Anonymous Partner

Before David emailed me late Sunday night alerting me to the New Republic article that is the topic of the day (as it should be), these were the lead paragraphs to my column this week:

“I used to run to work a lot. Not for exercise. And not because I was late. Because I was excited to get to the office. I don’t know if I was the only one in my group whose pace would quicken as they got closer to the office. I know mine did. Maybe that enthusiasm contributed to my making partner when many other talented attorneys went (sometimes willingly, most times not) in a different direction. I actually loved being a Biglaw lawyer. There were cases presenting problems to solve, and I was grateful for the opportunity to be a part of trying to accomplish that for high-end clients. More often than not, the days when I would be hustling to get to work would be good days. Purposeful days.”

“To be clear, I was never one of those people who was in the office at 6:30 a.m., pretending that I had gotten so much important work already done by the time everyone else rolled in. (As an aside, these types are usually insufferable or desperate, and thankfully no one is seriously suggesting that the solution to Biglaw’s problems is an earlier average start time.) As I got more senior, my typical start time got later. Mornings were the only time I could reliably spend with my kids, and as busy as things were, I could never be assured that I would not be handling more work after my wife went to bed. So I took advantage of the Biglaw perk that is the exclusive province of Biglaw ‘timekeepers’ (attorneys and paralegals usually) — the ability to show up at an hour that for most corporate employees is when the lunch pangs start kicking in….”

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Today is Tisha B’Av (lit. the 9th day of the month of Av), the “heaviest” day on the Jewish calendar. It is a day of national mourning, observed through the adoption of Jewish mourning customs, such as not shaving or wearing leather shoes, among others. It is also a fast day, meaning no eating or drinking, and one that is similar to Yom Kippur in its 25-hour duration.

For Jews, the tragic national events underlying this day are unfortunately plentiful, from the destruction of the two ancient Jewish temples to the mass expulsion of Jews from the Iberian peninsula in 1492 — and more. In contrast to Jewish mourning customs upon the death of a person, where the severity of the mourning customs decreases as time passes from the burial of the deceased, the period immediately preceding Tisha B’av sees an increasing adoption of displays of grief, culminating in the observance of the day itself. In short, the mourning is experienced, as well as reflected on.

Interestingly, this sad and mournful day is also considered a holiday — suggesting there can be positive aspects to putting oneself “in the mood” by experiencing and reflecting on the message of the day. Many in Biglaw are familiar with the general contours of the Jewish holidays, considering the outsized presence of Jewish lawyers (of varying observance levels) at many firms, particularly in those cities with large Jewish populations. One way of categorizing those holidays is to relate them to different aspects of the human condition: Passover celebrates the human need for freedom, Yom Kippur the need for repentance and a fresh start, and so forth. Mourning is a universal human experience as well, and thus deserving of its own special day, to be visited on an annual basis. A holiday implies an active process for its celebrants, in contrast to simply recalling a tragic series of events.

The question becomes, what is the value in experiencing a “taste” of loss every year? Let us relate our discussion to Biglaw….

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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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Summer is finally here, and the halls of Biglaw are more clogged than usual. But it is not because the partners have been hitting the desserts harder at their monthly meeting in an attempt to look even worse during bathing suit season. Nope, the guys and gals walking the halls do not look like your typical Biglaw legal eagle. They are too young, too fit, and too excited to be there.

Yup, it is summer associate season. A new crop of recruits, eagerly brandishing their 1L transcripts as evidence of their legal ability, ready to conquer Biglaw. Or at least to eat as much good free food as they can, while pretending to “work” in between breakfast with the real-estate group, lunch with the litigators, and a social event after-hours with whatever motley crew of “presentable” lawyers the firm can pull together.

There were strict rules as to which lawyers were allowed to interact with the summers. It usually came down to looks/personality, and enthusiasm for the firm. Everyone wanted the summers to leave with a good impression. No firm wanted to be lowly-ranked on the summer associate surveys that would follow summer associate season. “Uh-oh, our five summer associates in Miami gave us a 3.8 out of 5 on their happiness scale. This is a crisis — next year we need to rent a party boat for an impromptu cruise to Key West, and make everyone take the survey while still happily boozed up.”

Quaint as it now seems, that kind of thinking (if only a bit exaggerated) was normal for Biglaw in the go-go late-90s and 2000s. Oh how times have changed….

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One firm just started pocketing 20 percent of partner pay.

Many lessons can be drawn from the collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf. We’ve learned, for example, that it’s dangerous to have a law firm name that’s highly susceptible to puns. (Dewey know why that is? Howrey going to find out? Heller if I know.)

Another lesson: avoid excessive dependence upon bank financing. When a firm starts to spiral downwards, that spiraling can be accelerated by a bank calling a loan, not renewing a credit facility, or otherwise taking steps to protect itself that, while reasonable for the bank, can be damaging to the firm.

