Lat had it right last week. There is a big, and growing, partner compensation spread at nearly all Biglaw shops. And as I mentioned in an earlier column, it is not uncommon to make partner and not see a bump in guaranteed pay at all. Factor in the additional expenses Lat references, such as tax and insurance outlays, and the first few years of partnership can be a net loss for some partners. Even if you finance your buy-in. And especially if you were the beneficiary of some big bonuses, for the suicidal hours you had just put in (big profits for your Biglaw firm!) as a counsel or senior associate in order to get elected.
So please don’t assume that every one of the people you see named as new Biglaw partners (usually in a breathless press release, and sometimes even with an ad in the American Lawyer) are signing contracts for their dream “lawyerly lairs” straightaway. If they are, it’s because they have family money or are a two-professional, no-kid type-family. Otherwise, they are headed for some tight times once they realize that they have to pay federal taxes (including Medicare and Social Security), state taxes (often in every state their firm operates), local taxes (for their beautiful new property), and a real accountant who can figure the whole mess out for them.
Most people don’t realize this, and Biglaw is in no rush to pop the fantasy bubble. Better to have associates motivated by dreams of what Lat referred to as “instant riches.” Better to maintain the prestige of the profession by pretending that making partner at a Biglaw firm is a tremendous achievement, regardless of what firm, practice group, or locale. It’s an achievement, sure. Just like getting elected to some political office. But there is a big difference between getting elected to the U.S. Senate and getting elected as deputy tax commissioner somewhere….
What’s left? Today’s topic: How to drive outside counsel nuts.
I’d say that I’ve been thinking long and hard about this subject to permit me to draft this column, but that wouldn’t be true. I’m a natural at this!
How do you drive outside counsel nuts?
First: Insist that outside counsel prepare a budget for every matter. Then complain that the budget is too high; tell counsel to reduce it. Complain that your business will never accept even the revised budget, and tell counsel to cut the estimate further. When you get the second revision, gin up some reason why even that’s too high, and have counsel cut the budget again.
Six months later, when counsel has blown through the budget, refuse to pay the bill! “You told me you could handle this case for damn near nothing. And now you want all this money? This is far more than what you budgeted. There’s no way we’re paying this!”
See? I told you that I was a natural. And I’m just getting warmed up . . . .
Is being a partner that different from being an associate? Contrary to popular belief, becoming a law firm partner is not a path to instant riches. In the early years, your compensation might not be that much higher than it was when you were an associate or counsel. Your taxes might go up, you might have to pay for your own health insurance and other benefits, and you might have to buy into the partnership. Sure, you might be able to borrow the capital contribution from a bank — but remember, you’re liable on that loan, and the bank might pursue you if it doesn’t get repaid.
Our partner readers sometimes complain about the stereotype that they’re all fat cats. As one of them recently wrote, “[Please don't write] about being admitted to partnership and instantly becoming rich…. At virtually every firm, you become a partner and then start to hope that, over the course of a career, your income will increase to ‘average partner income’ and your hours will decrease to ‘average partner hours.’ Rainmakers reach that goal quickly, but many partners — perhaps a majority in most firms — spend a lifetime waiting for, and never reaching, those goals.”
Of course, that’s the subjective experience of one reader. What does the big picture show? There’s a new report out about partner pay that contains lots of interesting information….
Before I provide some advice on client relations that will be deemed “totally wrong” by some and “good advice” by me pretending to be anonymous, I wanted you all to know that I bought a wireless printer that allows me to send documents from my phone, wherever I am, to my printer at my office. Although I currently have no use for this feature in my law practice, and haven’t in 17 years, I hope this puts me in better stead with those of you that think I hate tech.
Now let’s talk about clients, for those of you that have some.
The core of running a practice is machines and toys clients. That you are able to do competent work for clients doesn’t matter if you are not versed in the retaining and retention of them. The retention of any client starts at the initial contact, not when they come to your coffee shop office with a check. For those of you who have practices where you never meet with clients, your initial contact with them (unless it’s them using your website as an ATM to buy documents) is even more important.
While you may be in a position where the client is only calling you, most clients are calling several lawyers. Regardless, you are now auditioning for the job. That audition begins at the very moment you first speak to the client, or the person calling for the client….
* Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one Supreme Court justice thinks that things will be back to normal at One First Street come the start of the next term, despite his colleagues’ loose lips. [National Law Journal]
* Hourly billing rates for associate are on the rise nationwide, while partner and counsel billing rates only saw modest bumps. Is Biglaw back in business, or is this just another “retention strategy”? [New York Law Journal]
* This is a really hard to believe newspaper headline: “Law firm recognizes employees have life outside of work.” Carlton Fields, what kind of gypsy voodoo magic spells are you casting? [South Florida Sun-Sentinel]
* Another day, another editorial about the “irretrievably broken” state of legal education in our country. But the ABA admins needn’t worry their oblivious little heads, because people will keep applying. [New York Times]
* And in today’s disturbing law school debtor news, Jason Bohn’s charge was upgraded to first-degree murder after a DA announced via indictment that Bohn allegedly intended to torture his victim. [New York Post]
* “Quite frankly, these are the actions of a dirty old man.” You can look, but never lick: it’s not really a good thing when a judge uses a sentence like this to describe an attorney’s alleged client relations skills. [CBS News]
* For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball fraud game. Lenny Dykstra pleaded guilty to bankruptcy fraud among a potpourri of other felony counts, and he’ll now face up to 20 years in prison. [CNN]
Over the last few years, the legal market has changed dramatically. We live in a buyer’s market in which the clients hold the upper hand and can demand financial concessions from their attorneys that go beyond lower hourly rates.
This good news for clients might sound like bad news for lawyers. If lawyers can’t charge as much, they likely won’t make as much. But although greater price competition might lower revenue for some firms, it surely presents an opportunity for others. Small law firms often compete with bigger firms on price, and increased client sensitivity to legal fees can be a marketing boon to firms that can undercut their competition (with the familiar caveat, of course, that the smaller firm must be able to provide the resources and quality required by the particular matter).
The changing market invites, if not demands, lawyers to offer concessions for clients. Happily, many of the concessions have relatively little impact on the firm’s bottom line, but can garner significant goodwill with clients. For example….
Here’s a puzzle for you. What decade am I discussing in the following paragraphs?
I’m doing something a little different here. The entire text of this column appears before the jump. I’ve hidden only the citations after the jump. Ponder while you read these paragraphs when the source materials supporting these words were written:
The excessive cost of legal services is not a function of the economy that will abate as the recession finally fades. In the words of one recent report, “Don’t fool yourselves that when the recession passes things will return to normal.” That report quoted the general counsel of a major financial institution as saying, “The way we are now is the way it is now, not a temporary situation . . . . [I]n the [decade omitted] we’re going to see straight hourly billing die.”
Surveys confirm the concerns about the high cost of legal services. For example, in a [year omitted] general counsel survey conducted by [the firm you know as PriceWaterhouseCoopers], a majority of the 350 respondents agreed that “legal fees have gotten out of control and are crippling businesses,” and pressure to reduce costs was a “major theme” of the survey responses. Surveys of corporate law departments conducted by Endispute, Inc. in [two years omitted] reveal that a third of the respondents faced actual cuts in their legal budgets and that, as the size of the legal departments increased, so too did the pressure to reduce legal costs. A [year omitted] Louis Harris survey of executives and legal officers of Fortune 500 service corporations reveals cost containment as a top priority for law departments, and a survey of major corporate clients in the United Kingdom demonstrates that this is now a worldwide issue.
The pressure to move away from standard billing, based on the billable hour, is likely to increase. Indeed, [name omitted], the recently appointed general counsel of [company name omitted], is leading an intense campaign to adopt alternative billing mechanisms. Her efforts have been broadly publicized and resulted in a highly visible panel at the [year omitted] ABA meeting.
In what years did these things occur? What decade are we discussing? And who the heck was the recently appointed general counsel of what company? Those citations and more after the jump….
You spend three years of your life going to law school. You spend over a hundred thousand dollars on getting that education. You take a difficult entrance exam to prove that you are qualified to practice law. You’d think that after all that you’d be able to convince sophisticated clients of your value as a lawyer.
You would, of course, be wrong.
The Wall Street Journal reports that over 20% of corporate clients simply refuse to pay for first- or second-year associate work on some matters.
This is a terrible indictment of the value of a legal education….
