This is the first of a four-article series focusing on the following matters:
First Article – Profits Per Partner: A Good Servant But A Bad Master
Second Article – A Profits-Per-Partner Emancipation Plan
Third Article – Beyond Profits Per Partner – Embracing Volatility
Fourth Article – How to Embrace Volatility as a Law Firm
Those of us running law firms have two sets of clients:
Clients – parties that hire us for legal work.
Lawyers – parties that do the legal work for the clients.
One without the other is pointless, obviously – they are yin and yang. However, despite this almost symbiotic relationship, most law firms are set up to attract great clients a lot more than they are set up to attract great lawyers. That is how law firms define “marketing.” The other function is called “recruiting.”
Indeed, let me ask you — in your firm, which is cooler: to be on the marketing committee, or to be on the recruiting committee? Which one is more likely to result in success at your firm, including money, power, fame, a big office, etc.?
There – I always wanted to write an article that had such a strange title that people would look at it and wonder what I was talking about. So here goes….
Everyone just loves to beat up on the big law firms. I keep reading articles everywhere that say:
They are overpriced.
They are inefficient.
Their partnerships destroy innovation.
They are terrible places to work – sweatshops – associates are worked to death until they quit.
Their business model is broken.
There was even a book that came out a year or so ago with a great title, The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (affiliate link). To me the book described the law business as part of a dying profession that is enmeshed in a conspiracy to ruin the lives of all in it — except the fat-cat senior partners at the top of the pyramid. I admit I read it a while ago and it is a bit hazy in my mind, but the author, a former Kirkland & Ellis partner, clearly is not a fan of the current state of Biglaw….
I am famous for a saying. Actually I am not really famous, but I have a saying that I have been, well, saying for years, as follows:
“Lawyers are only happy when they’re miserable.”
What I mean is this: You are working round-the-clock so much you haven’t even been home for a full day and hardly at all for a month on a doozie of a deal. You are completely sick of it. All you can think of is when the deal will be “over.” You are clearly “miserable.” If only you could have your personal life back! Then, finally, the deal closes — at last. Your client is wiring out the funds. As the transfer of funds is happening, a (terrible) thought races through your mind. You hate yourself for the thought — you try not to have the thought — but you simply can’t help it… and the thought is that you are kind of worried because you have nothing to do now and that is disquieting… gee, what if work has really slowed… at some point this will be a real problem. You’ve had your personal life back for maybe a second — you haven’t even taken a shower — and you are worrying where your next deal will come from.
Or the other way around. Work has been slow — very slow — for a couple of months. You have enjoyed some rounds of golf and gone out to a bunch of dinners and lunches, but you really would like a nice tricky and challenging deal to sink your teeth into. And of course you are mindful of the fact that like it or not lawyers just have to bill hours. That is how we make a living, and you just aren’t billing hours. Not a good thing. You are edgy — if only you could have a big deal to work on….
“Low overhead is great!” That is one of our sayings. We recite it all the time — yes, even out loud at meetings — as it is a powerful competitive advantage for a law firm. It seems pretty obvious, but if so, why doesn’t everyone get with this concept?
There is a term informally used to describe how overhead impacts a law firm called “Implied Overhead.” The “Implied Overhead” of a law firm is the cost of everything except the lawyers divided by the number of lawyers. So if you have 50 lawyers and the cost of “everything” except the lawyers is $10,000,000, then you have implied overhead of $200,000 per lawyer.
Our Implied Overhead for last year was about $165,000. Anecdotally I believe that Implied Overhead for major law firms averages about $300,000. (I admit I don’t really have this data for sure; it is just what I have heard.) If your firm has 100 lawyers and implied overhead of $200,000 and the average for major law firms is $300,000, then you have a $100,000 per lawyer competitive advantage over your major law firm competition. Multiply that by 100 lawyers and you just made $10,000,000! And this flows right to the bottom line! If there are, say, 30 partners at this firm, then each partner just got a check for $333,333!