Firms have responded by turning to their partners for more financing. An increasing number of firms are issuing capital calls to partners or requiring high capital contributions.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that one law firm has instituted a new policy of withholding 20 percent of partner pay….

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General Spoiler Alert: You may not want to read this column if you have not yet finished reading “A Storm of Swords” (affiliate link) or finished watching season three of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Care has been taken to eliminate any spoilers, but by definition spoilers are personal, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the books or show.

Imagine a conference room. Filled with lawyers, in this case an Am Law 100 law firm’s D.C.-based bankruptcy practice. Fifteen lawyers in total. Four partners, two senior counsel, and nine associates of various experience levels. All came to the firm four years ago, when the then-nascent mega-firm picked up an entire D.C.-centric firm in a merger. The bankruptcy guys decided to go with the new outfit, choosing to remain with old colleagues and hoping for some exposure to the new mega-firm’s promised synergies. Business has been okay, even as the current year has been a little soft. In their minds, it also would have been nice to have more fellow bankruptcy practitioners in other offices, but despite their relative isolation (in geography and practice area), the group has managed to pick up a big matter or two via referral from other groups. Things are plodding along.

The head of the practice is about to turn the reins of the meeting over to one of the associates — who will be summarizing some recent case law out of Delaware. It is a spring Tuesday, and everyone is eating, drinking, or doing the smartphone stare. All of a sudden, the door swings open. In marches the office managing partner, flanked by the office manager/HR liason, and one of the D.C.-based members of the executive committee — who closes the door and locks it….

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I did not plan to write an anniversary column this week. But since I try and write about the things that are on my mind, I have no choice.

A year ago, my first column appeared. I did not know what to expect. All I hoped was that it would be an interesting experience. And that I would be able to contribute to the discussion about what it means to be a partner in Biglaw. The Biglaw of today — not the Biglaw of yore, with its WASP firms and its Jewish ones, white-shoes and Wall Street, single offices and “friendly competition.” Because that world has died, and anyone reading this has an interest in thriving in the current one….

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If you are a Biglaw partner and have only one title to hawk, I hope you are at a really top-tier firm. Because “partner” is no longer enough to impress clients. Especially in this age of multiple industry “guides” eager to anoint mortal lawyers with honorifics befitting your typical episode of Game of Thrones. (I am sure there is a female head of litigation somewhere who would relish being called Mother of Dragons, or a managing partner in Silicon Valley who would not mind being thought of as Lord of the Vale.) Between Chambers, Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers in America, and others, there are plenty of possibilities to supplement “partner” with something more.

Of course, the race for titles happens internally at Biglaw firms as well. Factor number one is prior business generation. Rainmakers are given titles by their fellow partners, like farmers seeding clouds for future rainfall. Every firm has at least a managing partner or CEO, numerous practice group heads, and an executive committee. Some firms, typically those of the “eat what you kill” variety, also exhibit a form of “title inflation,” with co-chairs galore and sub-department chieftains abounding. Plus office-level “chairs” — it is always a hoot when there is a local head of litigation for a branch office with three litigators. Especially when the branch office is a major city, with dozens of robust litigation practices at other Biglaw firms for clients to choose from. Everyone who has been granted a title uses it when marketing outside the firm. Who would want to hire a regular partner for a bankruptcy matter when you can have the co-chair of the Boston office’s (two-member) restructuring department handling things?

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I am a lucky guy. I have two true partners in life: my mother and my wife. They each contribute to my happiness in different, but equally vital, ways. To them, I wish a Happy Mother’s Day.

Even though my mom does not know I write this column. When I write things related to my legal practice, I try and send her copies. But she is relatively new to email, and she is always busy between her kids and growing collection of grandchildren. I am not sure she reads what I send her. Nor is she that impressed with any of my career accomplishments. But that is fine, and truth is, she needn’t be. That is not the standard, just as my career accomplishments are not my standard for success in life. It is more important that she take pride in the family I have built, as that is truly my life’s work.

I am not qualified to talk about what being a mom in Biglaw is like (father, yes, as I have been a father for my entire Biglaw career). From observation, being a mom in Biglaw looks very difficult. It is one thing if you are a partner with teenage kids, and you went to law school after your kids reached grade-school age. Biglaw partner moms are generally a rare breed. What I see more often are associates and junior partners struggling to balance the demands of having and raising children with trying to advance in Biglaw. Very rarely are both objectives accomplished. I have tried to think about how I would feel if I was in such a situation. Unsuccessfully. Honestly, even if I was married to Oprah, I could never see myself playing stay-at-home dad, or even having primary responsibility for the children while trying to have a legal career. So I respect the mothers out there that are at least trying….

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