So Lat calls me up all excited about some Biglaw Midsummer Bonus or something, which I totally ignore, and also about some hysterical dicta that Judge Kozinski wrote, which I also ignore (although it probably was pretty funny), and then he starts asking me about my law career. Which, you know, ended. And he points out that I failed to get ATL approval of my decision to close my small firm, which means technically, my column should just be called “Big Lawyers,” which is a whole other kettle of fish.
Then Lat says he knows how we can fix it. “Go on,” I say. Lat says that I can tell our readers exactly how to start pricing their legal services instead of just billing their time. “But Lat,” I plead, “I can’t give away my secrets. I have a whole new consulting firm to tell people these secrets in exchange for scads of dollars.”
Lat is quick to admonish me. “We don’t keep secrets from our readers, Jay. That’s why our readers know all about my obsession with all things Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld and why they all know that Elie is as jovial as an Ewok in real life.” Then his tone sharpened: “Plus we can always get Staci to write your column in a tenth of the time it takes you. And we can even have her use your name as a pseudonym.”
Well played, Mr. Lat, well played. So here then are the secrets to pricing your legal wares in eight easy(ish) steps.…
I’ve always wondered what kind of salary contract lawyers make these days. Okay, not really, I kind of already know, because a lot of my friends are contract lawyers. But for those of you who aren’t familiar with the wonderful world of contract lawyering, the Wall Street Journal had an interesting article yesterday, by Vanessa O’Connell, on the trials and tribulations of these lawyers-for-hire.
The Journal editors decided to give the piece a cutesy title by using a play on words: “Lawyers settle… for temp jobs.” Lawyers are supposed to be settling cases, and now they’re settling for temporary jobs. Oh, that’s so very witty.
What the WSJ folks might not have realized is that when you’re an unemployed new lawyer in this kind of economy, or even if you’re an older one, you don’t really have the option of “settling.” It’s depressing, but you kind of just accept the fact that this is the hand that you’ve been dealt.
But maybe there is a bright side to this situation after all. Maybe these contract attorneys are making serious bank in these temporary positions….
Watch to find out what some of our subscribers received in their May box!
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We currently have a number of active openings for associate roles at US and UK firms in HK / China, Singapore and two new in-house openings. As always, please feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com in order to get details of current openings in Asia, as well as to discuss the Asia markets in general and what we expect for openings later this year. Our Evan Jowers and Robert Kinney will be in Beijing the week of March 25 and Evan Jowers will be in Hong Kong the week of April 1, if you would like to meet them in person.
The US associate openings we have in law firms are in the usual areas of M&A, cap markets, FCPA / white collar litigation, finance, and project finance. The most urgent of our top tier (top 15 US or magic circle) law firm openings in Asia (among many other firm openings that we have in Asia) are as follows:
• 2nd to 5th year mandarin fluent M&A associates needed in Beijing and Hong Kong at several firms;
• Korean fluent 2nd to 4th year cap markets associate needed in Hong Kong;
• 2nd to 5th year Japanese fluent M&A associates needed in Tokyo;
• 4th to 6th year mandarin fluent cap markets associate needed in Hong Kong;
• 2nd to 4th year M&A / cap markets mix associate needed in Singapore.
The last time I flapped my wings your way, I tried to make at least enough noise about your mobile phone to make you more than a little bit uncomfortable. I hope I did. If enough of us become anxious enough about the known and unknown unknowns and knowns in our mobile phones, then we can start making wise decisions about how to manage that information and its resultant investigations.
Today, I’d like to put a finer point on the last installment’s topic by asking a question that seemed to catch most attendees off-guard at a conference panel that I moderated last week: is there discoverable personal information in a mobile app? Our panelists’ answer was a uniform “yes” with one stating that, if he had to choose only one type of data that he could discover from a mobile phone, he’d choose app data. Why? Because there’s simply so much of it and because almost all of it is objective – not just user-created like an email – but machine-tracked like GPS, usage duration, log in and log out times, browsed web addresses, browsed actual addresses. Also, most of us seem to have the idea that data doesn’t actually “stick” to our mobile devices the way it “sticks” to our hard drives. Maybe there’s a disconnect based on the fact that our phones are mobile so we assume the data is mobile to?
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