This is a continuation of the article I published in ATL two weeks ago. My previous article gave my view that the profitability metric of “Profits Per Partner” becomes in effect a master (rather than a servant) and is destructive and a root cause of some serious problems for Biglaw. In this article, I put forth a different way of doing business.
A long time ago, we at Duval & Stachenfeld decided that we would not make partnership decisions in our law firm based on a “numbers game.” Instead, we would look at the quality of the associates, and if they were qualified, we would make them partners irrespective of the effect that had on our firm economics. We have stuck to that view rigorously.
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….
Our client is a premier international law firm based in Texas with an immediate need for a mid-level environmental associate in the firm’s Austin office. This firm boasts one of the best environmental practice groups in the state and is known for the quality of its client roster and the collegiality and skill of its attorneys. The winning candidate will have two-plus years of major firm environmental law experience (both regulatory and environmental litigation experience is preferred), Top academic credentials (Top 20 JD; Top of class – no exceptions), and excellent communication skills. Qualified out of market candidates looking to relocate to Texas for valid reasons will also be strongly considered. This is a partnership track position and compensation is at the top of the market.
Don’t hesitate to contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. This is one of the best environmental law associate opportunities we have seen in some time and is a rare, major firm opportunity in Austin. The group would also consider adding this hire to its Houston office.
OmniVere’s delivery of end-to-end technology & data consulting to position the company as a true differentiator in the global legal technology and compliance space.
CHICAGO, IL, September 29, 2014 – OmniVere today announced the creation of the company’s technology & data consulting arm and the addition of several industry-renown experts, including the former co-chairs of Berkeley Research Group’s (BRG’s) Technology Services practice, Liam Ferguson, Rich Finkelman and Courtney Fletcher.
This new consulting practice will provide and expand existing OmniVere eDiscovery consulting services to corporations, law firms and government agencies with a special focus on compliance, information governance and eDiscovery. This addition of this top talent now positions OmniVere as a true industry leader in the technology and data consulting space offering best-in-class end-to-end services.
Ferguson, Finkelman & Fletcher are nationally recognized experts and seasoned veterans in the areas of overall technology, electronic discovery, and structured data. At OmniVere, the team will be focused on all global consulting activities with respect to legal compliance, complex data analytics, business intelligence design and analysis, and electronic discovery service offerings.
The Trust Women conference is an influential gathering that brings together global corporations, lawyers and pioneers in the field of women’s rights. Unlike many other events, Trust Women delegates take action and forge tangible commitments to empower women to know and defend their rights.
This year, the Trust Women conference will take place 18-19 November in London. From women’s economic empowerment to slavery in the supply chain and child labour, this year’s agenda is strong and powerful. Speakers include Professor Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Laureate and founder of the Grameen Bank; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women; Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking and many other influential leaders. Find out more about Trust Women here.