Partner Issues

Bruce Stachenfeld

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….

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It used to be that the world of corporate transactions was the sole province of Biglaw. After all, handling complex matters like mergers and acquisitions required manpower and overhead — and lots of it. Well-paid junior associates were an integral part of the process, and the costs of doing business were driven by corporate clients’ expectations of grandiose reception areas and white-glove treatment as proof of both commitment and excellence.

These days, however, technology has leveled the playing field, making it possible for boutique law firms to compete with Biglaw in ways never before possible. Many of these boutique firms, comprised of Biglaw lawyers seeking to practice law on their own terms, have sprung up in the wake of large-firm mergers and dissolutions. Creative thinking and the innovative use of technology have been the keys to their success, allowing these boutiques to reduce overhead costs and run their practices more effectively and efficiently, saving their clients time and money.

Don’t believe me? Well, look no further than Bailey Duquette, a Manhattan-based boutique law firm….

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Let’s start with a definition. Merriam-Webster defines “autonomy” as “the state of existing or acting separately from others.” Meaning you have the proverbial “control over your own destiny,” or put another way, are not dependent on others. In many respects, complete autonomy is a fiction for a lawyer. We are all dependent — on our clients, our partners, our firms. But lawyers still value autonomy. It may be elusive, particularly in Biglaw, but it is an important contributor to career satisfaction and performance.

In fact, earning a significant degree of autonomy was among the leading factors in making my Biglaw experience a positive one. Yes, I said earned, rather than “being granted” or “given.” In Biglaw, you need to carve out personal space for yourself. It is not something that is given. Nor does anyone tell you what you need to do to earn your measure of independence. At a very high level, it is necessary to project both confidence and competence — to your clients, peers, and superiors, at all times. If you are successful, and earn some autonomy, there is a higher likelihood that you will be happy in your Biglaw job. Imagine that.

Perhaps surprisingly, your Biglaw firm actually wants you to have a degree of autonomy….

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Some Biglaw firms put on variety shows and have associates sing, dance, and act out lame sketch comedy. It’s all about associates demeaning themselves for the amusement of partners in new and more interesting ways. And I guess it’s supposed to engender some kind of camaraderie, though it’s not clear how.

But sketch comedy can go horribly wrong. Like, any time a white guy shows up in blackface.

That’s a problem. And yet this Biglaw firm doesn’t seem to understand why….

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I used to be smart.

I read cases. I ginned up clever distinctions. I examined witnesses and knew what the evidence said. I argued appeals. I wrote real, substantive articles.

I had interesting things to say about multidistrict litigation, class actions, and product liability defense.

I spoke at CLE classes — both to maintain my (and my firm’s) profile and because I had worthwhile things to say.

I coulda been a contender.

But that was then.

I’ve been in-house for nearly five years now, and I’ve become a fool. . . .

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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. Michael Allen is Managing Principal at Lateral Link, focusing exclusively on partner placements with Am Law 200 clients.

Is Bingham about to fall victim to its own strategy?

Since 1994, the firm has leapt from a regional firm that worked almost exclusively with the Bank of Boston to one of the fifty largest firms in the world. The impetus behind this expansion was a series of about ten mergers over the course of sixteen years. The firm picked up productive but possibly struggling boutiques and mid-size firms, growing from a 200-attorney firm in 1994 to an 850+ attorney firm in 2009.

How did Bingham reach its current state? Let’s look at the history.

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Litigators get away with a lot of obnoxious stuff during discovery. For better or worse, the pre-trial discovery phase of civil litigation is every lawyer’s opportunity to relive those times when parents leave kids alone for the first time: every slight, disagreement, and jealousy on a slow boil explodes into anarchic back-biting once there’s no authority figure around to enforce civility. Bring on the mean-spirited letters and smack-talking RFAs.

When it comes to depositions, it doesn’t always reach “fatboy” levels, but a federal deposition isn’t a deposition until someone threatens to call the magistrate — though never does.

Which is why this benchslap, where a federal judge levies a sanction straight out of elementary school, is so appropriate….

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Michele Roberts

Let’s be clear: I’m sure there were people that noticed I was a girl. Having said that, I frankly wanted to address that question up front whenever I spoke with any of the members of the executive committee and the union. My sense was, the only thing people cared about was my resolve.

Michele Roberts, the Skadden Arps partner who was just elected the new executive director of the NBA players’ union, commenting on whether her gender played any role in her election. (You can read more about Roberts’s background in this prior profile.)

I must have reached a certain age.

Within the last month, three different people have contacted me to say that they’re approaching retirement, so it’s time to start serving on boards of directors. These folks came to me (of all people!) to network.

By keeping my ear so close to the ground, I’ve discovered the new, new thing. And you’re in luck — I’ll share it with you!

Everyone’s getting old and thinking about retirement.

Or maybe I’ve buried the lede. Maybe hordes of baby boomers are now thinking about finding a part-time job that pays good money and keeps you entertained after you’ve stopped working full-time.

That’s not a bad strategy, really. If you’re industrious, you could serve on four or five boards, carefully analyze the board materials before each meeting, monitor the companies’ fortunes, contribute insights and ask tough questions during the meetings, and follow up after meetings in pursuit of the corporate good.

On the other hand, if you’re less industrious, you could show up for a few board and committee meetings every year, enjoy cocktails and dinner with the boys, sit like a cardboard cutout during the meetings, and pocket a few hundred grand annually for your efforts, . . .

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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. Michael Allen is Managing Principal at Lateral Link, focusing exclusively on partner placements with Am Law 200 clients.

Of the roughly 36,000 partners in Biglaw, roughly 6,800 (18.8%) of them are within a few years of or have surpassed (and then some) the mandatory retirement age. Lawyers 55 or older make up about 1/3 of the practicing partners in the Am Law 200, a figure that will likely hold steady as the tail end of the baby boomer generation ages. Am Law 200 law firms have on average about 34 chairs, executive members, and senior partners whose 35-plus years of experience, client relationships, and leadership must be transferred to a new generation of rising stars. The process is hardly ever smooth and often involuntary.

Most partners in senior vintages begrudge the practice of mandatory retirement; some bemoan that it is an overcautious safeguard or the epitome of ageism. Some claim the practice is supported by scientific studies that link cognitive decline with advancing age — especially after 65, which is about the average for mandatory retirement. However, with advancing medical standards the idea of being forced to retire at 65 may soon seem ludicrous, but for now, how many law firms are prepared to deal with the void left by these partners?

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