Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, Oliver Goodenough recaps Harvard’s workshop on Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services.
You know that something cutting edge is about to become accepted wisdom when Harvard has a symposium on it. The Program on the Legal Profession at the Harvard Law School held a top-level, day-long workshop on Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services. Speakers included Clay Christensen, Martha Minow, and Richard Suskind, visionaries in innovation theory, progressive legal education, and the legal practice of the future. Folks in attendance straddled law firm partners, start-up entrepreneurs, and legal academics. The meeting provided a punctuation point in our understanding of the great restructuring that is overwhelming law — we don’t necessarily know where it is headed, but denial that significant change is under way is no longer intellectually defensible.
Becoming a Biglaw partner does not necessarily mean you’ll live happily ever after. It doesn’t even guarantee financial security. Indeed, some partners end up filing for personal bankruptcy.
But that’s an anomalous case. Partnership at a major law firm might not guarantee you happiness — sometimes you have to leave the partnership to follow your bliss — but it generally brings with it tremendous pay and prestige.
That’s especially true of partnership at the nation’s 10 most prestigious large law firms. Most of them have only a single partnership tier — equity or bust, baby — and sky-high profits.
Who are the new partners at these 10 firms, and what do their selections reveal about Biglaw today?
Good news: According to the Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group (and its partner, the Hildebrandt Institute), firms are looking at nice, steady profit growth in the coming year. It’s not super, but who can be choosy in the current market? And partially driving this growth is an expected uptick in demand, so that’s good.
Bad news: While the media latched on to the favorable demand projection, the report expects firms to be more profitable because they are finally taking Citi’s advice on how to become more profitable — and that doesn’t bode well for rank-and-file attorneys.
This is my first column of 2014, so I’m due to join the ranks of those who make predictions for the coming year.
But my predictions will be slightly different from others, because mine will be based on fact.
In the last months of 2013, I heard that two different law firms had reduced partners’ draws to offset the firms’ poor financial performance. At least one of the firms reduced draws retroactively — announcing near the end of the year that partners’ salaries would be reduced as of January 1, 2013 (which slices partners’ incomes dramatically in the last few months of the year). Both firms shared the pain among all partners — folks suffered in the equity and non-equity ranks alike. (This is a particularly nasty trick to play on income partners: “Here’s your partnership deal: If the firm does better than expected, you’re a mere income partner; of course you will not share the wealth. On the other hand, if the firm performs worse than expected, we’ll permit you to share the pain, and we’ll cut your pay. Here’s the partnership agreement! Sign right here on the dotted line!”)
I’ve now been in-house for four years, and my ear has lifted pretty far from the law-firm ground: If I heard about two law firms suffering from such terribly bad years that they were forced to reduce their budgets as year-end approached, then I’m guessing that many more than two firms suffered this fate. This means that, for many firms, 2013 was not a good year, which leads me to my predictions for 2014 . . . .
Last week, part 1 of my written interview with Professor William (Bill) Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law was published here. Again, I’d like to thank Professor Henderson for agreeing to this interview and for all the important work he is carrying out. As with my prior interviews, the commentary below Professor Henderson’s answers is mine alone.
AP: What current Biglaw practice do you find most disturbing?
One of the most important voices in the academic legal community, particularly on the topic of the business of law, and Biglaw in general, is Professor William (Bill) Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. I personally have long admired his work, and I was very pleased when he reached out to me after he had read my column on Biglaw’s “sticky seniors” problem.
At that point, I asked him if he was willing to do a written interview, and he graciously agreed, on the condition that he later have the opportunity to ask me questions. I look forward to doing so, and in the meantime I hope you find his answers to my questions as informative as I did. I’d like to thank Professor Henderson for agreeing to this interview, and for all the important work he is carrying out. As with my prior interviews, the commentary below Professor Henderson’s answers is mine alone.
AP: You got in touch with me regarding my column on Biglaw’s issues with senior partners. What are your thoughts on the issue?
At a roulette wheel in Vegas, you know the odds. The folks with all their money on red have a less than 50 percent chance of winning (47.37 percent, to get technical). There will be highs and there will be lows, but over the long haul, those poor saps swizzling their comped drinks will come out on the losing end.
On the other hand, you put all your money on black because the guy on your flight told you to. Intellectually, you recognize you have the same odds of pulling out a victory as the overmatched retirees from Kansas City betting on red, but you’re absolutely positive you’re going to win.
Welcome to the positive expectation bias. Rational thought flies out the window as you ignore facts you know (or at least strongly believe) to be true, instead placing blind faith in the proposition that everything’s going to turn out well for you.
Law firm managing partners are expected to be a little more risk-averse compared to other chief executives, but it turns out law firm managing partners are not immune to a little irrational gambling from time to time….
