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

Conflict checks. A necessary evil in today’s incestous Biglaw, where every partner is a potential lateral, and client loyalty is fickle. Biglaw’s insurance companies demand them, so every firm goes through the motions — at sizable expense, given the size of your typical firm’s “Intake” or “Risk Management” department. Conflicts themselves are an old story, of course. Everyone would be a rainmaker, but for them. Blaming a lack of performance on conflicts is a time-honored Biglaw tradition. But who cares about excuses.

Let’s talk opportunities. There is plenty of information an enterprising Biglaw partner (or partner-aspirant) can glean from the firm’s hourly-daily-weekly conflicts report. Free information, as in not requiring the expenditure of political capital to obtain. (Practice tip: every Biglaw interaction is political in nature. At least you should treat them that way.)

Back to conflict reports. For many, they are simply another email to be skimmed and dragged into “Deleted Items” with all dispatch. A good percentage of Biglaw attorneys probably ignore them outright. That is a mistake. Why ignore a potentially valuable resource and real-time look into the health of your firm? Especially when your other option is to wait for the firm’s executive committee to update you on the firm’s performance — usually using financial metrics that present their own “management” abilities in the best possible light. Associates and other non-partners are not even usually dignified with any such information — but everyone gets a peek at the conflict check.

So what can we learn from conflict reports?

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Last week I wrote about some aspects of client service in today’s Biglaw. Today I want to focus on Biglaw’s embrace of partner de-equitizations and layoffs. These tactics are one of the ways Biglaw has been dealing with the fallout of the Black Death that has struck our industry.

Unfortunately, it seems like this year has gotten off to a bad start Biglaw-wise, in terms of both demand and a continuing lack of creativity by management at nearly every single firm. That brings consequences. Stay tuned. I have already said that I don’t mind if the paunchy mid-section of the Am Law 100 starts embracing a “bottom’s out” approach to the partnership — but at least have the guts to embrace it, not spin it.

I am really starting to dislike the tone that managing partners are starting to adopt when they talk about eliminating partners. Yes, I said eliminate. You may have seen them. Public statements where managing partner X almost gleefully informs the public of the elimination of nearly ten percent of his “partners” in the face of falling revenues. And looks for applause because his firm’s PPP went up $17,000 as a result. Go read some of the recent Biglaw “report cards” for a taste of this rancid stew.

We should be clear about the consequences of such a practice….

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Client service. The heartbeat of Biglaw. The area where every firm has to improve. Perpetually. Biglaw hamsters in overdrive. All to make the clients happy. Sit back and admire your Biglaw firm’s willingness to go the “extra mile” by listening to its clients. We might even see a client paraded before our partners once a year. (See my column on improving partner meetings by having guest appearances from clients.)

We are taught happy clients are well-paying clients. And clients that will refer their dissatisfied colleagues at other companies to experience our brand of Biglaw magic. We love clients. Almost as much as the consultants do on House of Lies, a show that provides outrageous, if funny, explorations of the client-service provider dynamic in modern-day America. (A fun business development-training program would involve watching a series of client-interactions from the show and learning from them. Better than listening to Rainmaker X pretend the reason for his multimillion-dollar book was not his maternal grandfather’s business dealings and connections.)

Truly thinking about client service can be all-consuming, especially for a younger partner like myself. No one is giving me clients. I have to fight for them in the marketplace. I love it, but it is difficult and you need patience.

But rather than focus on the process of developing clients, let’s discuss the art of “superpleasing” clients….

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We are often fascinated by what we have not yet experienced. I grew up within commuting distance of a lot of great colleges, and never imagined myself one for dorm life. So while high school classmates less enthused with their home situations eagerly availed themselves of the “college visit” experience, I sat it out completely — as in never visiting any school, even the one I ended up at. So “college visits,” at least in the abstract, are interesting to me.

Sure, I enjoyed getting the post-PSAT academic recruiting letters from schools far and wide, and may have daydreamed about attending the University of Hawaii on full scholarship. But it was all just daydreaming. In hindsight, my relative lack of interest in college selection was fine. (And don’t get me started on the sham that universal college education actually is.)

Other kids at my high (-achieving) school, especially those who had given a little more of themselves to meet all the necessary high school academic benchmarks, took the process a lot more seriously. Many were hell-bent on licking the Ivy, or at least landing in some “specialized program” like a BA-MD-MPH degree-fest. So they hit the road, and drove, and flew, and visited. In the end, everyone went to the best school they were able to get into anyway. But they had the experience — of listening to a photogenic upperclassman spout eloquently about the joys of trudging from dorm to library in a howling blizzard. Of visiting a lecture hall with 300 seats, where the first three rows were full with the eager beavers, and the last three full as well with the “learners by osmosis,” while the 150 seats in the middle were as empty as a pre-Strasburg Nationals game against the Marlins in late September. Of seeing the gleaming “rec center” where the students actually looked fit, and seemed to be enjoying permanent recess. In the end, it is all about providing fodder for the daydream: “I could be here, enjoying every minute.”

So what does this have to do with Biglaw? Or law in general?

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Lawyers are supposed to read. The best lawyers are usually the most voracious readers. One of the tragic consequences of life as an associate is the loss of time for leisure reading. Except for that hard-earned four-day vacation around Thanksgiving time. Or that quick beach jaunt in late August when you realize that not only are all the partners gone for their yearly family vacations, they are not even bothering to answer emails or calls. So you may as well take a long weekend yourself. Pretend you have a life. Endure your friends talking about how their corporate “Summer Fridays” are already tired out, and how they long to get back to a regular schedule after Labor Day. Admit it — you are not doing any serious reading on the beach, or in the airport, or sitting on someone’s pool deck with a homemade margarita. More likely, your brain is fried, and the appropriate level of reading material for you at that stage is a “men’s periodical” or some celebrity rag.

