Capital Calls

Put your new firm under the magnifying glass.

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral partner moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Today’s post is written by Elizabeth Katkin, a Senior Director at Lateral Link, where she focuses on partner and practice group transitions and developing strategic relationships with top international firms and companies in the Middle East and Europe.

Do you have one or more of the following frustrations with your current law firm? Inadequate overall or relative compensation. No platform to support or develop your practice. Feeling shut out of management decisions — or even having a voice.

Perhaps you are just beginning the search for a new firm, or perhaps you know where you are headed next — a place with a great footprint, support in the practice areas you need, and a group of lawyers that feels like a good fit. In the world of law firm management today, you already know that what you see is not always what you get. It is essential to gauge the financial and management health of a firm before you move, both to ensure your happiness and viability at the firm and to ease your exit in the event that there is trouble in paradise.

Here are five things you should understand before giving your withdrawal notice to your current firm:

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In discussing the recent news of Akin Gump overhauling its partnership capital structure, I sounded some generally positive notes. I echoed the thoughts of Akin Gump’s chair, Kim Koopersmith: “We thought it made sense to have everybody have skin in the game.”

But there are less sanguine ways of assessing the situation. Are the non-equity partners who will be converted into equity partners putting skin in the game, or are they getting skinned?

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If you’re a law firm managing partner, the captain of a Biglaw ship, have you done all that you can to make sure your vessel is as seaworthy as possible? You don’t want your ship to suffer the fate of the S.S. Dewey.

Some steps are easy and obvious. Conduct layoffs of unneeded associates, whether openly or stealthily. Offer buyouts to surplus support staff (or lay them off, if feeling less generous). Usher underperforming partners towards the exit, to lower the denominator for your profit per partner figure; keeping PPP high reduces the likelihood of crippling defections and helps you attract star laterals.

Those are the basic moves, which everyone is doing. For something that’s a little more challenging, a maneuver that might even impress the East German judge in its level of difficulty, you can play with your partnership capital structure….

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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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Is this just my weird perception, or are law firm managing partners being surveyed constantly? It seems that every other week, some law firm lender or consultancy or recruiting firm is touting the results of a managing partners survey. Managing partners have things to do other than respond to surveys — like, well, managing law firms.

Despite the proliferation of such surveys, we do appreciate the information and insight they contain. So let’s check out the recently released results of one of the most prominent surveys, the American Lawyer’s annual Law Firm Leaders survey….

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The Dewey & LeBoeuf drama continues to unfold. As we mentioned in Morning Docket, there have been a few notable recent developments. Citibank just filed a vigorous response to allegations by Steven Otillar, a former Dewey partner, that Citi colluded with Dewey to take advantage of individual partners. Meanwhile, three former leaders of the firm — former chairman Steven Davis, former executive director Stephen DiCarmine, and former CFO Joel Sanders — have filed objections to the global settlement with former partners.

It’s not a pretty picture. And here’s what we’re wondering: Could it happen to another major law firm, sometime in the next twelve months?

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As we mentioned in the Labor Day edition of Morning Docket, there’s some interesting news on the Dewey & LeBoeuf front. The one former Dewey partner being sued by Citibank for allegedly defaulting on a capital loan — energy lawyer Steven Otillar, now a partner in the Houston office of Akin Gump — is opposing Citi’s attempt to collect on the debt, by arguing that he was “fraudulently induced” to borrow the money in question.

How much are we talking about? How does the debt compare to Otillar’s compensation while at Dewey? And what are Otillar’s specific allegations about “fraudulent inducement”?

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The current CEO of Greenberg Traurig, Richard Rosenbaum, recently gave an interview to the Daily Business Review in which he discussed the firm’s recent capital call (among other subjects). We mentioned the interview in Morning Docket, but because it contains a lot of grist for the mill, it merits a second look.

The subtext of the interview — and, at one point, the explicit text of the interview — could be summarized as, “Look, we are not like Dewey!” The bad news is that such statements should even be necessary. The good news is that they seem to be true (at least based on the information currently available).

Let’s hear what Richard Rosenbaum had to say….

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* That’s one hell of a “rainy day fund.” Greenberg Traurig is asking for $24M over the next two years, and has no plans to do it again in the near future. [Daily Business Review]

* Lots of law firms have been listening to that Petula Clark song about how great things are downtown, because that’s where their offices are headed. [WSJ Law Blog]

* Republicans are begging Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin to quit, but he’s vowed to stay the course. “[A]bortion is never an option,” not even for his campaign. [New York Times]

* Dipping and squeezing is serious business in the condiment world, and that’s why there’s a patent lawsuit over this innovative ketchup packet. [Huffington Post]

* Career alternatives for attorneys: sci-fi salvaging savior? This entertainment lawyer is taking out-of-print fantasy novels and turning them into e-books. Sometimes being a nerd is pretty cool. [New York Daily News]

* Chris Danzig will be attending and live tweeting the Apple v. Samsung trial today. Follow him! [Twitter]

As businesses go, the business of law isn’t extremely capital intensive. Most of the capital in Biglaw is really human capital. As one bankruptcy lawyer put it, “It’s incredible how fragile law firms are. Unlike a company, the principal assets walk out the door every night.”

But law firms do need some capital. Those fabulous offices — and fabulous associates, at $160,000 and up — don’t come cheap.

Firms can obtain the capital they need to operate through borrowing; but credit needs to be used judiciously, lest a firm go the way of Dewey & LeBoeuf. And partners make capital contributions to the firm, most notably when they buy into the partnership.

But sometimes that capital isn’t enough. So firms issue capital calls to their partners, which brings us to today’s topic….

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