As noted in Morning Docket, Citi’s quarterly review of the financial landscape facing law firms just came out. The surface level verdict is — as it has been for some time — slow and steady, with a bunch of red flags.
The firms are happy to see positive revenue growth, even if it’s only 2.7 percent. I mean, other industries aren’t so lucky. But when the industry is a few years into the “New Normal” and analysts are still pointing to the same failings, it’s hard to feel too optimistic.
The year-end Biglaw management machine is starting to grind into motion. The compensation committee is starting to look at the numbers for individual partners — to decide who will be rewarded and who will be de-equitized. And the firm’s A/R collections crew is starting to pressure the partnership to get bills out the door and talk to clients about what will be paid by year’s end. The associate bonus committee? If one still exists, is must be having a hard time reserving conference room space to meet.
The end of the year is a serious time for law firms. For many individual lawyers in Biglaw, it is the time of year when their die may be cast, in terms of compensation, lateral movement options, or even their continued employment. As anyone who follows Biglaw knows, we are living in interesting times, with many firms navigating choppy seas in terms of client demand, financial performance, and expense management. And at many firms, there has never been a wider gulf between the rank-and-file partner and firm management when it comes to the ability to make or influence decisions about the firm. Partners at many firms are often clueless about what the firm is doing and why, to the extent that partners are asked to vote on lateral candidates or even mergers based solely on the “reassurances” and “enthusiastic outlook” of management.
The net effect of this divide between management and the partnership? An increasing sense among partners that they are simply assets of legal “brands” rather than owners or even stewards of a professional enterprise. For many, it is a bit of a hopeless feeling, especially when they consider the Biglaw options down the street, which usually present the same level of management opacity to the putative “owners” as their current firm. But just because management likes to tell the partnership to “leave the managing to us, you just focus on building your practice” does not mean partners aren’t entitled to information — even if it’s just the personal views of the managing partner on certain issues.
Here are five questions for your managing partner. The topics are varied, but the answers given should give partners a good sense of both their relative standing within their firms and the values that drive the business decisions of their leadership….
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past six years. You can reach them by email: [email protected].
Since late last year, things have been booming in Hong Kong / China in cap markets, especially Hong Kong IPOs. M&A deal flow has recently been getting a bit stronger as well. Although one can’t predict such things with any certainty, all signs are pointing to a banner entire 2014 for the top end US corporate and cap markets practices in Hong Kong / China. This is not really new news, as its been the feeling most in the market have had for a few months now and things continue to look good.
The head of our Asia practice, Evan Jowers, has been in Hong Kong for about 10 days a month (with trips every other month to both Shanghai and Bejing) for the past 7 months, and spending most of his time there meeting with senior US hiring partners at just about all the major US and UK firms there, as well as prospective candidates at all associate levels and partner levels, and when in the US, Evan works Asia hours and is regularly on the phone with such persons, as our the other members of our Asia team. Our Yuliya Vinokurova is in Hong Kong every other month and Robert is there about 5 times a year as well. While we have a solid Asia team of recruiters, Evan Jowers will spend at least some time with all of our candidates for Asia position. We have had long standing relationships, and good friendships in some cases, with hiring partners and other senior US partners in Asia for 8 years now.
The evolution of relationships between the genders continues. Currently, in law firms, there is an interesting conundrum; balancing the desire for a gender-blind workplace where “the best lawyer gets the work and advances” and the reality of navigating the complicated maze created by the fact that, in general, men and women do possess differences in their work styles. These variations impact who they work with, how they work, how they build professional connections and how organizations ultimately leverage, reward and recognize the talents of all.
Henry Ford sat on his workbench and sighed. A year earlier, he had personally built 13,000 Model Ts with his own hands. Fashioning lugnuts and tie rods by hand, Ford was loath to ask for help. Sure, there were things about the car that he didn’t quite understand. This explains the lack of reliable navigation systems in the Model T. But Ford persevered because he knew that unless he did everything, he could not reliably call these cars his own.
“Unless my own personal toil is responsible for it, it may as well be called a Hyundai,” Ford remarked at the time.
The preceding may sound unfamiliar because it is categorically untrue. And also monumentally stupid. Henry Ford didn’t build all those cars by hand. He had help and plenty of it. Almost exactly one hundred years ago, Henry Ford opened up the most technologically advanced assembly line the world had ever seen. Built on the premise that work can be chopped up into digestible pieces and completed by many men better than one, the line ushered in an age of unparalleled productivity.
Today, an attorney refers business because he can’t do everything the client asks of him.
There are three reasons why this is way dumber than a made-up Henry Ford story…