Partner Profits

At the start of this new year, what is the outlook like for legal employment? There’s certainly a fair amount of bad news out there, particularly for recent law school graduates.

But what about for denizens of Biglaw, the lawyers fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to work at the nation’s largest law firms? What does 2012 hold for them?

Earlier this month, my colleague Elie made some predictions for the legal profession. I will follow in his footsteps and venture some prophecies of my own for the year….

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John J. O'Brien

Last August, John J. O’Brien, who was once a highly regarded and well-liked partner in the celebrated M&A practice of Sullivan & Cromwell, pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor tax offenses. The charges of conviction were mere misdemeanors, but the amounts involved were large, as you’d expect from a well-paid partner at S&C.

O’Brien was accused of failing to file income-tax returns for tax years 2001 to 2008, on almost $11 million in partnership income. In the end, he pleaded guilty to failing to file taxes relating to $9.2 million in partnership income, for tax years 2003 to 2008.

Earlier today, John O’Brien was sentenced. The sentencing hearing provided some interesting additional information about why O’Brien acted as he did.

So is O’Brien trading Biglaw for the Big House? And if so, how long a sentence did he receive?

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Despite the lukewarm job market, the lateral market for partners is going strong. Still, not all partner candidates are created equal. Whether you are trying to lateral to a big firm or a small firm, there are several considerations firms must analyze during the partner vetting process. Unlike the promotion of an internal candidate, a prospective firm does not have ready access to your employment file, does not know how you interact with co-workers, and has not seen you in real action.

On the flip-side, you do not know the internal politics of the firm, what the firm’s long-term strategic plan is, or if there are any potential conflicts with your clients. With all the unknowns, it will be the responsibility of the firm and the partner candidate to make sure all proper disclosures have been made to make sure both sides are compatible. If you are thinking about making a lateral move, check out the tips below, courtesy of the recruiters at Lateral Link….

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If you look back at the great law firm departure memos of years past, you’ll see that almost all of them were written by associates. When partners leave Biglaw, they tend to do so in rather staid fashion, presumably because they have less to complain about (although query whether that’s always the case; see, e.g., A Partner’s Lament).

Every now and then, you’ll come across a colorful farewell message penned by a partner. One such email, sent out last Friday by a longtime partner leaving a major law firm, is now making the rounds. Here’s a teaser: “I have realized that I cannot simultaneously meet the demands of career and family. Without criticizing those who have chosen lucre over progeny, let me just say that I am leaving the practice of law.”

Wow. So who’s the partner in question, which firm did he just leave with such flair, and what’s he planning to do next?

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This morning’s news that Boies Schiller is making a mockery of the Cravath bonus scale simply reinforces the prevailing view (pace David Lat) around here that the 2011 Cravath bonus scale is fundamentally unfair.

Agreeing on this point is former Kirkland & Ellis partner Steven Harper (whose apparent pro-associate stance may make him a sort of Biglaw apostate). As Harper points out, “equity partner profit trees have resumed their growth to the sky. As the economy struggled, Cravath’s average partner profits increased to $2.7 million in 2009 and to $3.17 million in 2010 … That’s not ‘treading water.’ It’s returning to 2007 profit levels — the height of ‘amazing’ boom years that most observers had declared gone forever. Watch for 2011 profits to be even higher.”

And yet associate bonuses remain stagnant at 2009 levels. Furthermore, as ATL commenter “The Cravath Cut” is so fond of noting, when viewed as a percentage of profits, bonuses appear especially measly, at least from the associate p.o.v. (The current $7,500 market rate for first-years is just 0.23% of Cravath’s profits per partner. Back in 2007, first-year bonuses equalled 1.36%.) Despite these numbers, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone Biglaw’s rank and file will follow Cravath’s lead.

Cravath is among the most profitable firms in the world. We thought it would be interesting to see what the implications of matching Cravath are for those firms with much lower profit margins. Which firms’ partners willingly take the biggest hit by keeping up? Are these firms arguably more “generous”? After the jump, check out those firms that pay the largest percentage of PPP in bonuses.

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New partners, jumping for joy.

Is making partner at a major law firm as desirable as it used to be? In an interesting article in the New York Times about the growing trend of lawyers leaving large firms to start their own boutiques, Margie Grossberg, a partner at the legal recruiting firm of Major, Lindsey & Africa, offered these observations: “In the past, associates found if they worked really hard and did the right things, they made partner. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. The odds are a lot slimmer, and it’s also not as coveted as it once was.”

These are all fair comments. Note also the number of partners who leave Biglaw behind for other opportunities, such as in-house posts, or government or judicial service.

At the same time, however, let’s face it: being a partner at a top law firm is still highly desirable. The pay, prestige, and perks are tremendous. In a recent survey of new partners by the American Lawyer, over 80 percent of respondents said their new jobs were either what they expected or better than they expected. As Aric Press of Am Law noted, “new partners are basking in the land of more: more money, more responsibility, and more information about their firms.”

This is especially true of partners at firms near the top of the Biglaw hierarchy — places like Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, with profits per partner in 2010 of $3.17 million and $2.64 million, respectively. They both announced new partnership classes this month.

Let’s learn about the new partners at CSM and STB. Maybe you know some of them — from college, or law school, or a case or matter you’ve worked on….

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At large law firms around the country, associates and counsel are eagerly awaiting their bonuses. But partners and chief financial officers have their minds on other things: namely, collections. The fourth quarter is when firms step up their efforts at shaking down clients for cash.

As we all know from the law-and-economics reasoning that was taught to us in law school, people — yes, this includes lawyers — respond to incentives. At one leading law firm, bonus anxiety is being shrewdly harnessed in service of collections efforts.

CHECK YOU TIME SHEETS….

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Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Associates are hoping that Cravath will kick off this year’s bonus season with news that engenders gratitude.

We’re also entering the season when major law firms announce their new partners. As we did last year, we’ll keep track of some of this action. Feel free to email us with information about the new partners at your firm and what the picks say about the firm’s direction and priorities.

At Wachtell Lipton, which announced its new partners on Tuesday afternoon, three lawyers can give thanks for being named to the powerhouse firm’s partnership. With profits per partner in excess of $4 million, they are the 1 percent.

Who are the new WLRK partners?

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Is $160,000 a 'garbage' salary?

There’s an interesting post up on Constitutional Daily by The Philadelphia Lawyer. It’s a repack from a 2007 article arguing that salaries for first-year associates should go up to $190,000 a year.

And he’s right.

I know, I know — most Americans are still feeling the effects of a terrible economy. Occupy Wall Street is about to take pitchforks to those who are well-off in this country. Yada, yada, we’ll get back to the very sad story of America momentarily.

But you know who has done well over the last five years or so? Law firms. Especially Biglaw firms. Especially partners at Biglaw firms. Just look at the Am Law reports on profits per partner and revenue per lawyer. Firms are making money, more than they were in 2007.

Yet the associate salary scale hasn’t seen a raise for almost five years. And bonuses are down compared to 2007. Is it time for firms to start sharing the wealth?

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Say hello to the Global 100 for 2011. This is the American Lawyer’s list of the world’s 100 largest law firms, ranked by total revenue.

There’s a lot of economic anxiety these days, with fears of a double-dip recession running rampant. But looking back — the list is compiled based on 2010 revenue numbers — the legal business seems to be hanging in there. As noted by Am Law, total revenue for the Global 100 increased by 3 percent last year.

Lawyers are a competitive lot. So you’re probably less interested in the overall figures than in how different firms fared in the rankings….

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