Lateral Moves

As we’ve repeated countless times in these pages, Biglaw isn’t what it used to be, and good luck to you if you happen to be a partner. Sure, you’ve grabbed that brass ring, but you also have what could be described as “the worst job in Biglaw.” Here in the new normal, where layoffs and de-equitizations abound, despite increases in firm profits, many partners now have the same fears as associates.

So what happens when partners are pushed out of the law firms they once loved? Now we know, thanks to the results of a a new survey. You won’t believe how messy these bad romances can get…

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Ed. note: The Aspiring Lateral, a new series from Levenfeld Pearlstein, will analyze a variety of issues surrounding lateral moves, drawing on the firm’s experience in the lateral market as well as the individual experiences of LP attorneys. Today’s post is written by Brian Kozminski, a partner in LP’s Real Estate practice.

For those thinking about switching firms, one of the most important things to consider about any prospective new firm is the way in which it is managed. Preferably efficiently, transparently, and in a business-like manner. But because you are in the legal profession, that is likely not the case. Sound harsh? Let me explain.

In order to understand how fully stacked the decks are against good management in law firms, it’s instructive to step back and compare how management choices are made in law firms with other industries.

If you owned a restaurant, for instance, you probably would not assume that your best chef would also make the best restaurant manager. If you owned a movie studio, you probably would not assume that your best director would also make the best CFO. If you owned a basketball team, you probably would not assume that a great point guard would also make a great coach and president of your team. (Or you would, then regret it later.)

The restaurant, movie studio, and basketball team owners (with the exception of the Knicks) understand that the skills of their top producers — however impressive — are not necessarily transferable to executive positions. Law firms are only learning this lesson now. Following a historic practice that continues to this day, many firms are run by the lawyers with the biggest books of business.

It does not go too far to call this practice absurd. Certainly, yes, at any law firm it makes sense to place lawyers in the leadership positions of, for instance, managing partner and chairman. And there may be some overlap between the qualities needed to succeed in those positions — charisma being one — and those helpful in becoming a rainmaker. But to ask those lawyers to also make the trains run on time — to administer the business operations of the firm — is courting disaster, for any number of reasons…

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The year-end Biglaw management machine is starting to grind into motion. The compensation committee is starting to look at the numbers for individual partners — to decide who will be rewarded and who will be de-equitized. And the firm’s A/R collections crew is starting to pressure the partnership to get bills out the door and talk to clients about what will be paid by year’s end. The associate bonus committee? If one still exists, is must be having a hard time reserving conference room space to meet.

The end of the year is a serious time for law firms. For many individual lawyers in Biglaw, it is the time of year when their die may be cast, in terms of compensation, lateral movement options, or even their continued employment. As anyone who follows Biglaw knows, we are living in interesting times, with many firms navigating choppy seas in terms of client demand, financial performance, and expense management. And at many firms, there has never been a wider gulf between the rank-and-file partner and firm management when it comes to the ability to make or influence decisions about the firm. Partners at many firms are often clueless about what the firm is doing and why, to the extent that partners are asked to vote on lateral candidates or even mergers based solely on the “reassurances” and “enthusiastic outlook” of management.

The net effect of this divide between management and the partnership? An increasing sense among partners that they are simply assets of legal “brands” rather than owners or even stewards of a professional enterprise. For many, it is a bit of a hopeless feeling, especially when they consider the Biglaw options down the street, which usually present the same level of management opacity to the putative “owners” as their current firm. But just because management likes to tell the partnership to “leave the managing to us, you just focus on building your practice” does not mean partners aren’t entitled to information — even if it’s just the personal views of the managing partner on certain issues.

Here are five questions for your managing partner. The topics are varied, but the answers given should give partners a good sense of both their relative standing within their firms and the values that drive the business decisions of their leadership….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral partner moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Today’s post is written by Michael Allen, the Managing Principal of Lateral Link, who focuses exclusively on partner placements with Am Law 200 clients.

Merger season has arrived, yielding a fruitful harvest of potentially enormous mergers between Patton Boggs and Locke Lord and between Pillsbury and Orrick. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these mergers is the potentially “super” practice groups these mergers will make.

Patton Boggs has recently undergone a period of mild strife, as we detailed several months ago. Though they lost a significant number of energy and environmental attorneys after the fallout of the Chevron litigation, this merger with Locke Lord could be effective not only as a stopgap, but could also vastly strengthen each firm’s energy department….

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“Being a partner at an elite law firm isn’t what it once was,” as I recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal book review, but “while the brass ring might be tarnished, it still gleams brightly for many.” And with good reason: even if it’s harder than ever to become (and remain) a partner, for those who do manage to make it, the pay, perks, and prestige are plentiful.

