Boutique Law Firms

Even if the big lockstep New York firms are done, associate bonus news continues to roll in from around the country. For example, bonuses are out at Sidley Austin. We’re working on a story for tomorrow; feel free to email us or text us (646-820-8477) with your reactions (to be used anonymously).

Today brings bonus news from Susman Godfrey. The high-powered boutique is known for high-stakes commercial litigation — and high, market-beating bonuses.

(And high-attendance holiday parties too; this year’s fête in New York drew more than 500 guests, many of them boldface names of the legal profession. As I observed on Twitter, “you could staff a great law firm with the guest list at the Susman Godfrey holiday party.”)

So how big were the Susman Godfrey bonuses this year?

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Tom Wallerstein

It was our new receptionist’s first day at our office. I was in our kitchen, and I found a potato wrapped in a paper towel. Because it was a raw potato far in the back of one of our unused kitchen drawers, I had no idea how long it had been there. Months, maybe. So I asked Cassidy, the new employee, “Is this your potato?”

Cassidy was slouched nearly horizontal in her chair. She looked at me with an expression of vague annoyance, and reached up to remove her iPod earbuds. She mumbled a response but didn’t really answer me. So I asked again, “Cassidy, I was just curious, is this your potato?”

“Huh?”

I repeated my question for the third time and finally she replied, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

I tried a different approach. “Let me put it this way. Have you brought a potato into the office in the six hours you have been working here?”

“Um… Yes.”

Progress! “Well, then I think it’s safe to say that this is your potato. Mystery solved.”

The earbuds went back in and we let Cassidy go the next day. She called our office about a week later, asking to retrieve a pair of scissors and… you guessed it, her potato….

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Brian Tannebaum, my fellow small-firm columnist, recently described as silly the notion that “success in the law doesn’t come from good legal work.” I agree with Tannebaum that success requires far more than “being able to obtain a volume of calls from a fake presence, a creation of a ‘brand,’ and trying very, very hard to get our hand to the top of the baseball bat of the internet.” But I also think that success doesn’t come just from doing good legal work. In my experience, the most talented lawyers often are not the most successful, at least by traditional definitions. Nor are the most successful lawyers the best lawyers.

For Biglaw associates, success is usually defined as making partner. Anonymous Partner recently wrote that when you make partner in Biglaw, you “occupy a new professional status, and the nature of making partner is such that no matter how badly you screw up the rest of your life, you have accomplished something very rare. It is a life milestone, on par with getting married or winning the lottery in terms of its immediate alteration of your identity.”

And who makes partner in law firms? The best writers? The best oral advocates? The most thorough? The hardest working? The most efficient? Not necessarily any of the above.

Partnership decisions vary from firm to firm, and I am not so cynical to suggest that merit plays no role. Obviously, “merit” always plays a role. It’s just that what is meritorious is in the eye of the decision-maker, and that differs from what many associates might think is most important….

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Tom Wallerstein

Does this type of email look familiar?

“I’m delighted to announce that our firm, Dewey Cheatem & Howe, has just reached a settlement of a longstanding class action on behalf of our beloved client Evilem Pire Insurance Corp. (‘EPIC’). Due to our tireless efforts reviewing documents and engaging in discovery motion practice, EPIC was able to settle the case for only $1 trillion dollars, a mere fraction of the many quadrillions sought by the plaintiffs . . . .”

If you are a lawyer in a firm, then you probably have seen a similar email more than once in your career. The victory email is a tradition at many firms, even when the result can only barely qualify as a victory. Because I think it behooves lawyers to always consider the purpose of any communication, we might wonder why victory emails are so prevalent….

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Ed. note: This is the first installment in a new series of monthly posts, brought to you by Corporette’s Kat Griffin, which will deal with topical business and lifestyle issues that present themselves in the world of Biglaw. Send your ideas for future columns to us by clicking here.

In just a few weeks, ’tis the most dreaded time of year for law firm associates: the time for holiday parties. What do you wear? What do you drink? Do you have to dance with your assistant? Can’t you just stay at the office until the after party gets started?

Keep reading for some tips and tricks on the dos and don’ts for law firm holiday parties….

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Tom Wallerstein

One of my favorite recurring columns on Above the Law is the “Departure Memo of the Day.” Elie Mystal hit a nerve last week when he published a particularly depressing departure memo from a harried mother at Clifford Chance who was struggling, unsuccessfully, to balance the demands of parenthood and Biglaw. The departure memo lit up Twitter and even the Huffington Post decided to weigh in.

At many Biglaw firms, departure memos have become an ingrained part of the culture. Why are departure memos so ubiquitous, especially in Biglaw? The New York Times put it best:

“The ‘departure memo’ is a fixture at many large employers, and nowhere more so than at big law firms. Departures, particularly of young associates, are built into the business model. Not everyone is supposed to stay, and many never planned to stay, so leaving is often celebrated. Many of the ‘Departure Memos of the Day’ published on Above the Law fall into that category. Excitement at the next opportunity, and a little bit of glee at leaving, is completely acceptable, as is a little thumbing of the nose at the firm. Creativity isn’t unusual.”

The Clifford Chance departure memo struck a chord with many lawyers because it openly grappled with the struggle for work/life balance so familiar to so many of us. But it also raises bigger issues regarding the purpose intended by such missives….

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Tom Wallerstein

Like millions of others, I spent Tuesday night watching television. I wished I was watching the misfit Giants win the World Series (again). Instead, I was watching America’s other favorite pastime: the presidential election. Like everyone else, I watched a giant map of the country light up in rosy red and electric blue. We tweeted witticisms to our followers, and liked our friends’ posts.

I’m sure it was nerve wracking for President Obama and Governor Romney. They had done all they could, and there was nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile. I imagine that they must have felt similar to a trial lawyer waiting for a jury to return with its verdict….

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Tom Wallerstein

I’m always humbled when readers email me, and I try to respond to every message. But alas, not everyone is a fan. My column last week on artificial deadlines generated a long rant of an email from attorney Bob V., excerpted here:

“I was disappointed when, instead of using your column to preach about common courtesy and civility, you used it to rationalize and justify boorish attorney behavior. I thought you were actually going to condemn this kind of BS but instead you went on to rationalize it by fictionalizing a series of explanations for immature, boorish, behavior. Your rationalization about why the partner might justifiably have acted the way she did shows what is all wrong with the practice of law…”

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In the next few months, we’re going to see a lot of lawyers switching jobs in Washington, D.C. Regardless of who wins the election — my current prediction is that Barack Obama will prevail (sorry, Anonymous Partner) — many lawyers will move into and out of government in the weeks before and after Inauguration Day.

For those who joined the Obama Administration early, three or four years is long enough to make them nostalgic for private sector paychecks. What use is a punched ticket if you never redeem it?

In fact, the movement has already started. Today we bring you news of two notable moves from the nation’s capital. One of them involves a lawyer leaving a top government post, and the other concerns an in-house lawyer entering the firm world….

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Tom Wallerstein

My friend Pablo told me that when Monica, a partner, called his home at 9:00 p.m., he knew it couldn’t be good. Why not email? For an instant, he considered letting the call go to voicemail. Taking a deep breath, he answered.

Monica wanted to know “where he was” with the brief Pablo had been working on. She had not given him any particular deadline, so he explained that he expected to circulate the draft for review the following evening. The brief was a motion to dismiss, and he knew the deadline to file was still two weeks away. He was allowing the partner one week to review before she had to send to the client, who in turn would have another week to review.

The partner, however, had a different idea. “I want it on my desk tomorrow by 8 a.m.,” she told Pablo.” “Not a moment later.”

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