Yikes — did I do that math right? Was that $333,333 per partner merely by reducing the implied overhead? I just double checked and $10,000,000 divided by 30 partners does indeed equal $333,333. That’s a sizable number, so maybe you should read the rest of my article….
Of all the regrets I have in life, one of my greatest is that I never had the chance to meet Peter Drucker before he died.
Drucker is one of my intellectual heroes. He was able to look at the same world that everyone else was looking at but see things that others couldn’t see. He literally invented a science. And like all science, it is around you from the start but you just can’t see it till someone shows you the way.
The science he invented was the science of “management.” Before Drucker, people just ran things and sometimes good things happened and sometimes bad things — no one really delved too deeply into the “why” of it all. But then along came Drucker, who made order out of chaos and realized that there were principles that, if followed, would increase the likelihood a business would be successful.
All those leadership books you sometimes read, all those “how to” books you sometimes read, all of that thinking evolved from his groundbreaking analysis into the science of “management.” Drucker’s books are utter masterpieces. Indeed, there was an epiphany for me on every single page of his amazing book Management (affiliate link). I think I learned more about how to run my law firm successfully from Drucker than from any other source.
Here are two thoughts from Drucker that hit me like a bolt of lightning when I read them. Honestly, my business — and even my whole life — was never the same again.
I give credit for the inspiration of this article to a writer named Seth Godin who wrote a book called The Purple Cow (affiliate link). My law firm benefited hugely from this book.
The theory of the Purple Cow in a nutshell is that you should try to STAND OUT like a purple cow would stand out from the other mere brown cows. If you don’t STAND OUT, then you just blend in, and you are nothing at all.
Okay, so that is a good point – as if you didn’t know that already. But it is not that simple. And here is why. Our instincts and everything we learn every day – our emotions, our colleagues, and our loved ones – all lead us in the safe (and wrong) direction.
In my article of two weeks ago, I threw out the proposition that if you are running a law firm — or a department or practice group in a law firm — the critical mission is to “attract, train, retain and inspire talent.” If you can do this, you are probably going to accomplish great things — and the converse. So the question now is, how do you do it?
Below is the best I have been able to come up with. It is (mostly) from a speech I gave at an IMN conference in 2011. (You can read the original speech here.)
First — and foremost — Talent wants to be with other talented people. They crave it in their souls. They will put up with major “not nice people” and even poor working conditions, if they are convinced that other very talented people are doing it with them in the trenches. Consider Apple and Steve Jobs. He wasn’t thought of as a nice guy; indeed, quite the opposite. But when people looked around the room, they were awed at the skill sets of those in the room with them, and boy did they want to stay in that room, in the worst way. So they put up with Jobs’s not–niceness. (Of course, I do not advocate being this way as a boss — far from it.)
What is a law firm? Unlike a lot of businesses, there are really no assets except the lawyers and (in some instances) the brand name. For most law firms — especially newer firms and start-ups — there is no brand name; that leaves the lawyers as the only assets. And for brand-name law firms, if the talent starts to leave, eventually the brand dies.
As one of my partners once said to me: “Bruce, all of the assets of this business go down the elevator every night. Your job is to get them to come back up in the morning.” He just said it casually, but it hit me strongly later on as I realized he was completely right. The entire point of running a law firm was to keep the lawyers in the firm. You can always get more clients if you lose them, but without the lawyers, you have nothing to sell and it is game over.
Accordingly, to answer the question posed at the outset as to what a law firm is…. it is a collection of lawyers who are together because they wish to be together. If they don’t wish to be together any more, then they leave, and that is the end.
By way of introduction, I am the founder and managing partner of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP. We are a 70-ish lawyer law firm in midtown NYC that focuses strongly on real estate; indeed, we refer to ourselves as “The Pure Play in Real Estate Law.”
