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. . . .
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….
Let’s be honest: despite being the Biglaw version of the Titanic, the collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf could have been worse. Even though the Dewey dissolution constituted the largest law firm collapse in history, many D&L lawyers and staff were able to find new employment. Even Steve Davis, the disgraced ex-chairman of Dewey, landed a new gig.
But not everyone emerged unscathed. Some attorneys and staffers never got back on their feet professionally. Many Dewey partners scored new positions, but not all of them took all of their people with them to their new firms.
And even some partners are still suffering. In fact, one former Dewey partner, now a partner at another major law firm, recently filed for personal bankruptcy….
(Please note the UPDATES at the end of this post.)
Let’s not mince words: Patton Boggs is stuck in the muck. In the most recent Am Law 100 rankings, the firm showed a 15 percent decline in profits per partner — one of the biggest dips in the entire survey, contrasting with the modest growth that most of Biglaw enjoyed. Gross revenue also fell, by 6.5 percent.
The Am Law 100 rankings looked at 2012 performance compared to 2011 performance. Perhaps things have improved for Patton Boggs in 2013?
Alas, no. While many firms have resorted to voluntary buyouts or layoffs of support staff this year, few have laid off lawyers (at least not openly). But Patton Boggs has already been through two significant, open and notorious rounds of layoffs in 2013 to date, affecting not just staff but lawyers as well.
How is Patton Boggs trying to save itself, and will its plan work?
As we’ve repeated countless times in these pages, Biglaw isn’t what it used to be, and good luck to you if you happen to be a partner. Sure, you’ve grabbed that brass ring, but you also have what could be described as “the worst job in Biglaw.” Here in the new normal, where layoffs and de-equitizations abound, despite increases in firm profits, many partners now have the same fears as associates.
So what happens when partners are pushed out of the law firms they once loved? Now we know, thanks to the results of a a new survey. You won’t believe how messy these bad romances can get…
“Being a partner at an elite law firm isn’t what it once was,” as I recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal book review, but “while the brass ring might be tarnished, it still gleams brightly for many.” And with good reason: even if it’s harder than ever to become (and remain) a partner, for those who do manage to make it, the pay, perks, and prestige are plentiful.
The American Lawyer just released its latest New Partner Survey. The magazine heard from almost 500 lawyers who began working as partners between 2010 and 2013. About 60 percent of the survey respondents are non-equity or income partners — which makes sense, given the proliferation of two-tier partnerships, as well as how junior these partners are — and the rest are equity partners.
What are the most notable findings from the survey? Here are five:
If you’re a law firm managing partner, the captain of a Biglaw ship, have you done all that you can to make sure your vessel is as seaworthy as possible? You don’t want your ship to suffer the fate of the S.S. Dewey.
Some steps are easy and obvious. Conduct layoffs of unneeded associates, whether openly or stealthily. Offer buyouts to surplus support staff (or lay them off, if feeling less generous). Usher underperforming partners towards the exit, to lower the denominator for your profit per partner figure; keeping PPP high reduces the likelihood of crippling defections and helps you attract star laterals.
Those are the basic moves, which everyone is doing. For something that’s a little more challenging, a maneuver that might even impress the East German judge in its level of difficulty, you can play with your partnership capital structure….
I’m not reviewing the book, but instead using it as a jumping-off point to discuss a tangent. Harper explains in his book two things that every sentient lawyer has noticed over the past several years: (1) students are graduating from law school buried under a mountain of debt, and many of those students can’t find jobs, and (2) many law firms have lost sight of the law’s noble history as a learned profession and are now obsessed with maximizing their profits per partner in the coming year.
Harper’s right about these things, of course, and this isn’t exactly late-breaking news to anyone who’s been following either Above the Law or Harper’s blog, The Belly of the Beast, for the last few years. Harper’s book advances the discussion, however, by exploring these issues in more detail than others have. He also proposes possible solutions to these problems, including “allowing the federal government to recover [law school loan] guarantees from a law school (and its university) whenever a student loan became the principal contributor to an alumnus’s later bankruptcy.” (Page 159.) Or encouraging law firms to release their “Working Culture Index,” which would show the percentage of lawyers billing more than 2000, 2100, 2200, 2300, 2400, and 2500 in the previous year (perhaps with separate totals being released for partners and associates). (Page 173.)
These ideas are well worth discussing, and I’m glad that Harper has taken the time to analyze these things. But I have another topic to highlight, which is an odd tangent to Harper’s two issues . . . .
When the merger of Edwards Angell and Wildman Harrold was announced back in August 2011, some observers, such as our beloved commenters here at Above the Law, viewed the move as an act of desperation. Because both firms had a tough time during the recession, the notion of their combining with each other reminded some people of… well, this.
Now, as we approach the two-year anniversary of the merger’s announcement, how are things going over at Edwards Wildman? Are Angells flapping their wings with joy and Wildmen hoisting glasses of grog?
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.
It’s that time of year again when JDs are starting to apply for 2L summer jobs and 2L summers are deciding which practice area to focus on.
For those JDs with an interest in potentially lateraling to or transferring to Asia in the future, please feel free to reach out to Kinney for advice on firm choices, interviewing and practice choices, relating to future marketability in Asia, or for a general discussion on your particular Asia markets of interest. This is of course a free of cost service for those who some years in the future may be our future industry contacts or perhaps even clients.
For some years now Kinney’s Asia head, Evan Jowers, has been formally advising Harvard Law students with such questions, as the Asia expert in Harvard Law’s “Ask The Experts Market Program” each summer and fall, with podcasts and scheduled phone calls. This has been an enjoyable and productive experience for all involved.
Whether you’re fresh off the bar exam or hitting your stride after hanging a shingle a few years ago, one thing’s for certain: independent attorneys who start a solo or small-law practice live with a certain amount of stress.
Non-attorneys would think the stress comes from preparing for a big trial, deposing a hostile witness, or crafting the perfect contract for a picky client.
But that’s nothing compared to the constant, nagging, real-life kind, the kind you get from the day-to-day grind of being a law-abiding attorney.
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