Equity Partners

Bingham new logoOver the past few months, we’ve offered extensive coverage of Bingham McCutchen, the once high-flying law firm that’s now struggling to survive. Bingham has remained mainly mum during these trying times.

This week, however, managing partner Steven Browne — who took over earlier this year from Bingham’s longtime leader, Jay Zimmerman — has been on a charm offensive. He gave interviews to the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal, which along with the American Lawyer ran long pieces on the state of affairs at the firm. We’ll share with you the new and most notable material from all three stories.

Before we get to the substantive stuff, though, let’s check out the Wall Street Journal’s interesting choice of a photo for its Bingham piece….

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In our last report on the beleaguered Bingham McCutchen, we predicted that its partners would vote in favor of the proposed merger with Morgan Lewis — even if some of them might get de-equitized as a result. Why? Because “it’s not clear that Bingham has better options.”

Talk about understatement. Maybe this is fearmongering to get Bingham partners to approve the deal, but check out what management is saying might happen if this deal doesn’t go through….

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Earlier this month, we reported on Bingham McCutchen and Morgan Lewis & Bockius’s agreement to merge. The 750-lawyer Bingham firm has been going through a rough patch lately, so news of the deal with 1,200-lawyer Morgan Lewis sounded like a rescue to some observers.

But rescues come with terms and conditions. What are the ones at issue here? There’s good news for some Bingham partners, and bad news for others….

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There’s no Biglaw intercity rivalry that can match the one between London’s venerable Magic Circle and New York’s elite white-shoe firms. Both groups of firms are the clear alpha dogs in their markets, attracting the top talent and most lucrative clients.

There are, however, some significant differences between the two groups in how they operate. For example, U.K. firms tend to follow a lockstep (rather than “eat what you kill”) compensation model. Last month, friend of ATL Bruce MacEwen took a deep dive into the relative performance over the last several years of the Magic Circle firms versus their New York cousins. The piece is highly recommended: it’s chock-full of data, and its findings suggest the groups are moving in different directions….

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She doesn’t needed to be educated about rap music.

* “Operas can get pretty gory. I should have put that in my brief.” In the upcoming Supreme Court term, it looks like law clerks will have to educate their justices about the intricacies of rap music’s sometimes violent lyrics. [National Law Journal]

* The pay gap between equity and non-equity Biglaw partners is growing wider and wider. According to recent survey, on average, equity partners are bringing home $633K more than non-equity partners each year. [Am Law Daily]

* Hackers are targeting Biglaw firms to acquire their clients’ important secrets. Unfortunately, no one is brave enough to step up to the plate and say their firm’s been hit — admitting that “could be an extinction-level event.” [Tribune-Review]

* Which Biglaw firms had the most satisfied summer associates this year? There was a big rankings shake-up at the top of the list this time around, and we’ll have more on this later today. [Am Law Daily]

* In the wake of the Ray Rice scandal, Adrian Peterson screwed up many of your fantasy football teams after he was indicted for hurting his child “with criminal negligence.” He’s now out on $15,000 bail. [CNN]

Fighting over the Lawyerly Lair.

Law firms are relatively secretive institutions. Since they’re not public companies — at least not here in the United States, in the year 2014 — they aren’t required to reveal that much about their internal workings. Here at Above the Law, we do what we can to shed light on how law firms work, but there’s only so much we can do.

Every now and then, public filings disclose information about law firm operations — including information about one of the most sensitive subjects, partner pay. Sometimes we learn about partner compensation when a partner files for bankruptcy. Sometimes we hear about it when a partner goes through an ugly divorce.

That’s once again the case today. A complicated divorce, complicated enough to spawn ancillary litigation in the form of contempt proceedings, sheds light on how one white-shoe law firm pays its partners….

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For the past eight years, the National Association of Women Lawyers has tracked women’s progress at the 200 largest firms in the nation by comparing their careers and compensation with similarly situated men. We snidely remarked last year that reviewing the most recent report was like “drinking a fifth of gin, then watching Requiem For A Dream: it’s really freaking depressing.”

Keeping that in perspective, we — perhaps over-optimistically — thought that in a year’s time, Biglaw firms would have realized that women have a rightful place in this profession, and deserve to be treated as fairly and as equally as their male counterparts. We were clearly and painfully delusional.

Sure, the percentage of female equity partners rose from 15 percent to 17 percent, and that’s great. But we’ve found out that an “unprecedented” number of Biglaw firms refused to participate in the survey. Was it because they’re sick of surveys, or was it because firms “are generally less interested in the subject of advancing women lawyers and/or are hesitant to share, even on an anonymous and confidential basis, statistics that show that their women lawyers lag behind their male counterparts”?

Let’s find out….

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Although Am Law and ATL covered the story first, the long spread in The New York Times alerted the whole world to the woes of Gregory Owens, a former Dewey partner who’s now a bankrupt non-equity partner at White & Case.

The legal blogosphere naturally lit up over this story, with Scott Greenfield dispensing his usual simple justice and the Volokh Conspirators (and their many commenters) debating Owens’ personal and professional worth.

But my emailbox filled up, too, with assorted reactions from people at all levels in the law. The most interesting rant — and the one I’m sharing with you today — came from a person who looks a lot like Owens; he or she is a non-equity partner at a Vault 50 firm who’s in his or her 50s. This person disagrees violently with the conventional wisdom about non-equity partners. My correspondent sings their praises and insists that both law firms and many law firm consultants terribly misjudge the value that non-equity partners provide to their firms. . . .

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I’ve just celebrated my fourth anniversary working in-house, and I’m now officially out of touch with law firm life.

I thought I knew all the law-firm-partnership tricks. For example, when law students ask at interviews what percentage of firm partners hold equity status, some firms answer: “At this firm, all partners are partners.” That’s true, of course, but tautological; it says nothing about the equity and non-equity ranks.

On the other hand, this non-responsive answer serves a useful purpose. It may help to convince law students (or lateral associates) that they have a real chance at making partner at the firm, even though the equity partnership ranks are tiny and getting thinner every day.

But I recently learned about a new game that law firms play. This one is aimed not at deceiving law students or lateral associates, but rather the granddaddy of law firm rankings: The American Lawyer’s profits per partner calculation.

I thought I knew all the ways law firms could try to mislead The American Lawyer. There’s the possibility of outright lying, of course, and then there’s using funky methodologies that inflate profits per partner from $1 million to $1.8 million for the year 2011. But there’s a new game in town. It may well be widespread, but I heard about it only recently….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series from Bruce MacEwen and Janet Stanton of Adam Smith Esq. and JDMatch. “Across the Desk” takes a thoughtful look at recruiting, career paths, professional development, human capital, and related issues. Some of these pieces have previously appeared, in slightly different form, on AdamSmithEsq.com.

One of the thorniest issues any leader has to deal with is telling senior-level underperformers that they’d be better off elsewhere. It calls on every skill in the manager’s bag of tricks, from financial analysis to subtler cultural and personality judgments, and accurate perspective on the impact on the organization overall of asking a high-profile person to leave.

To be honest, it’s also one of the most difficult challenges we deal with in advising firms about their paths forward. Although at times it’s crystal clear what needs to be done, far more often you have no such luxury of being able to shortcut analysis and judgment, and you have to work through all the potential interactions and repercussions to decide with some degree of confidence what to do. Then of course you actually have to do it. You’d be surprised — or maybe you wouldn’t — how often otherwise hard-headed and decisive leaders never quite get around to that part of it….

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