One of the most important voices in the academic legal community, particularly on the topic of the business of law, and Biglaw in general, is Professor William (Bill) Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. I personally have long admired his work, and I was very pleased when he reached out to me after he had read my column on Biglaw’s “sticky seniors” problem.
At that point, I asked him if he was willing to do a written interview, and he graciously agreed, on the condition that he later have the opportunity to ask me questions. I look forward to doing so, and in the meantime I hope you find his answers to my questions as informative as I did. I’d like to thank Professor Henderson for agreeing to this interview, and for all the important work he is carrying out. As with my prior interviews, the commentary below Professor Henderson’s answers is mine alone.
AP: You got in touch with me regarding my column on Biglaw’s issues with senior partners. What are your thoughts on the issue?
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….
The year-end Biglaw management machine is starting to grind into motion. The compensation committee is starting to look at the numbers for individual partners — to decide who will be rewarded and who will be de-equitized. And the firm’s A/R collections crew is starting to pressure the partnership to get bills out the door and talk to clients about what will be paid by year’s end. The associate bonus committee? If one still exists, is must be having a hard time reserving conference room space to meet.
The end of the year is a serious time for law firms. For many individual lawyers in Biglaw, it is the time of year when their die may be cast, in terms of compensation, lateral movement options, or even their continued employment. As anyone who follows Biglaw knows, we are living in interesting times, with many firms navigating choppy seas in terms of client demand, financial performance, and expense management. And at many firms, there has never been a wider gulf between the rank-and-file partner and firm management when it comes to the ability to make or influence decisions about the firm. Partners at many firms are often clueless about what the firm is doing and why, to the extent that partners are asked to vote on lateral candidates or even mergers based solely on the “reassurances” and “enthusiastic outlook” of management.
The net effect of this divide between management and the partnership? An increasing sense among partners that they are simply assets of legal “brands” rather than owners or even stewards of a professional enterprise. For many, it is a bit of a hopeless feeling, especially when they consider the Biglaw options down the street, which usually present the same level of management opacity to the putative “owners” as their current firm. But just because management likes to tell the partnership to “leave the managing to us, you just focus on building your practice” does not mean partners aren’t entitled to information — even if it’s just the personal views of the managing partner on certain issues.
Here are five questions for your managing partner. The topics are varied, but the answers given should give partners a good sense of both their relative standing within their firms and the values that drive the business decisions of their leadership….
As we have discussed the past twoweeks, Biglaw business development is not easy. The available flavors at the Biglaw business development ice cream stand are hardest (cold calls), harder (intra-firm networking and beauty contests), and plain old hard. As in turning referrals and unsolicited contacts from prospective clients into engagements. That is hard to do, but nowhere near as difficult as trying to land the matter when the prospective client has not invested in contacting you beforehand, or at least heard about you from a source that they trust. There is a reason rainmakers take the largest share of the Biglaw pie, even at white-shoe lockstep firms.
Getting other lawyers to refer you matters, even from within your own firm, is hard. The foundation one needs to generate referrals is the exact same one that is required to have success generating business through other methods. But there is an extra ingredient, or at least a greater emphasis on a particular ingredient, that needs to be there if you hope to get referrals. That ingredient? Let’s call it likability. No matter how skilled a lawyer you are, or how hallowed your reputation, you simply must be likable in order to generate referrals. Of course, the definition of likability becomes quite a bit more expansive when applied to lawyers considered at the top of their fields. Simply put, the person referring you has to feel good about making the referral, and they are much more likely to feel good if they consider you an agreeable person, at least to do business with.
Unsurprisingly, the definition of likability in the Biglaw context is quite different from the standards we normally apply when talking about the real world. For those who like analogies, consider that Biglaw likability is to indisputable real-world likability as Biglaw “hot” is to indisputable real-world hotness….
