Law firms

Thumbs up, managing partners!

April Fools’ Day is a terrible day to be in this business. Every tip that comes in requires an extra layer of scrutiny because even longstanding, trusted sources are trying to troll. It’s really not all that funny to make up false but entirely believable stories and pass them off as real. That’s why the Daily Currant isn’t funny.

Which is why when Citi Private Bank issued its First Quarter report on the confidence of managing partners across the legal landscape and declared that managing partners have a rosy outlook, it earned a double take on this end. After all, wasn’t it just a few months ago that managing partners were telling the American Lawyer that it was all gloom and doom on the horizon?

So is this result real? It is, but the headline isn’t the end of the story….

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The good people at Morrison & Foerster could abbreviate their name to “Morrison” or “Foerster” or even “M&F.” That’s what most Biglaw firms would do. But Morrison & Foerster morphs into “MoFo,” and these MoFo-ers just embrace it. They recruit with it. For a group of lawyers, they’re positively laid-back.

But we didn’t know that they were this laid-back. Tucked away in the otherwise mind-numbingly boring “Financial Services Report: Spring 2014″ are two full paragraphs of weed jokes. Drug talk! In a quarterly report! What the hell is going on with these motherf***ers?

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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.

Let’s see what’s in store for 2014….

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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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In an era when “disruption” is celebrated, the world of large law firms is one of the last redoubts of conventional wisdom. For a uniquely rule- and precedent-bound profession, this makes sense. Biglaw’s conventional wisdom has the added virtue of being reliable. For example, we can count on Cravath taking the lead — at least chronologically — on bonuses, and for DLA Piper to have the most random Third developing-world offices.

Another reflection of conventional wisdom is the way in which Biglaw lends itself to — and revels in — superlatives and rankings. There tends to be a generally acknowledged and perennially dominant player (or a few) in most practice areas: Wachtell Lipton for M&A, Weil Gotshal for Chapter 11 work, Patton Boggs for lobbying, and so forth. There’s no doubt that many worthy firms get overlooked.

Last year we took a look at which firms’ practice groups were considered “underrated” by peers in the field. Among the notable 2012 nominees: Cahill for corporate law, Arnold & Porter in litigation, and Proskauer for its bankruptcy and tax practices.

We wondered whether the same practice groups were still considered by practitioners to be unfairly underrated. Or are there other firms deserving more recognition?

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This coming Friday, it is the inalienable right of all Americans to sleep off their hangovers, or riot at Walmart, or do anything at all rather than work for The Man. But Biglaw is a different country. As illustrated by Elie’s decision matrix, the “choice” of whether to work on this sacred day is, for the denizens of the law firm world, fraught with other pressures and expectations. We all know that Biglaw careers demand a Faustian bargain: in return for their fat paychecks (and bonuses?), lawyers are expected to work grueling, unpredictable hours. This time of year, that reality is brought into sharp relief: the “holiday season,” with those “family obligations” and so forth, is something that occurs elsewhere.

But law firm billable expectations are not homogeneous. There are significant differences across practice areas, seniority levels, and, of course, individual firms. So how do the various practices, employment statuses, and firms stack up?

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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.

Let’s look at the other highlights of the report:

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…To Take A Survey

We here at ATL want to know what world’s largest legal audience — ours, of course — thinks. Hence, we ask our audience a lot of questions. Our Insider Survey, which is soon coming up on its 15,000th respondent, provided the raw materials for the creation of our Law Firm and Law School Directories, as well as features on various specific organizations, locations, and practice areas. To supplement our Insider Survey data, we also take a closer look at specific aspects of institutions, such as compensation and social media policies. Additionally, we check in with our readers for their take on topical events, including presidential politics and Obamacare. Today, we have a look at a handful of our ongoing survey projects: Social Media, Stipend/Advance, and Health Insurance. But first, we are looking for help with a new research initiative.

There is probably no other industry as obsessed with the concept of “culture” as the legal profession, particularly in the world of law firms. Many firms view their culture as a key element of their distinct place in the competitive marketplace. But what does that even mean? Is there consensus on what constitutes culture? Do clients notice or care? We would like to dig deeper into these questions. As a first step in this project, we are looking for a small group of currently practicing law firm attorneys who are willing — in complete confidence — to give us about twenty minutes of their time to answer some of our questions concerning the realities of what defines firm culture. Preference will be given to attorneys who have lateraled between firms. We will be conducting this project in partnership with our friends at Adam Smith Esq. and JD Match. If interested, please email us here.

Apart from the never-ending Insider Survey, ATL has three ongoing surveys which we hope will bring greater transparency to subjects of interest to our readers. Here’s a quick glimpse at where they stand today…

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Last week we took a look at how Biglaw’s litigation departments stack up against one another in terms of compensation, training, firm morale, hours, and culture.

Today, we turn toward the other major category of Biglaw practitioners: corporate/transactional attorneys. Unlike litigators, about whom the public at least has some notion, however distorted, of what they do, most people have no clue what corporate lawyers are up to. No young person daydreams about “facilitating a business transaction,” while there are some who aspire to argue in a courtroom. As noted last week, this litigation/corporate information imbalance is reinforced by the law school curriculum, which remains largely beholden to the case method of instruction.

When comparing the experiences of corporate lawyers versus litigators, there is a familiar litany of pro and cons:

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The Biglaw on-campus recruiting season is a subject of decreasing relevance for most aspiring lawyers, as illustrated by this grim infographic. We are all familiar with the parade of horribles that is the law firm recruitment market, at least from the student point of view. Since the halcyon days of 2007, summer associate class sizes are down at the overwhelming majority of large law firms, often by fifty percent or more. And of course nobody is seriously arguing that class sizes will ever rebound to their pre-recession levels. But 50 percent is not 100 percent; there are still 2Ls who have just made their way through the OCI cattle call.

About a month back, we asked our readers to share their experiences of the OCI process. We wanted to learn where student priorities fall during this era of “New Normal.” For those of you fortunate enough to be in a position to choose among employers, what are the factors driving your decisions? What, if anything, is likely to make you reject an offer? And what, in this unbalanced buyers’ market for legal talent, is the actual interview experience like?

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