As managing partner I have spearheaded numerous unique initiatives that have distinguished us from other law firms. Many of these ideas were very scary when we tried them out — there was always a fear that we would not only fail but, worse yet, be laughed at. Some of these ideas did not work out so well, I admit; however, the ones that succeeded have been the fulcrum to attract both lawyers and clients to our firm and indeed been the bedrock of our success.
As a relatively small firm playing with the big boys and girls, one would think that our size could be a disadvantage. But that would be incorrect. Smaller players can be flexible and move in different directions. We can take risks and seize opportunities that large law firms cannot logically capitalize on….
* The $160K-Plus Club welcomes its newest member: Duval & Stachenfeld, a real estate firm in NY, is more than doubling its starting salary for associates to $175K. Look for them recruiting at your “tier one” school soon. [New York Law Journal]
* In this economy, bankruptcy firms are being hit hard: Stutman Treister & Glatt, a top L.A. firm that once assisted in cases against Lehman Brothers and Enron Corp. in their Chapter 11 proceedings, is closing up shop. [WSJ Law Blog (sub. req.)]
* “Do I think he thought he was gonna beat it? Yeah.” The district attorney who brought charges against Stephen McDaniel thinks the law school killer was too big for his chainmail britches. [Macon Telegraph]
* From catcalling to “jiggle tests,” NFL cheerleaders have to put up with a lot of really ridiculous stuff. Not being paid the minimum wage is one thing, but having to put up with being groped is quite another. [TIME]
Professor Joel P. Trachtman has developed a unique, practical guide to help lawyers analyze, argue, and write effectively.
The Tools of Argument: How the Best Lawyers Think, Argue, and Win is a highly readable 200-page book, available for about $10 in paperback or e-book. Chapters focus on foundational principles in legal argument: procedure, interpretation of contracts and statutes, use of evidence, and more. The material covered is taught only implicitly in law school. Yet, when up-and-coming attorneys master these straightforward tools, they will think and argue like the best lawyers.
For most attorneys, time spent managing the books is a necessary evil at best. Yet it is undeniably a crucial aspect of running a successful practice. With that in mind, we invite you to view or download a free webinar by Above the Law and our friends at Clio to learn how to better manage your finances.
Take this opportunity to learn what it takes to streamline your accounting and get the most out of your time. The webinar agenda:
● The basics of accounting for lawyers.
● How legal accounting differs from regular accounting.
● Report and reconciliation issues surrounding trust accounts.
● How to pick and integrate the best accounting tools for your practice.
● Steps to prepare your tax return for your firm’s income.
Do not miss this crucial chance to optimize your accounting practices. Save time and get back to billing!
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.
Please note that Evan Jowers and Robert Kinney are still in Hong Kong and will stay FOR THE REMAINDER OF THIS WEEK. We still have a handful of available slots for meetings with our Asia Chronicles fans. If we have not been in touch lately, reach out and let us know when we could meet! There is no need for an agenda at all. Most of our in-person meetings on these trips are with folks who understand that improving a legal practice through lateral hiring is an information-driven process that takes time to handle correctly.
Regarding trends in lateral US associate hiring in Hong Kong, we of course keep much of what we know off of this blog. Based on placement revenue, though, Kinney is having one of our most successful years ever in Asia. We are helping a number of our law firm clients with M&A, fund formation, cap markets, project finance, FCPA and disputes openings. These are very specific needs in many cases, so a conversation with us before jumping in may be helpful. As always, we like to be sure to get the maximum number of interviews per submission, using a well-informed, highly targeted, and selective approach, taking into account short, medium and long-term career aims.
Making a well informed decision during a job search is easier said than done – the information we provide comes from 10 years of being the market leader in US attorney placements at the top tier firms in Asia. There is no substitute for having known a hiring partner since he/she was an associate or for having helped a partner grow his or her practice from zip to zooming, and this is happily where we stand today – with years of background information on just about every relevant person in all the markets we serve, and most especially in Hong Kong/China/Greater Asia. So get in touch and get a download from us this week if we can fit it in, or soon in any case!