Dissolution

Hop in the DeLorean and travel back in time with us.

In our two most recent Flashback Friday posts, we looked at associate compensation in the 1990s. Today we’ll take a break from that topic and mix it up a bit. (We’ll return to cover associate comp in the remaining batch of legal markets at some point in the future.)

Last week we looked at associate pay in New York in the 1990s. Let’s stay in that city and that decade and examine another subject: NYC’s top law firms, circa 1991.

Some of these firms remain on top today. And some of them are six feet under….

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192 Columbia Heights

What happens to people who work for failed law firms? Some of them wind up filing for personal bankruptcy.

But some of them experience far happier endings. Some of them wind up living in 25-foot-wide, 8,000-square-foot, $16 million townhouses.

Okay, a caveat: $16 million is what the owners are asking for their home. It’s not clear they’ll get that price, which would set a record for a single family home in Brooklyn Heights.

No matter which way you slice it, though, this is still an eight-figure home. Who’s the lawyer living in such luxury, and where did she once work?

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About two years ago, in May 2012, Dewey & LeBoeuf filed for bankruptcy. It was the largest law firm bankruptcy in the history of the United States. Shortly thereafter, industry insiders began to speculate as to when the next big firm would fold. In June 2012, our own Mark Herrmann suggested that it was a “near certainty that a firm [would] collapse within the next two years.”

Lo and behold, he was correct, for it was just last night that another embattled Biglaw firm decided to close its doors. Perhaps the loyal employees clinging to this firm’s carcass should have been better prepared for something like this, since it was preceded by waves upon waves of partner defections and talks of a “major restructuring,” likely due to financial problems, among the firm’s leaders.

You’ll want to keep reading, because this is the largest law firm to ever fail….

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Although Am Law and ATL covered the story first, the long spread in The New York Times alerted the whole world to the woes of Gregory Owens, a former Dewey partner who’s now a bankrupt non-equity partner at White & Case.

The legal blogosphere naturally lit up over this story, with Scott Greenfield dispensing his usual simple justice and the Volokh Conspirators (and their many commenters) debating Owens’ personal and professional worth.

But my emailbox filled up, too, with assorted reactions from people at all levels in the law. The most interesting rant — and the one I’m sharing with you today — came from a person who looks a lot like Owens; he or she is a non-equity partner at a Vault 50 firm who’s in his or her 50s. This person disagrees violently with the conventional wisdom about non-equity partners. My correspondent sings their praises and insists that both law firms and many law firm consultants terribly misjudge the value that non-equity partners provide to their firms. . . .

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Let’s be honest: despite being the Biglaw version of the Titanic, the collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf could have been worse. Even though the Dewey dissolution constituted the largest law firm collapse in history, many D&L lawyers and staff were able to find new employment. Even Steve Davis, the disgraced ex-chairman of Dewey, landed a new gig.

But not everyone emerged unscathed. Some attorneys and staffers never got back on their feet professionally. Many Dewey partners scored new positions, but not all of them took all of their people with them to their new firms.

And even some partners are still suffering. In fact, one former Dewey partner, now a partner at another major law firm, recently filed for personal bankruptcy….

(Please note the UPDATES at the end of this post.)

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This is my first column of 2014, so I’m due to join the ranks of those who make predictions for the coming year.

But my predictions will be slightly different from others, because mine will be based on fact.

In the last months of 2013, I heard that two different law firms had reduced partners’ draws to offset the firms’ poor financial performance. At least one of the firms reduced draws retroactively — announcing near the end of the year that partners’ salaries would be reduced as of January 1, 2013 (which slices partners’ incomes dramatically in the last few months of the year). Both firms shared the pain among all partners — folks suffered in the equity and non-equity ranks alike. (This is a particularly nasty trick to play on income partners: “Here’s your partnership deal: If the firm does better than expected, you’re a mere income partner; of course you will not share the wealth. On the other hand, if the firm performs worse than expected, we’ll permit you to share the pain, and we’ll cut your pay. Here’s the partnership agreement! Sign right here on the dotted line!”)

I’ve now been in-house for four years, and my ear has lifted pretty far from the law-firm ground: If I heard about two law firms suffering from such terribly bad years that they were forced to reduce their budgets as year-end approached, then I’m guessing that many more than two firms suffered this fate. This means that, for many firms, 2013 was not a good year, which leads me to my predictions for 2014 . . . .

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The Dewey nightmare continues for non-settling partners.

Many former partners of now-defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf signed up to join the “Partner Contribution Plan” that was hatched during the law firm’s bankruptcy case. The gist of the Plan: pay a certain sum (which varied from partner to partner) into the pot, and win a release from any future Dewey-related liability.

The main appeal of the Plan was finality, a way of putting the entire Dewey debacle in the rearview mirror. And that appeal was strong: more than 400 ex-partners agreed to the Plan, which freed them up to focus on their post-Dewey lives at new firms.

But a minority of former partners refused to sign on. A lawsuit filed last week against one ex-partner reveals what lies in store for them….

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Dewey & LeBoeuf: gone but not forgotten.

We recently learned that Justice Antonin Scalia is not a fan of women cursing. What would he make of partners at a leading law firm cursing?

And not just garden-variety cursing, but rather colorful deployment of highly profane language. As Hamilton Nolan of Gawker puts it, “The biggest law firm collapse in history began with ‘f**kwad’ emails.”

Which former Dewey & LeBoeuf partner referred to various former partners as “pathetic,” “little prick,” and “f**kwad”? Let’s take a look at James Stewart’s New Yorker magazine article on what caused Dewey’s demise….

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This morning I attended the confirmation hearing for the Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan of Dewey & LeBoeuf. As I mentioned on Twitter a few minutes after leaving the hearing, Judge Martin Glenn confirmed the plan.

Under the plan, secured creditors will recover between 47 to 77 cents on the dollar, while unsecured creditors will wind up with 5 to 14 cents on the dollar. Secured creditors hold about $262 million in claims; total creditor claims, secured and unsecured, amount to about $550 million.

So that’s the bottom line. But what was the hearing itself like? Here are my observations, including a few photos — because bankruptcy court coverage is totally WWOP….

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Whatever happened to the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into the failure of Dewey & LeBoeuf? It seems like we haven’t heard about it for weeks. Today we finally have some news to pass along.

As we mentioned in Morning Docket, this morning the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about the current state of the investigation. There are a few additional details, but on the whole, we don’t know very much at this point.

We know more about how you can get your hands on part of Dewey’s art collection. Keep on reading for details on that subject….

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(Plus your chance to own a piece of Dewey.)

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