The American Lawyer just released its latest New Partner Survey. The magazine heard from almost 500 lawyers who began working as partners between 2010 and 2013. About 60 percent of the survey respondents are non-equity or income partners — which makes sense, given the proliferation of two-tier partnerships, as well as how junior these partners are — and the rest are equity partners.

What are the most notable findings from the survey? Here are five:

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Ed. note: The Aspiring Lateral, a new series from Levenfeld Pearlstein, will analyze a variety of issues surrounding lateral moves, drawing on the firm’s experience in the lateral market as well as the individual experiences of LP attorneys. Today’s post is written by Laura Friedel, a partner in LP’s Labor & Employment practice.

In this column, we’ve been talking about the process of making a lateral move. Everyone knows the major stages of that process: deciding to check out lateral opportunities, evaluating potential new firms, interviewing with those firms, and, eventually, accepting an offer. That’s it. For lateral candidates, landing at a new firm is the endgame, right? Wrong.

The lateral journey does not end when you place the potted plant and picture of your family on your new desk. In a very real way, that’s just when the lateral journey starts. Beginning on their first day with a new firm, laterals who want to be successful need to make a concerted push to win over their new colleagues, one that involves a lot of hard work and time spent getting to know partners.

This may seem a little unfair. After all, by the time a lateral begins working at a new firm, she has been thoroughly vetted, the finances of her practice have been closely examined, and she’s on a first-name basis with several maître d’s due to those never-ending interview lunches. At which point, the lateral may feel an understandable — but mistaken — certainty that upon her arrival, her new partners will be leaping over themselves to herald her arrival and shower her with work…

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If you’re hiring a lateral partner at this level, then quality is assumed….

If you’re using Bigg & Mediocre, then quality is assumed….

If you’re hiring only from the top ten percent at the top ten schools, then quality is assumed….

Let me start again:

By the time you get to major league baseball, quality is assumed.

Right. But I’d rather have Babe Ruth than a journeyman outfielder.

We instinctively realize that, in every endeavor known to man, there are true superstars. But, when we talk about lawyers, we somehow assume that they’re all fungible. Or, in the examples I just gave, that all the lawyers within a certain rarefied group are fungible. That’s just not true. There’s quality, and then there’s real quality. In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” Talent is nice; genius is better.

If you’re with me so far, then you don’t believe that all law firms are created equal; you don’t believe that all lawyers (or partners) within a single firm are created equal; and you understand that many law firms are basically incapable of true quality control….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral partner moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Today’s post is written by Michael Allen, the Managing Principal of Lateral Link, who focuses exclusively on partner placements with Am Law 200 clients.

Near the entrance of the Calyon Building, the previous headquarters of Dewey & LeBoeuf, lies Jim Dine’s “Looking Toward the Avenue,” a triumvirate of headless statues inspired by the Venus De Milo. Where lie the visages of this homage to the prototypical form of Venus and furthermore, in the aftermath of Dewey, where have the pieces of this former empire landed?

Since May of 2012, there have been numerous articles inciting gossip and foretelling the troubles of Biglaw, but few have offered a retrospective of the overall trends in lateral moves from Dewey since the closure of the firm. The “largest winner” of the Dewey sweepstakes was Winston & Strawn, which added 23 partners (about 11% of those who moved in the final month), including Jeffrey Kessler, a titan of antitrust law who has represented every players’ union in the “big four” sports in the United States. Approximately seventy lawyers followed Kessler’s group.

Which other firms fared well in picking up Dewey lawyers?

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Earlier this week, Weil Gotshal reaffirmed its commitment to the Texas legal market. That commitment had been called into question by a spate of partner departures in recent weeks.

It’s worth noting, though, that Weil’s statement focused mainly on Dallas, which is Weil’s largest outpost in Texas. The statement was issued to the Dallas Business Review by Glenn West, Weil’s Dallas managing partner, so the Dallas focus is understandable. But it’s also fair to say that while Weil appears committed to Dallas, its commitment to Houston is weaker.

Indeed, after Houston managing partner John Strasburger recently departed, taking three other partners with him, some of our sources are wondering: Will the Weil office in Houston endure? And if not, who wants to swoop in and fill that gap?

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Don’t mess with Texas — or the presence of Weil Gotshal in that sovereign republic great state. The firm has just announced that it’s deep in the heart of Texas — and staying there.

That’s the latest news from the Weil Weil West — Glenn West, that is, the managing partner of the firm’s Dallas office and a member of the WGM management committee. West just issued a public statement reaffirming the firm’s commitment to the Lone Star State, despite the departures of dozens of lawyers from Weil’s Dallas and Houston offices in recent weeks.

So what does this statement say, and how did it come about?

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