Buying In

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 have been thinking about how to explain the Am Law 100 rankings to a layman. Quite frankly, there is little use in trying to engage in a productive discussion of the rankings with colleagues. One segment of the Biglaw population is fixated on the fictional profits-per-partner figure, while another marvels at the “global reach” and exploding headcounts of the giga-firms. Some like to talk about the firms they interviewed with in law school, while others only care about the firms that have stronger resources in their practice areas. If you are in Biglaw, or hoping to be, you will come up with your own way of making sense of it all. Have fun.

What is more interesting to me is the following question: How can a normal person relate to this year’s Am Law 100 rankings? Put another way, if I was told that I was eligible for a large cash prize if I could explain the Am Law 100 chart to ten random strangers in a way that was compelling to them, what would I say?

Think about your own answer, then keep reading….

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There is a great line in Spielberg’s Lincoln, when the President’s eldest son, Robert, is trying to persuade his father that his place (in what would be the final days of the Civil War) is in the Union army — and not in a Boston lecture hall. Robert tells his father (whom the movie shows peppering his speech to staff members with anecdotes from his time as a country lawyer) that he himself is not sure whether he wants to even be a lawyer. The President replies that law “is a sturdy profession.”

That’s a great line, and an apt description of what a lifetime of service as a lawyer should be. Lincoln was right, and remains right, particularly when lawyers act professionally — meaning that they do their utmost to address the needs and problems of their clients, prepared at any point to elevate their client’s interests above their own.

I know it is just a movie, and perhaps I am too swayed by sentimentality after watching it. But what is the purpose of observing the towering figures of history if not to learn from their inspired worldviews?

Can we say that today’s Biglaw is an exemplar of a “sturdy profession”? Unfortunately, brutal, rather than sturdy, is a more appropriate adjective….

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Biglaw competition is getting intense. Everyone is chasing the same clients, while also deploying rearguard actions to protect institutional clients from being poached. Forget about lateral partners taking clients for a moment. I am talking about overt approaches from competing firms regarding existing matters, bearing promises of handling things more cheaply and more efficiently. In-house lawyers, under pressure to contain costs, almost have to listen. They may not act right away, but with each such approach another dent has been made in the Biglaw client-maintenance bumper.

It is no secret that in the face of declining overall demand (especially for the profit-pumping activities like mega-document reviews that were Biglaw’s joy to perform in the past), firms need to aggressively protect market share. While also seeking to grow market share. In an environment where more and more large clients are either (1) reducing the number of firms that they are willing to assign work to or (2) embracing an approach that finds no beauty contest too distasteful to engage in. So partners, at least those tasked with finding work for everyone to do, are falling back on a tried-and-true “sales approach” — putting things on sale.

How bad has it gotten?

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I asked, and once again the readership delivered. I thought it would be interesting to hear from former Biglaw associates who had been passed over for partnership, and I was happy to receive some thoughtful responses.

As you will see below, and as I discussed in my columns relating to making partner, there are very powerful personal forces at work in these situations. As much as we can learn from our own disappointments, so can we learn from the experiences of others, especially those who have forged ahead despite a setback.

Biglaw can be a brutal business. We need to pause and reflect on the human toll that working in this environment can take….

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Biglaw reporting season continues. But this year we have an interesting twist: K&L Gates decided to share (covered by Lat and Bruce MacEwen, among others). Thankfully, the sharing is not of the “we overstated our revenue by a couple hundred million, and owe a bunch of old and retired partners way more than that anyway” variety. Rather, the firm released financial information that goes a little beyond what you see in your typical Biglaw firm reports (which I previously discussed).

While I have seen the firm hailed as courageous in some quarters, I am reluctant to declare this a huge leap forward towards Biglaw financial transparency. For one, there are other firms that put out even more complete “annual reports,” like Allen & Overy (thanks to an ATL commenter for that reminder), a firm that seems to be hanging on to a lockstep compensation model for partners. Second, as Lat pointed out, there are even internal sources within K&L Gates asking the types of questions that the firm’s “enhanced” report does not answer.

Personally I find a few things about this whole to-do interesting and a bit frustrating….

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“Where do I sit?” seems like an important question. Especially for second-graders on the first day of school. Or for zit-spocked high schoolers angling to spend some class time in the proximity of their crushes. And just like second-graders or hormonal high schoolers, Biglaw partners are known to obsess about their office locations. For example, I have seen partners I used to work for studying the floor plan like a treasure map, for uncomfortably long periods of time.

Surely they were mentally imagining their names transposed over a corner office, or next door to the big conference room, or for the real aspirants, within touching distance of the managing partner’s office. While this behavior is strange when taken to the extreme, it highlights an important reality of Biglaw.

Where you sit, matters….

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The 2012 Biglaw numbers are starting to trickle in. The American Lawyer (and the rest of the legal press) follows a near-uniform format in reporting them. Revenues — up or down x percent. Profits per partner — slightly to moderately up (if your executive committee was unable to generate higher profits, via financial sophistry or good-old de-equitizations or stealth layoffs, I am very sorry). Revenue-per-lawyer, slightly up. Feel-good comment by managing partner. Slightly passive-aggressive commentary by a “legal consultant.” Repeat, on a daily basis for about a month, until the Am Law 100 (and “interesting” Am Law 200 firms as well) is covered.

As a partner, you obviously hope your firm is reporting good news, even though the likelihood of that news reflecting on your personal situation is pretty low for most Biglaw partners. No one wants to be associated (or own the obligations of) a loser, and when everyone is proclaiming “modest” or “respectable” growth, the peer pressure can be tremendous. Especially where the Biglaw death spiral is a recognized phenomenon, and firms who report poor performance in a generally positive climate are quickly judged negatively, like a figure skater stuck doing double lutzes when everyone else is knocking out triples. Outliers, for good, but mostly for bad, stick out, and their ignominy is frequently paraded on these pages. With bonus Lat commentary for additional effect.

I for one, enjoy reading this kind of reportage…..

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Over the last three weeks, we have heard from an In-House Insider, an opinionated source of insight into Biglaw-client relations — see here, here, here, and below. As with the three prior installments, the only changes I made to the Insider’s words were those done to protect their identity, and Insider was given the opportunity to revise their points once I added the questions and commentary. Again, I thank Insider for the candid observations and thoughtful opinions on these core issues….

AP: Any serious observer of Biglaw can see that firms continue to struggle adapting associate development to the new state of Biglaw-client relations. What can Biglaw learn from corporate clients like yourself on that front?

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