Partners have it a little better. The intellectual ones rekindle their loves for serious fiction, or Ulysses Grant biographies, or even high-priced gardening books so they can converse semi-intelligently with their illiterate (but highly skilled and inexpensive) landscaper. Other partners read junk, or choose not to read at all, only buying glossy magazines for the pictures of high-priced items they are thrilled they can now afford. Or for the cocktail recipes, now that the liquor on their “drink rack” is of better quality, all while their need for a nightly drink or two or three goes up. Leisure reading, or not, however you like.

But there is another kind of Biglaw reading. The type that all partners really should engage in. Daily if possible. It is accessible. Via browser. That’s right — legal blogs. Biglaw partners (and ambitious associates) need to be on top of what is going on in our industry. You know, the one that is changing rapidly. Where there is a battle for survival going on, even between firms that would normally be considered extremely successful, and that in and of themselves are many times larger and more successful than at any point in their own histories. Information is power on this battlefield. Get reading. Some suggestions….

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Biglaw reporting season continues. But this year we have an interesting twist: K&L Gates decided to share (covered by Lat and Bruce MacEwen, among others). Thankfully, the sharing is not of the “we overstated our revenue by a couple hundred million, and owe a bunch of old and retired partners way more than that anyway” variety. Rather, the firm released financial information that goes a little beyond what you see in your typical Biglaw firm reports (which I previously discussed).

While I have seen the firm hailed as courageous in some quarters, I am reluctant to declare this a huge leap forward towards Biglaw financial transparency. For one, there are other firms that put out even more complete “annual reports,” like Allen & Overy (thanks to an ATL commenter for that reminder), a firm that seems to be hanging on to a lockstep compensation model for partners. Second, as Lat pointed out, there are even internal sources within K&L Gates asking the types of questions that the firm’s “enhanced” report does not answer.

Personally I find a few things about this whole to-do interesting and a bit frustrating….

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Everyone needs a little help sometimes. Even Biglaw attorneys. But Biglaw firms are not the kind of place to find it. No matter what level you are on. The higher up you are on the food chain, the lonelier it can be. And with the good ship Biglaw puttering around listlessly like the Triumph “cruising” through the Gulf, it is no wonder that everyone wants whatever edge they can get. Forget about glamorous trans-Atlantic voyages, most Biglaw captains just want to keep their ships pointed in the right direction nowadays.

And so we have entered a bit of a “coach moment” in Biglaw. As in everyone recognizing that coaches are good. They help you develop a “practice” (otherwise known as finding clients able to swallow your hourly rate), or teach you how to “manage” people and things, or even help you “balance” your life. (By the way, “balance” keeps away “chair sores” from too many hours reviewing term sheets.)

And “Coach” can remind you that an hour in the gym a couple of days a week is a pretty solid idea for someone whose other regular exercise mainly consists of the following: (1) open desk drawer with right hand, (2) reach into box of processed sugar-based item, (3) grab said item, and (4) place in mouth. (Interchange hands for best results. A Biglaw gut or jiggle to be proud of is literally within reach.) Since most people can’t get break such wonderful habits on their own, coaching can help….

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“Where do I sit?” seems like an important question. Especially for second-graders on the first day of school. Or for zit-spocked high schoolers angling to spend some class time in the proximity of their crushes. And just like second-graders or hormonal high schoolers, Biglaw partners are known to obsess about their office locations. For example, I have seen partners I used to work for studying the floor plan like a treasure map, for uncomfortably long periods of time.

Surely they were mentally imagining their names transposed over a corner office, or next door to the big conference room, or for the real aspirants, within touching distance of the managing partner’s office. While this behavior is strange when taken to the extreme, it highlights an important reality of Biglaw.

Where you sit, matters….

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The 2012 Biglaw numbers are starting to trickle in. The American Lawyer (and the rest of the legal press) follows a near-uniform format in reporting them. Revenues — up or down x percent. Profits per partner — slightly to moderately up (if your executive committee was unable to generate higher profits, via financial sophistry or good-old de-equitizations or stealth layoffs, I am very sorry). Revenue-per-lawyer, slightly up. Feel-good comment by managing partner. Slightly passive-aggressive commentary by a “legal consultant.” Repeat, on a daily basis for about a month, until the Am Law 100 (and “interesting” Am Law 200 firms as well) is covered.

As a partner, you obviously hope your firm is reporting good news, even though the likelihood of that news reflecting on your personal situation is pretty low for most Biglaw partners. No one wants to be associated (or own the obligations of) a loser, and when everyone is proclaiming “modest” or “respectable” growth, the peer pressure can be tremendous. Especially where the Biglaw death spiral is a recognized phenomenon, and firms who report poor performance in a generally positive climate are quickly judged negatively, like a figure skater stuck doing double lutzes when everyone else is knocking out triples. Outliers, for good, but mostly for bad, stick out, and their ignominy is frequently paraded on these pages. With bonus Lat commentary for additional effect.

I for one, enjoy reading this kind of reportage…..

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Over the last three weeks, we have heard from an In-House Insider, an opinionated source of insight into Biglaw-client relations — see here, here, here, and below. As with the three prior installments, the only changes I made to the Insider’s words were those done to protect their identity, and Insider was given the opportunity to revise their points once I added the questions and commentary. Again, I thank Insider for the candid observations and thoughtful opinions on these core issues….

AP: Any serious observer of Biglaw can see that firms continue to struggle adapting associate development to the new state of Biglaw-client relations. What can Biglaw learn from corporate clients like yourself on that front?

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