Partner Profits

The new data on Biglaw’s performance in the first half of 2013, mentioned earlier in Morning Docket, shouldn’t surprise anyone. For the first half of 2013 (January through June), when compared to the same period in 2012, gross revenue is up slightly (by 1.5 percent), average hours per lawyer are down slightly (by 2.5 percent), and expenses are up slightly (by 3.5 percent). This is a pretty typical report card in the “new normal” — up a little on this metric, down a little on that metric, and overall basically running in place.

But the survey, from Wells Fargo Private Bank’s Legal Specialty Group, did contain a few interesting tidbits — including depressing information about partner productivity….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series from Bruce MacEwen and Janet Stanton of Adam Smith Esq. and JDMatch. “Across the Desk” takes a thoughtful look at recruiting, career paths, professional development, human capital, and related issues. Some of these pieces have previously appeared, in slightly different form, on AdamSmithEsq.com.

There seems to have been a spasm an unusual concentration of articles recently advancing the theory (I generalize) that all is well in BigLaw and that in fact even the universally acknowledged cost/benefit mismatch of a J.D. degree is mistaken.

Regular readers know that I’m the last person to be apocalyptic about the legal industry writ large, but I also would like to believe I apply rigor in analysis and tough love in attitude, so when sloppy happy talk comes front and center. I feel compelled to respond.

Law schools first. I haven’t really entered the “Law school NPV—positive or negative?” debate, and I don’t plan to start. It’s of enormous import on many levels, from the tragic human toll to the socioeconomic policy questions it raises. It’s simply a bit far afield for me to give it the attention it deserves. And I’m not going to do a half-baked job. Still, for the yin and yang of this debate, I refer you to (first pro and then con):

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On the “Our Professionals” section of its website, Finnegan Henderson boasts that it has “375 lawyers focused on IP.” It may be time to revise that downward: “371 lawyers focused on IP.”

Last night, the high-powered, intellectual-property-focused firm announced four notable partner departures. The Finnegan partners in question practice in the generally hot area of IP litigation (although we’ve heard anecdotal reports of cooling, including stealth layoffs of IP litigators — see here and here).

Who are the departing Finnegan partners, and where are they going?

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Summer is supposed to be relaxing. Biglaw partners are familiar with the concept of summer relaxation, primarily from hearing about other people relaxing. Sample July client exchange: “No rush on that project, we are heading up to the Cape for the weekend, and when we get back we are taking the kids for a week to Basque country for a wine and ham festival. Actually we might hit Marbella on the way back for the weekend. Tell the other side I’ll be available after Labor Day for a deposition. Let my secretary know if there are any emergencies. Thanks. I’ll buy a bottle of Priorat for us to share when we win this case.”

In Biglaw circles, this summer has been anything but relaxing. By now, everyone has an opinion on the New Republic article that announced to the literate masses the upcoming end of Biglaw. Hard-thinking Biglaw lawyers have already forming opinions on the various opinions circulating around the Biglaw water cooler. (We need an industry conference to hash all this out, maybe with some clients to give their input. The electronics companies have CES; we needs a massive industry event of our own.)

Back to the end of Biglaw. The media, consistent with our human tendency to draw generalizations based on examples that are outliers, is very skilled at highlighting human interest stories at the margins of an issue. So in the New Republic article, we were treated to a description of the impact of a Biglaw firm’s glories and travails on rainmakers (who, if London-based, apparently have the pull to get an audience with the royal baby’s nanny at minimum) and displaced associates — people on opposite poles of the Biglaw power spectrum. Interesting stories, and easy to write about.

Ultimately, however, we need to explore the purpose of the grand Biglaw experiment before we can proclaim whether it has succeeded or failed. And for that we have to look at how Biglaw has treated perhaps its most important, if much-maligned, constituency: the service partner….

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Is the slowdown in Biglaw that we’ve seen since the Great Recession a long-term trend or just a temporary blip? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, the debate rages on. (The latest salvo: New Republic editor Noam Scheiber’s response to critics of his controversial article, The Last Days of Big Law.)

Because of its power, prestige, and profitability, Biglaw gets a big proportion of the media coverage that’s aimed at law firms. But let’s not overlook small firms and solo practitioners, who make up about 70 percent of American lawyers in private practice.

