Human Capital

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?

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Bruce Stachenfeld

“Low overhead is great!” That is one of our sayings. We recite it all the time — yes, even out loud at meetings — as it is a powerful competitive advantage for a law firm. It seems pretty obvious, but if so, why doesn’t everyone get with this concept?

There is a term informally used to describe how overhead impacts a law firm called “Implied Overhead.” The “Implied Overhead” of a law firm is the cost of everything except the lawyers divided by the number of lawyers. So if you have 50 lawyers and the cost of “everything” except the lawyers is $10,000,000, then you have implied overhead of $200,000 per lawyer.

Our Implied Overhead for last year was about $165,000. Anecdotally I believe that Implied Overhead for major law firms averages about $300,000. (I admit I don’t really have this data for sure; it is just what I have heard.) If your firm has 100 lawyers and implied overhead of $200,000 and the average for major law firms is $300,000, then you have a $100,000 per lawyer competitive advantage over your major law firm competition. Multiply that by 100 lawyers and you just made $10,000,000! And this flows right to the bottom line! If there are, say, 30 partners at this firm, then each partner just got a check for $333,333!

Yikes — did I do that math right? Was that $333,333 per partner merely by reducing the implied overhead?  I just double checked and $10,000,000 divided by 30 partners does indeed equal $333,333. That’s a sizable number, so maybe you should read the rest of my article….

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We posed this question earlier today. The answer, according to a recent news report, is yes.

The past few months have been bumpy for Bingham. In February, we reported on falling profits, partner defections, and staff layoffs. In June, we covered additional partner departures. (By the way, the two “unidentified partners” who went to Skadden turned out to be tax partners Rajiv Madan and Christopher Bowers; they left Bingham due to a client conflict.)

In recent weeks, Bingham conducted a management shake-up. And now comes word that it might be looking for a merger partner.

Keep reading for our review of the reports, plus an internal email that just went around the firm commenting on the speculation….

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During a time when demand for legal services is flat, average revenue per lawyer is down, and managing partners’ overall confidence in the market is slipping, the proper keeping of time for all of those billable hours generated by toiling associates has never been more important. For better or worse, law firms are desperately trying to incentivize associates to submit their hours on time.

As we mentioned way back in 2010, “Time keeping is more accurate when you do it every day (as opposed to trying to recreate your days at the end of the week or month). Firms are struggling to collect from their clients. And, for what it’s worth, billing hours is part of the job for attorneys.”

Another part of an attorney’s job is the ability to follow rules. One Biglaw firm just rolled out a new time entry policy, and if its associates don’t follow these rules, they can expect some pretty negative consequences when bonus season comes around…

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You don’t often hear many good things about diversity in the legal profession. Women lawyers continue to be told how to dress themselves, and minorities have to grapple with racist typos.

Despite the negativity that exists in the law when it comes to issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation, there are some law firms that are doing their best to make sure their attorneys are as diverse as their practice areas.

Which law firms came out on top in terms of diversity? Check out Vault’s rankings to find out…

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Earlier this month, we launched the ATL Law Firm Reputation Survey, asking those of you working in Biglaw to rate your peers and competitors. (Take five minutes and take our survey here.)

For our purposes, we split “reputation” into two distinct aspects: 1) the reputed strength and quality of a firm’s practice, and 2) the perceived desirability of the firm as a potential employer. For some, these factors will be functionally equivalent. For others, these are less overlapping considerations.

To date, we’ve received not quite a thousand survey responses and today we share some preliminary findings. What are you telling us thus far about which firms have the strongest practices? Which firms are some of the most coveted Biglaw employers in major markets?

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The average high temperature for Houston in July is a scorching 94 degrees. It’s one hot legal market.

Figuratively as well as literally. Back in April, for example, we talked about Kirkland & Ellis opening a Houston office — and prying away partners with $5 million pay packages. You don’t need to be a high-powered partner to get in on the fun; even junior to midlevel associates are getting offered signing bonuses when they lateral.

And this hot market is only getting hotter. Who’s the latest major law firm to land in Space City?

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Hop in the DeLorean and travel back in time with us.

Last month, we took a look at associate compensation in the 1990s. Our post focused on the cities of Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles. We said that in the future we’d look at remaining major markets: New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco/Palo Alto, and Washington, D.C.

Today we’ll tackle Biglaw in the Big Apple. What were NYC salaries like in the last millennium?

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In a recent survey, managing partners of large law firms expressed tepid expectations about demand for legal services. So it’s not surprising that cost cutting — or, to put it more nicely, expense-management initiatives — remain popular in Biglaw.

Who’s the latest major law firm trying to reduce its payroll through a voluntary retirement program?

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Judge Emmet Sullivan

* Judge Emmet Sullivan (D.D.C.) wants the IRS to explain, in a sworn declaration, how exactly it lost Lois Lerner’s emails. [WSJ Law Blog]

* And the fun for the IRS continues today in the courtroom of Judge Reggie Walton (D.D.C.), as reported by Sidney Powell, author of Licensed To Lie (affiliate link). [New York Observer]

* Speaker John Boehner wants to take the Republicans’ crusade against Obamacare to the courts. [New York Times]

* Andrew Calder, the young M&A partner that Kirkland & Ellis snagged from Simpson Thacher for a reported $5 million a year, is already bringing in big deals. [American Lawyer]

How the cupcake crumbles: the once-successful venture of an NYLS grad and her husband needs a rescue.

* “Duke University is not and never has been in the business of producing, marketing, distributing, or selling alcohol.” Some bros down in Durham disagree. [ABA Journal]

* If you see something… sue someone? The ACLU and Asian American civil rights groups, together with some help from Bingham McCutchen, have filed a legal challenge to the Suspicious Activity Reporting database. [New York Times]

* Congrats to David Hashmall, the incoming chair of Goodwin Procter — and congrats to outgoing chair Regina Pisa, the first woman ever to lead an Am Law 100 firm, on her long and successful leadership. [American Lawyer]

* A group of investors might end up devouring Crumbs, the cupcake-store chain founded by New York Law School grad Mia Bauer that suddenly shut down this week amid talk of a bankruptcy filing. [Wall Street Journal (sub. req.)]

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