Altman Weil Inc.

It’s always sunny – or raining money? – in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia: it’s all about the Benjamin. The city abounds in tributes to its famous founding father, Benjamin Franklin. It even boasts a museum devoted to his life and times.

And maybe Philly will be all about the benjamins, plural — as in hundred-dollar bills. There’s speculation afoot that the new going rate for first-year associates in this city could rise to $160,000.

What’s the basis of the speculation? And could a Philadelphia pay raise have implications for other markets?

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‘The layoff train’s gonna derail Biglaw!’

I’m surprised that anybody’s surprised. You’re going to continue to see it as firms look [to save money] in a slow-growth or no-growth economy. By far and away the biggest savings area is people.

Thomas S. Clay, a principal with Altman Weil, explaining that additional staff layoffs will soon be coming down the pipeline at Biglaw firms nationwide, specifically because nonlawyer staff salaries represent about 40 percent of a firm’s expenses.

[Think of hourly fees] as the equivalent of a sticker on the car at a dealership. It’s the beginning of a negotiation…. Law firms think they are setting the rates, but clients are the ones determining what they’re going to pay.

Ward Bower, a principal at the legal consultancy Altman Weil, commenting on the ever-growing price tag for the Biglaw billable hour — and the deep discounts that are available to clients who simply refuse to pay full freight.


As businesses go, the business of law isn’t extremely capital intensive. Most of the capital in Biglaw is really human capital. As one bankruptcy lawyer put it, “It’s incredible how fragile law firms are. Unlike a company, the principal assets walk out the door every night.”

But law firms do need some capital. Those fabulous offices — and fabulous associates, at $160,000 and up — don’t come cheap.

Firms can obtain the capital they need to operate through borrowing; but credit needs to be used judiciously, lest a firm go the way of Dewey & LeBoeuf. And partners make capital contributions to the firm, most notably when they buy into the partnership.

But sometimes that capital isn’t enough. So firms issue capital calls to their partners, which brings us to today’s topic….

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According to the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.), small law firms have adopted the mantra: merge or die. Indeed, the number of law firm mergers is staggering. “At least 60 mergers occurred in the U.S. and abroad last year, the highest level since 2008 and a 54% jump from 2010, according to legal-industry consulting firm Altman Weil Inc. Industry experts expect the figure to rise this year.”

Why the up-tick in mergers? The economic downturn has caused a shift when it comes to legal service providers: it is a “seller’s market for the first time in 20 years.” In other words, law firms are not able to raise rates in order to increase profits. So, small firms turn to mergers as a way to increase their revenue and allow them to compete with all-purpose, larger firms. Randall H. Miller, who as managing partner at Denver-based Holme Roberts & Owen LLP helped engineer its acquisition by Bryan Cave, explained that “[l]ittle by little, our ability to service our clients’ needs ha[d] been limited by our smaller size,” which was why he pushed for the merger.

Yet, small firm to large firm mergers are not the answer for all small firms. The article featured several potential problems….

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