Partner Issues

Law firms have been in a “slow growth” phase ever since the nation began its recovery from the Great Recession. As we mentioned when we discussed the 2013 Am Law 100, “success now comes in the form of single-digit returns with regard to key financial metrics,” with Biglaw gains described as “modest” and “spotty” across the board.

Big-name lateral hires can sometimes bring in enough positive publicity and fanfare to make even the sickest of firms seem like the very picture of health and vitality. According to the latest American Lawyer Lateral Report, those lateral moves can be likened to a peacock’s tail: they offer “no advantage” for a firm’s ultimate survival, and may hinder the firm in the future. It happened at Dewey, and it can happen at other firms if they’re not careful. If only partners’ attentions weren’t so easily grabbed by the promise of higher profits.

So if this growing reliance on lateral hiring is truly capable of destabilizing law firms, wouldn’t you like to know which firms did the most lateral hiring over the past year? We’ve got the details for you….

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In last week’s column, I drew some customer service lessons for lawyers from the way that Disney treats visitors to its theme parks. This week, I want to focus on how Disney incorporates technological advances into its theme parks as a means of enhancing the customer experience.

On my recent visit, I was struck by the presence of two familiar pieces of technology from the “real world” within the Disney parks: (1) Disney’s new smartphone app for theme park visitors and (2) the availability of wi-fi in most areas of the park. Each example illustrates distinct yet relate, approaches to implementing technology for the benefit of the customer. And while I am sure that each took Disney many man-hours to develop, test, and roll-out publicly, it was refreshing for me as a lawyer to see a company of that stature making the investment to do so. It was also a real contrast to my Biglaw experience, where implementing technology in a way tailored to improve the client (and even employee) experience was all too often a low priority….

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Only you can prevent lateral fires.

* There will be filibusters: Victoria Nourse, a Georgetown Law professor whose nomination to the Seventh Circuit was blocked, thinks the political move will remain intact for SCOTUS nominees. [Legal Times]

* The Tenth Circuit politely pwned Roberta Kaplan. Her bid to intervene in the Utah same-sex marriage case before the court was rejected. Guess she’ll have settle for writing an amicus brief. [Salt Lake Tribune]

* Are laterals killing your firm? It happened to Dewey, and it could happen to you. Only you can prevent lateral fires. Take the pledge and show your commitment to lateral fire prevention. [American Lawyer]

* Lawyers are worried about what’s been going down at the storied Canadian firm of Heenan Blaikie. A third of its partners did the dip over the weekend amid financial troubles. Sounds familiar… [Ottawa Citizen]

* Women are slowly but surely working to close the gender gap in the law — well, at least they are in South Florida. It seems to be working, though, so feel free to follow their lead. [Daily Business Review]

* “Just because you can’t make the world a perfectly fair place doesn’t mean you can’t make it fairer.” If you really liked socialized health care, then you’re going to absolutely love socialized law. [New Republic]

* If your LSAT score is in the 160 range and you’re writing to an advice columnist to figure out what to do next, then you are the most special of all the little snowflakes. [Law Admissions Lowdown / U.S. News]

Back in December, some associates at Kirkland & Ellis expressed some displeasure about their bonuses. Now, make no mistake, the K&E bonuses still beat the market by a healthy amount; they just didn’t beat the market by as much as they usually do (at least according to some sources; under an individualized bonus system, reactions will vary).

In our bonus post, we wondered about K&E’s financial performance in 2013. Could the firm — which could very well be the nation’s finest law firm — have had a less than stellar year?

Associates might not be the only ones dissatisfied with their compensation. Sources point to a fair number of prominent partner departures over the past few months, in one of K&E’s top practice areas….

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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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‘So it’s decided – we’ll be Cravath, Swaine, Moore, & Doritos.’

All those professional responsibility lectures, and bar prep, and boring CLEs that I attended after becoming a lawyer, and all the boring CLEs I dutifully watched on the Internet after I escaped the probationary period, consistently preached the evils of non-lawyer ownership of law firms.

It raises ethical concerns! It dilutes what it means to be a lawyer! This is a profession, not a business! All the usual complaints from a profession convinced that it’s made up of beautiful and unique snowflakes with unimpeachable judgment.

But with the rest of the world embracing new structures to permit non-lawyer ownership — and empirical evidence suggesting that those models raise fewer ethical concerns than the alternative — some argue that the U.S. firm model stifles innovation and cripples international competitiveness.

But the better question is, “Don’t non-lawyers own law firms already?” And to the extent the answer is “of course,” shouldn’t the profession be bending over backwards to approve ownership models that better serve the firms and their clients than the status quo?

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345 West 13th Street

Meet Michael Graffagna, who’s one impressive MoFo… partner. The Harvard Law School graduate, admitted to practice in New York, California, and Japan, heads up the project finance practice at Morrison & Foerster.

Graffagna is now resident in the firm’s Tokyo office. So he and his wife, Midori Graffagna, recently sold their Manhattan pied-à-terre. And oh what a pied-à-terre it was — larger than most Manhattanites’ primary residences.

How large are we talking? How much did the Graffagnas get for it? And which celebrity lives upstairs?

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Everyone has an opinion about a trip to Disney World. Some people relish immersing themselves in the experience, while others bemoan the long lines, incessant invitations to spend money, and roaming packs of at-turns hyperactive and hysterical children.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle, if leaning a bit to being a Disney-phile as opposed to a Disney-phobe. Having just spent a week there with my family, I can attest to the importance of having realistic expectations regarding the trip — such as recognizing that it will not be a relaxing “vacation,” in the traditional sense. Whether physically or emotionally, anything more than a day visit can be quite draining. At the same time, it is also a lot of fun, and can be quite educational for the kids as well. And there is a lot we can learn as lawyers from the way that Disney goes about its business….

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Let’s play a game of law firm word association. What words come to mind when I say Skadden Arps?

Prestigious? Yes.

Profitable? Definitely.

Sweatshop? Perhaps; some sources say the hours can be “long and unpredictable.”

Funky?

Yes, you heard me: funky….

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I’ve just celebrated my fourth anniversary working in-house, and I’m now officially out of touch with law firm life.

I thought I knew all the law-firm-partnership tricks. For example, when law students ask at interviews what percentage of firm partners hold equity status, some firms answer: “At this firm, all partners are partners.” That’s true, of course, but tautological; it says nothing about the equity and non-equity ranks.

On the other hand, this non-responsive answer serves a useful purpose. It may help to convince law students (or lateral associates) that they have a real chance at making partner at the firm, even though the equity partnership ranks are tiny and getting thinner every day.

But I recently learned about a new game that law firms play. This one is aimed not at deceiving law students or lateral associates, but rather the granddaddy of law firm rankings: The American Lawyer’s profits per partner calculation.

I thought I knew all the ways law firms could try to mislead The American Lawyer. There’s the possibility of outright lying, of course, and then there’s using funky methodologies that inflate profits per partner from $1 million to $1.8 million for the year 2011. But there’s a new game in town. It may well be widespread, but I heard about it only recently….

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