Last week we discussed the high-risk, high-reward approach of making cold calls to develop business. Because of the low percentage of success even the most personable and sales-skilled Biglaw lawyers have when adopting that approach, any business development effort that relies on cold-calling exclusively is almost impossible to sustain in a Biglaw setting. And there is a valid argument that one does not really need Biglaw if they are able to establish a strong track record developing business through cold calls. In fact, the successful legal “cold-caller” would likely thrive without the artificial constraints the Biglaw business model (e.g., rates, types of matters) places on its partners. Again though, it is the rare Biglaw attorney who generates a single matter via a “cold call” (or a single new client for their firm actually), and rarer still to find one capable of doing it with enough regularity as to sustain a Biglaw career.
So while trying a cold call on occasion is an important element of a comprehensive business development approach, you need to “work” the resources of your firm to try and generate business. That means selling yourself to existing firm clients, participating in client pitches for new business that are generated by the firm, and making a good impression on your colleagues. The latter is important, because you never know which of your colleagues will go in-house and be in a position to give you work down the road. In many ways, trying to use your firm’s resources for business development is the traditional Biglaw approach to business development. As the contracting ranks of Biglaw equity partners suggest, it is a hard way of generating business — and getting harder…
Following the lead of Kilpatrick Stockton, Orrick, and other Biglaw firms, Greenberg Traurig has created some new non-partnership-track attorney positions. They pay less than traditional partnership-track — or, in GT parlance, shareholder-track — positions, but the billable-hour requirements are lower and the training is better.
What do these positions look like? Let’s find out….
Blink and it is October. The last quarter of the Biglaw year is officially in play. Unfortunately, there is no indication that this fourth quarter will see the flurry of pre-tax-law-changes deal activity that salvaged 2012 for a lot of Biglaw firms. So firm leaders will actually have to manage, over the next few months, (1) the usual expectations from the partnership regarding end-of-year bonuses and distributions; (2) the lateral activity “silly season” we’re now in, especially if the firm is recruiting laterals for the purposes of adding talent and not just a short-term revenue boost; (3) the broken associate system at many Biglaw firms, where attrition is celebrated with a fervor that used to welcome the huge Biglaw first-year classes of yore with their promise of profit-driving leverage; and (4) the decision on whether to invite any of their surviving counsels and associates into the partnership. Yes, Biglaw firms will continue to make new partners. The smarter non-lockstep one-tier shops will make as many as they can. Or at least should.
And people who are gunning for partner in today’s Biglaw should be more vocal about making the business case for their candidacy. If they can’t, they have their answer. But if they can and don’t, then they are actually proving that they are not yet partner material. Because for most Biglaw firms, more partners, especially younger ones, are essential. And trying to buy that young core on the lateral market is a difficult and expensive task.
Why should Biglaw firms be thinking of minting more rather than fewer partners?
If you work in Biglaw, there is a very good chance that you represent at least a few publicly traded companies. For these companies, and their employees, thinking about business performance is usually framed temporally in quarters — as in “it was a great quarter” or “we need to close out this case by the end of the quarter.” Of course, investors and the public are kept apprised of company performance through quarterly reports as well.
I must confess that this time increment, the “quarter,” took some adjusting to. In fact, until I joined Biglaw, and worked on a case for a publicly-traded client, I had never used the term in a temporal context. By now, after over a decade of working with publicly traded corporations and their employees, corporate-speak such as references to quarters has become much more familiar to me. And while I would never ask my kids what their expectations are for school performance this quarter, I see definite value in measuring professional performance along that time frame….
There is plenty of negativity surrounding Biglaw nowadays. Time for a little positivity, with some help from the audience. I want to hear about young partners in Biglaw who are making a difference in their firms, for their clients, or in the lives of their colleagues. Good examples for us to learn from and emulate. If you know of someone deserving of recognition, let me know. The nominations will be kept anonymous, and I will only follow up with the permission of the person doing the nominating, and the nominated young partner as well.
Ground rules? Age matters. The younger the better, if only because the younger the partner the longer the potential Biglaw career. And nominees must be succeeding within the Biglaw framework. This is not a generic “great young lawyer” award. I know there are plenty of great young lawyers out there. I want to know about the ones doing cool things within the Biglaw framework. The same framework that usually skews older than your typical post-golf round brunch at a Scottsdale resort.