One often hears stories about small firms, especially boutiques formed by ex-Biglaw attorneys, that are thriving. The tales are inspiring; the small-firm lawyers talk about how they enjoy their practice more, have greater autonomy, and make the same or even more money than they did back in Biglaw.

But such information is anecdotal. How are small law firms doing compared to bigger firms on a broader level? A new survey has some answers….

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[I]n today’s environment, averages mislead more than ever. If anything is true about law firm performance in the post-Great Reset era, it’s that dispersion has never been wider. We have more highly outperforming winners and more poorly underperforming laggards.

But if you want to generalize? Out of ‘alive, well, and rich,’ the evidence seems to support one for three.

– Lawyer and law firm consultant Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith, Esq., taking issue with the defense of Biglaw written by Robin Sparkman, editor in chief of the American Lawyer.

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 Peter Donati, the chair of Levenfeld Pearlstein’s Labor & Employment Group and the head of its Compensation Committee.

We’ve been conditioned to believe that lateral moves are all about money. Popular thinking — which may not be far from the truth — holds that law firms, held in collective thrall by the American Lawyer’s profit-per-partner numbers, focus on lateral hiring as the first step in a virtuous cycle that will increase their PPP metric, in turn attract more profitable laterals, and so on and so on. Laterals themselves, meanwhile, are viewed as economic actors lured away from their firms primarily through the prospect of increased, or guaranteed, compensation.

(Given the prominent role that guaranteed compensation is said to have played in the downfall of Dewey, and the pains Weil Gotshal took to point out its relative lack of compensation guarantees when announcing its recent layoffs, this particular carrot may be falling out of fashion. Even Weil conceded, however, that it has compensation guarantees in place for first-year laterals.)

In light of the focus on dollars in connection with lateral moves, it may surprise the reader to hear the head of a compensation committee say that in many cases, lateral candidates do not talk enough about money. To be more specific, lateral candidates often don’t scratch beneath surface questioning about their prospective new firm’s compensation system. If they did, their answers would inform them more deeply not only about their future paychecks, but the character of the firm they are considering….

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Isn’t it a bit early to be pocketing bonus money?

As law students gear up for fall recruiting season — yes, the Biglaw gravy train still accepts new passengers, even if not as many as before — some rising 2Ls might start to think, after researching firm after firm, “All of these places sound alike! They all have cutting-edge practices in bet-the-company litigation or cross-border M&A. They all have collegial cultures and ‘no screamers.’ They’re all committed to diversity and pro bono.”

But there are real differences between law firms. If you doubt this, just check out Above the Law’s Law Firm Directory. You can see the different letter grades we’ve assigned to firms, based on reports from lawyers who work at each firm and on overall industry reputation.

Further proof that law firms aren’t all the same: while some firms are giving out pink slips, others are issuing bonus checks. And we’re in the middle of July, not exactly peak bonus season. What gives?

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Overcapacity. The Biglaw word du jour. Too many lawyers working in Biglaw to meet demand. Or is it too many lawyers in Biglaw to foist on that subset of clients still willing to pay those rates that guarantee profits-per-partner increases? Either way, the word is out. Biglaw is suffering from overcapacity. Something must be done.

Some firms will undoubtedly send out the message that every single one of their lawyers is in great demand. Debate among yourselves whether or not these firms are “stealth layoff” candidates.

Other firms have already taken action (e.g., Weil Gotshal) — sweeping, public action. Hopefully they did not enjoy what they were “forced” to do too much. The first cut is the hardest, as they say, and who can say that one of these firms won’t decide to wield the layoff katana like a sake-infused samurai?

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One of the more amusing law firm nicknames belongs to Weil Gotshal & Manges. As we noted a few years ago, some refer to the firm as “We’ll Getcha & Mangle Ya.”

Alas, the nickname is less funny in the wake of yesterday’s big layoff news. The firm announced it will be cutting 60 associates and 110 staffers from the payroll. Despite the generous six-month severance for associates, some probably feel like their legal careers have been mangled. The firm also plans to reduce the compensation of about 10 percent of its partners (roughly 30 out of 300, some income and some equity partners).

Let’s take a closer look at the layoffs and try to make sense of them….

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