens internally at Biglaw firms as well. Factor number one is prior business generation. Rainmakers are given titles by their fellow partners, like farmers seeding clouds for future rainfall. Every firm has at least a managing partner or CEO, numerous practice group heads, and an executive committee. Some firms, typically those of the “eat what you kill” variety, also exhibit a form of “title inflation,” with co-chairs galore and sub-department chieftains abounding. Plus office-level “chairs” — it is always a hoot when there is a local head of litigation for a branch office with three litigators. Especially when the branch office is a major city, with dozens of robust litigation practices at other Biglaw firms for clients to choose from. Everyone who has been granted a title uses it when marketing outside the firm. Who would want to hire a regular partner for a bankruptcy matter when you can have the co-chair of the Boston office’s (two-member) restructuring department handling things?
I am a lucky guy. I have two true partners in life: my mother and my wife. They each contribute to my happiness in different, but equally vital, ways. To them, I wish a Happy Mother’s Day.
Even though my mom does not know I write this column. When I write things related to my legal practice, I try and send her copies. But she is relatively new to email, and she is always busy between her kids and growing collection of grandchildren. I am not sure she reads what I send her. Nor is she that impressed with any of my career accomplishments. But that is fine, and truth is, she needn’t be. That is not the standard, just as my career accomplishments are not my standard for success in life. It is more important that she take pride in the family I have built, as that is truly my life’s work.
I am not qualified to talk about what being a mom in Biglaw is like (father, yes, as I have been a father for my entire Biglaw career). From observation, being a mom in Biglaw looks very difficult. It is one thing if you are a partner with teenage kids, and you went to law school after your kids reached grade-school age. Biglaw partner moms are generally a rare breed. What I see more often are associates and junior partners struggling to balance the demands of having and raising children with trying to advance in Biglaw. Very rarely are both objectives accomplished. I have tried to think about how I would feel if I was in such a situation. Unsuccessfully. Honestly, even if I was married to Oprah, I could never see myself playing stay-at-home dad, or even having primary responsibility for the children while trying to have a legal career. So I respect the mothers out there that are at least trying….
I have been thinking about how to explain the Am Law 100 rankings to a layman. Quite frankly, there is little use in trying to engage in a productive discussion of the rankings with colleagues. One segment of the Biglaw population is fixated on the fictional profits-per-partner figure, while another marvels at the “global reach” and exploding headcounts of the giga-firms. Some like to talk about the firms they interviewed with in law school, while others only care about the firms that have stronger resources in their practice areas. If you are in Biglaw, or hoping to be, you will come up with your own way of making sense of it all. Have fun.
What is more interesting to me is the following question: How can a normal person relate to this year’s Am Law 100 rankings? Put another way, if I was told that I was eligible for a large cash prize if I could explain the Am Law 100 chart to ten random strangers in a way that was compelling to them, what would I say?
Every Biglaw firm has a leader, or at least a public face — sometimes the chairman, sometimes the managing partner. At some firms, one boss is actually two, co-managing the firm into a future of profitable bliss. Nowadays, most of these “personalities” undergo serious media training, so that the firm’s most recent “report card” can be spun to the legal media in the sunniest of fashions. For some unfortunate firms, frequently mentioned on ATL (whose logos Lat has bookmarked for easy cutting-and-pasting), the head honcho is also a crisis-management aficionado.
And in today’s age of the global Biglaw firm, the boss is well-informed regarding the business-class product of various airlines. They probably have a favorite seat on well-traveled routes. “United to San Francisco from Newark? You definitely want 2B, and tell the stewardess right off the bat that you want the coffee hot when you wake up from your nap.” It has become a Biglaw tradition for the head of the firm to visit every office on at least an annual basis. For the boss, it is a chance to give a nice state-of-the-firm pep talk, and spend some quality time with the one or two partners in that office who really matter. For everyone else, these visits mean everyone needs to get dressed up, look enthusiastic at the partner lunch or post-work cocktails in the conference room, and try to look alert in your office (all day long, unfortunately) in case of an unanticipated visit….
There is a great line in Spielberg’s Lincoln, when the President’s eldest son, Robert, is trying to persuade his father that his place (in what would be the final days of the Civil War) is in the Union army — and not in a Boston lecture hall. Robert tells his father (whom the movie shows peppering his speech to staff members with anecdotes from his time as a country lawyer) that he himself is not sure whether he wants to even be a lawyer. The President replies that law “is a sturdy profession.”
That’s a great line, and an apt description of what a lifetime of service as a lawyer should be. Lincoln was right, and remains right, particularly when lawyers act professionally — meaning that they do their utmost to address the needs and problems of their clients, prepared at any point to elevate their client’s interests above their own.
I know it is just a movie, and perhaps I am too swayed by sentimentality after watching it. But what is the purpose of observing the towering figures of history if not to learn from their inspired worldviews?
Can we say that today’s Biglaw is an exemplar of a “sturdy profession”? Unfortunately, brutal, rather than sturdy, is a more appropriate adjective….
Biglaw competition is getting intense. Everyone is chasing the same clients, while also deploying rearguard actions to protect institutional clients from being poached. Forget about lateral partners taking clients for a moment. I am talking about overt approaches from competing firms regarding existing matters, bearing promises of handling things more cheaply and more efficiently. In-house lawyers, under pressure to contain costs, almost have to listen. They may not act right away, but with each such approach another dent has been made in the Biglaw client-maintenance bumper.
It is no secret that in the face of declining overall demand (especially for the profit-pumping activities like mega-document reviews that were Biglaw’s joy to perform in the past), firms need to aggressively protect market share. While also seeking to grow market share. In an environment where more and more large clients are either (1) reducing the number of firms that they are willing to assign work to or (2) embracing an approach that finds no beauty contest too distasteful to engage in. So partners, at least those tasked with finding work for everyone to do, are falling back on a tried-and-true “sales approach” — putting things on sale.
I asked, and once again the readership delivered. I thought it would be interesting to hear from former Biglaw associates who had been passed over for partnership, and I was happy to receive some thoughtful responses.
As you will see below, and as I discussed in my columns relating to making partner, there are very powerful personal forces at work in these situations. As much as we can learn from our own disappointments, so can we learn from the experiences of others, especially those who have forged ahead despite a setback.
Biglaw can be a brutal business. We need to pause and reflect on the human toll that working in this environment can take….
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 seven years. You can reach them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s that time of year again when JDs are starting to apply for 2L summer jobs and 2L summers are deciding which practice area to focus on.
For those JDs with an interest in potentially lateraling to or transferring to Asia in the future, please feel free to reach out to Kinney for advice on firm choices, interviewing and practice choices, relating to future marketability in Asia, or for a general discussion on your particular Asia markets of interest. This is of course a free of cost service for those who some years in the future may be our future industry contacts or perhaps even clients.
For some years now Kinney’s Asia head, Evan Jowers, has been formally advising Harvard Law students with such questions, as the Asia expert in Harvard Law’s “Ask The Experts Market Program” each summer and fall, with podcasts and scheduled phone calls. This has been an enjoyable and productive experience for all involved.
Whether you’re fresh off the bar exam or hitting your stride after hanging a shingle a few years ago, one thing’s for certain: independent attorneys who start a solo or small-law practice live with a certain amount of stress.
Non-attorneys would think the stress comes from preparing for a big trial, deposing a hostile witness, or crafting the perfect contract for a picky client.
But that’s nothing compared to the constant, nagging, real-life kind, the kind you get from the day-to-day grind of being a law-abiding attorney.
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