What kinds of cool things? Succeeding at business development, and especially helping others do the same. Using technology in a way that improves client service, and the lives of colleagues as well. Introducing new management techniques to a practice group, or teaching associates the skills that they need to move forward. All the things that we used to expect older partners to do, before clients decided to add a zero to the profits-per-partner of many firms, and everyone from Biglaw’s gold-laden generation developed the attention span of a four-year old with a confiscated iPad when it came to anything other than money. Take a broad view. There are at least one or two such innovative, dynamic, and pleasant junior partners at every Biglaw firm. Let’s hear about them….
About a month ago, I read an article about a new position available for experienced attorneys at a certain Biglaw firm. The firm? Kilpatrick Townsend. The position? Something called a “department attorney.”
Before we get into what that is, and some of the implications for Biglaw if this new kind of position takes hold, let’s take a look at the listing of open positions on Kilpatrick’s website. Currently, the firm is advertising for nine associate positions, six of which are in the patent area (including two for patent “prosection” (sic) associates, who hopefully will be better at including all the letters in a word than the firm’s recruiting staff).
Want to be a department attorney? Well, for you there are ten open positions. The breakdown? Eight in trademarks, two in patent prosecution. The common denominator of those disciplines? Shrinking margins for Biglaw, in the face of competition from IP boutiques specializing in volume work, and bulked-up in-house departments doing more on their own. In light of those shrinking margins, the firm’s desire to hire more department attorneys than full-bore associates is understandable. At least they are hiring….
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past six years. You can reach them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We currently have a very exciting and rare type of in-house opening in China at one of the world’s leading internet and social media companies. Our client is looking for an IP Transactional / TMT / Licensing attorney with 2 to 6 years experience. The new hire will be based in Shenzhen or Shanghai. Mandarin is not required (deal documentation will be in English) but is preferred. A solid reason to be in China and a commitment to that market is required of course. This new hire will likely be US qualified (but could also be qualified in UK or other jurisdictions) and with experience and training at a top law firm’s IP transactional / TMT practice and could be currently at a law firm or in-house. Qualified candidates currently Asia based, Europe based or US based will be considered. The new hire’s supervisors in this technology transactions in-house team are very well regarded US trained IP transactional lawyers, with substantial experience at Silicon Valley firms. The culture and atmosphere in this in-house group and the company in general is entrepreneurial, team oriented, and the work is cutting edge, even for a cutting edge industry. The upside of being in an important strategic in-house position in this fast growing and world leading internet company is of the “sky is the limit” variety. Its a very exciting place to be in China for a rising IP transactional lawyer in our opinion, for many reasons beyond the basic info we can share here in this ad / post. This is a special A+ opportunity.
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When Chintan Panchal decided to leave a global BigLaw partnership to start his own firm, he could only hope that he would face the high-quality problem of firm building that many had cautioned him about. Focused on the uncertainty surrounding of a new firm launch, he decided to tackle staffing needs, IT challenges, and financial planning requirements after he had built up his legal practice.
Panchal Associates LLP–a corporate/finance and outside general counsel boutique–was quickly off to a great start. Clients and matters were flying in the door, and Chintan soon had a team of lawyers and staff with a variety of operational needs. To continue building an excellent team and provide them with a competitive benefits package, to expand his physical presence to include a European practice and additional partners, and to scale his operations and IT capabilities to support this growing enterprise brought with it demands of time, money, and expertise. Chintan knew he needed help.
“With the assistance of NexFirm, we have upgraded the capabilities of our firm to meet, and in some cases exceed, the standards we were used to at our former BigLaw firms. Operationally, we can now attract and service clients we didn’t have the bandwidth to support in the past, and continue to build our team with the best and brightest legal talent in the industry,” said Chintan Panchal, adding “It has worked out quite well in our case; NexFirm is an essential partner for us.”
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