A year ago, in writing about how major law firms performed in the first half of 2013, I wondered whether Biglaw might be the proverbial frog in boiling water. I now wonder whether the analogy might still hold, but in a good way: could we be witnessing a quiet boom for Biglaw, happening so gradually that we don’t even realize it’s here?
In the past few weeks, a slew of mega-mergers have made headlines — which will hopefully turn into contributions to law firm coffers. But even if you focus just on the first six months of 2014, excluding the busy months of July and August, there’s good news to report.
Our friends at Citi Private Bank, a leading law firm lender, just released their report on how Biglaw fared in the first half of 2014. What are the key findings?
With this year more than halfway done, let’s look in the rear-view mirror and survey managing partners’ confidence in the legal industry during the second quarter of 2014. Wall Street investors seem generally optimistic, at least based on the state of the stock market (despite today’s turbulence). Are law firm leaders similarly hopeful?
Survey says — well, nothing terribly exciting, but let’s have a look anyway….
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….
Professor Joel P. Trachtman (JD Harvard Law School) has developed a unique, practical guide to help lawyers analyze, argue, and write effectively.
The Tools of Argument: How the Best Lawyers Think, Argue, and Win is a highly readable 200-page book, available for about $10 in paperback or e-book. Chapters focus on foundational principles in legal argument: procedure, interpretation of contracts and statutes, use of evidence, and more. The material covered is taught only implicitly in law school. Yet, when up-and-coming attorneys master these straightforward tools, they will think and argue like the best lawyers.
For most attorneys, time spent managing the books is a necessary evil at best. Yet it is undeniably a crucial aspect of running a successful practice. With that in mind, we invite you to view or download a free webinar by Above the Law and our friends at Clio to learn how to better manage your finances.
Take this opportunity to learn what it takes to streamline your accounting and get the most out of your time. The webinar agenda:
● The basics of accounting for lawyers.
● How legal accounting differs from regular accounting.
● Report and reconciliation issues surrounding trust accounts.
● How to pick and integrate the best accounting tools for your practice.
● Steps to prepare your tax return for your firm’s income.
Do not miss this crucial chance to optimize your accounting practices. Save time and get back to billing!
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 seven years. You can reach them by email: email@example.com.
Please note that Evan Jowers and Robert Kinney are still in Hong Kong and will stay FOR THE REMAINDER OF THIS WEEK. We still have a handful of available slots for meetings with our Asia Chronicles fans. If we have not been in touch lately, reach out and let us know when we could meet! There is no need for an agenda at all. Most of our in-person meetings on these trips are with folks who understand that improving a legal practice through lateral hiring is an information-driven process that takes time to handle correctly.
Regarding trends in lateral US associate hiring in Hong Kong, we of course keep much of what we know off of this blog. Based on placement revenue, though, Kinney is having one of our most successful years ever in Asia. We are helping a number of our law firm clients with M&A, fund formation, cap markets, project finance, FCPA and disputes openings. These are very specific needs in many cases, so a conversation with us before jumping in may be helpful. As always, we like to be sure to get the maximum number of interviews per submission, using a well-informed, highly targeted, and selective approach, taking into account short, medium and long-term career aims.
Making a well informed decision during a job search is easier said than done – the information we provide comes from 10 years of being the market leader in US attorney placements at the top tier firms in Asia. There is no substitute for having known a hiring partner since he/she was an associate or for having helped a partner grow his or her practice from zip to zooming, and this is happily where we stand today – with years of background information on just about every relevant person in all the markets we serve, and most especially in Hong Kong/China/Greater Asia. So get in touch and get a download from us this week if we can fit it in, or soon in any case!