Partner Profits

Two weeks ago, I wrote about one of Biglaw’s most pressing issues: the failure of senior partners to pass along clients to younger partners. But that is not the only problem some of Biglaw’s senior partners are causing for their firms and the industry as a whole. Unfortunately, a measurable portion of senior partners, those of the august titles and stratospheric billing rates, are among the worst offenders of one of Biglaw’s most notorious shortcuts to extreme profitability: creative time entry and billing.

While I hate to acknowledge, even though I have seen it firsthand, that partners make up time entries wholesale for work never performed, it is not hard to realize that in this age of the multimillion-dollar partner there exists a tremendous incentive for such behavior. Or at least for partners to “round up” time entries, a tacitly accepted practice within Biglaw.

Incentives matter, and the more richly compensated a senior partner is, the more pressure there is on them to put down a solid four to five hours for “reviewing and revising” a draft brief on Tuesday, only to make a similar entry when they review a more robust version of the same brief a few days later. And because senior partners are frequently responsible for a horde of timekeepers below them, the tone set by the lawyers at the top of the pyramid has an impact on the behavior of those lower on the chain….

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Lat here. Going into the 2013 Biglaw bonus season, indicators were looking mixed.

Cravath, the supremely prestigious and profitable law firm that’s the traditional market leader on bonuses — as in the firm most widely followed by other firms, not necessarily the firm that pays the biggest bonuses — announced another large partner class. Last year, that boded well for bonuses.

On the other hand, Biglaw’s overall performance has been somewhat anemic this year. The stock market might be hitting new highs, but many law firms are running in place.

People have been waiting forever for Cravath to make its big announcement. Now the wait is over: at 4:45 p.m. today, Cravath announced its 2013 year-end bonuses.

How are they looking? What’s getting stuffed inside associate stockings this holiday season?

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The Biglaw year has a rhythm to it. As we approach Thanksgiving, there is an opportunity for each and everyone in Biglaw to take stock. Doing so is important, especially if one falls prey to the peculiar attempts by many to imbue meaning into Thanksgiving by “giving thanks,” before stuffing themselves into a stupor (followed by a six-hour-long “nap” on a relative’s couch and a frantic post-nap drive to some big-chain parking lot for the priceless opportunity to join the unwashed masses in a frenzied dash to save ten percent on the gadget du jour — if that is how people have their holiday fun, more power to them).

If you are going to make giving thanks a holiday focal point, at least do so mindfully. If you are still employed in Biglaw, you have a lot to think about.

If the events of this past year proved anything, it is that the change in Biglaw is irrevocable. In 2008, everyone suffered, driven by economic events bigger than the industry. In contrast, this year proved definitively that there are Biglaw firms that are winners, and getting stronger. But that list of firms is short. Most Biglaw firms are being challenged, and the responses they adopt to confront those challenges continues to be varied. Whether your firm is itching to merge at all costs, or continuing to whistle along as if nothing has changed (while frantically making moves under the radar to avoid giving even a whiff of being challenged), every Biglaw firm has wittingly or unwittingly decided on a future course. At a minimum, Biglaw lawyers should do the same on a personal level, with the understanding that for the great majority of Biglaw attorneys, career changes are more likely than career stability nowadays.

Checklists are helpful for assessing performance and ensuring that important considerations are not overlooked. While everyone’s personal checklist (or questionnaire, if you prefer) may look different, there are at least three categories that should be addressed on any Biglaw attorney’s year-end self-review: financial, professional, and personal. First, the financial….

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It’s nearly that time of year, when all the grueling hours that Biglaw associates have put in will pay off in the form of fat bonuses. Or don’t pay off, with miserly bonuses, or nothing at all. Or something in between? Point being, we have no idea how the 2013 bonus season will play out. Presumably, the answer is buried somewhere deep in Allen Parker’s unknowable heart.

The signs thus far are not especially encouraging, at least for those with a vested interest. (Admittedly, for most, this is all much ado about white-shoe people problems.)

Yes, Cravath might be doing well, at least if its large partner class is any indication. But on the subject of law firm 2013 profits in general, the Citi Bank Private Law Firm Group’s report on the first half of the year concluded:

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The Dewey nightmare continues for non-settling partners.

Many former partners of now-defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf signed up to join the “Partner Contribution Plan” that was hatched during the law firm’s bankruptcy case. The gist of the Plan: pay a certain sum (which varied from partner to partner) into the pot, and win a release from any future Dewey-related liability.

The main appeal of the Plan was finality, a way of putting the entire Dewey debacle in the rearview mirror. And that appeal was strong: more than 400 ex-partners agreed to the Plan, which freed them up to focus on their post-Dewey lives at new firms.

But a minority of former partners refused to sign on. A lawsuit filed last week against one ex-partner reveals what lies in store for them….

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Biglaw firms have a problem. They can’t get their senior partners to retire. Or to pass along their clients to younger partners fast enough.

The reasons for this unwelcome phenomenon are straightforward. First, today’s Biglaw senior partners are making too much money. Would you retire if you were making seven figures and billing 1200 to 1500 hours a year? Of course not. Especially if you are helping to support your children. Or in this age of the 70-year-old rainmaker, a grandchild’s “education” as a communications major at the top party school in this year’s rankings.

Kidding aside, I know that many senior partners have very valid reasons for continuing to maintain their Biglaw practices. But that does not mean that what works for them at an individual level is what is good for Biglaw as a whole. In fact, I think the “sticky senior” issue is the greatest long-term threat to the continued viability of many Biglaw firms….

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Let’s not mince words: Patton Boggs is stuck in the muck. In the most recent Am Law 100 rankings, the firm showed a 15 percent decline in profits per partner — one of the biggest dips in the entire survey, contrasting with the modest growth that most of Biglaw enjoyed. Gross revenue also fell, by 6.5 percent.

The Am Law 100 rankings looked at 2012 performance compared to 2011 performance. Perhaps things have improved for Patton Boggs in 2013?

Alas, no. While many firms have resorted to voluntary buyouts or layoffs of support staff this year, few have laid off lawyers (at least not openly). But Patton Boggs has already been through two significant, open and notorious rounds of layoffs in 2013 to date, affecting not just staff but lawyers as well.

How is Patton Boggs trying to save itself, and will its plan work?

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On this conservative analysis, an associate is bringing $640,000 in revenue to the firm while costing only $340,000, meaning that each associate has a surplus value to the firm of around $300,000/year.

On this model, a partner in a leveraged firm (i.e., four associates per partner), could make $1.2 million in a year without billing an hour.

Samuel Blatchford, breaking down the economics of associate compensation in Ramblings on Appeal. (That’s assuming an associate billing a mere 2000 hours/year, which many associates should have hit by August.)

It was just two weeks ago that we told you about the merger talks between Patton Boggs and Locke Lord. At the time, we wondered about redundancies between the two firms’ offices. We thought that “most jobs” would be safe, considering the fact that there were only three overlapping locations.

Well, it looks like we were dead wrong. Guess which firm just laid off both support staff and lawyers?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Nationwide Layoff Watch: Slimming Down For The Holidays”

As noted in Morning Docket, Citi’s quarterly review of the financial landscape facing law firms just came out. The surface level verdict is — as it has been for some time — slow and steady, with a bunch of red flags.

The firms are happy to see positive revenue growth, even if it’s only 2.7 percent. I mean, other industries aren’t so lucky. But when the industry is a few years into the “New Normal” and analysts are still pointing to the same failings, it’s hard to feel too optimistic.

Let’s look at the other highlights of the report:

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