Nonequity Partners

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….

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Here’s one great benefit of blogging: Publishers send you free copies of books, hoping that you’ll review them!

I received and read, but now choose not to review, Steven J. Harper’s valuable new contribution to the literature: The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession In Crisis (affiliate link).

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 . . . .

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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?

Not exactly, say some….

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Last week I wrote about some aspects of client service in today’s Biglaw. Today I want to focus on Biglaw’s embrace of partner de-equitizations and layoffs. These tactics are one of the ways Biglaw has been dealing with the fallout of the Black Death that has struck our industry.

Unfortunately, it seems like this year has gotten off to a bad start Biglaw-wise, in terms of both demand and a continuing lack of creativity by management at nearly every single firm. That brings consequences. Stay tuned. I have already said that I don’t mind if the paunchy mid-section of the Am Law 100 starts embracing a “bottom’s out” approach to the partnership — but at least have the guts to embrace it, not spin it.

I am really starting to dislike the tone that managing partners are starting to adopt when they talk about eliminating partners. Yes, I said eliminate. You may have seen them. Public statements where managing partner X almost gleefully informs the public of the elimination of nearly ten percent of his “partners” in the face of falling revenues. And looks for applause because his firm’s PPP went up $17,000 as a result. Go read some of the recent Biglaw “report cards” for a taste of this rancid stew.

We should be clear about the consequences of such a practice….

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* This guy could teach a master class in how to stand by your (wo)man. Mary Jo White’s husband, John White, will relinquish his equity partner status at Cravath upon her confirmation as the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. [Am Law Daily]

* Macho, macho man: it looks like we’ll never know if Dechert actually has a “macho culture,” because the FMLA and paternity leave case that questioned the very existence of this Biglaw subculture was settled out of court. [National Law Journal]

* Why you gotta go and ruin Valentine’s Day for everyone at O’Melveny and Akin Gump? Apple’s request to speed up the Greenlight Capital case was approved, with arguments now scheduled for February 19. [CNET]

* Despite her nomination being crapped on by the Senate, Jenny Rivera, the CUNY School of Law professor, was recently confirmed as an associate judge of the New York Court of Appeals. [New York Law Journal]

* Remember the lawyer who sued Westlaw and Lexis for copyright infringement? Judge Jed Rakoff dismissed it for reasons yet to be disclosed, but probably for legal dumbassery. [Thomson Reuters News & Insight]

* “Behold, the instrument of your liberation!” Survivors of the Aurora movie massacre are being harassed by conspiracy theorists, and the DA asked the judge to scrub their names from the record. [Courthouse News]

Now is the time on ATL when we dance — around the subject of money. With just two months left in the year, law firms are focused on collections, associates are focused on bonuses, and partners are focused on profits. Even though money is not the be-all and end-all of law practice, as we have emphasized in these pages before, it’s a topic that people follow — and a topic that we will therefore be covering closely in what remains of 2012.

Earlier this week, the American Lawyer magazine touched upon a topic that doesn’t get as much attention as it should in the world of Biglaw: compensation for non-equity partners. Let’s take a look at Am Law’s findings….

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The recent survey on partner compensation conducted by Major, Lindsey & Africa, which I discussed last week, is full of interesting information. First off, I never really knew how many Biglaw partners there are. The answer? Around 75,000, which includes partners from all firms ranked on the Am Law 200, NLJ 350, or Global 100 in the last five years. Throw in another 1,000 or so partners who were Biglaw partners but left to form high-end boutiques — not included in the survey, but I consider them Biglaw partners since they typically work for similar clients — and you still have a pretty small number relative to the number of lawyers in the world. The figure of 75,000 amounts to less than two years’ worth of new U.S. law school graduates.

Very interesting, especially considering the forty-year-or-so age spread between active partners. Seriously, how realistic is it for any one law graduate (irrespective of pedigree) to think they will beat the odds and eventually make partner? So many things need to go right — it is amazing.

Here’s one surprising aspect of the MLA survey….

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Peter Kalis

As we head into the weekend, we’re happy to bring you additional commentary from Peter Kalis, the chairman and global managing partner of K&L Gates. Earlier this week, the colorful Kalis was unanimously reelected to his leadership role by the 60 voting members of the Management Committee.

The delightfully opinionated Kalis recently gave an interview to Am Law Daily, in which he shed additional light on the state of K&L Gates. His remarks weren’t as forceful as the beatdown he administered to the firm’s anonymous detractors last week, but they are interesting….

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Peter Kalis: hail to the chief!

Much like the similarly named Kelis, his milkshake brings all the boys (and girls) to the yard. Peter Kalis, the chairman and global managing partner of K&L Gates, just won a fifth consecutive term at the helm of the global mega-firm. As noted in the firm’s press release, which we received here at Above the Law, the 60 voting members of the Management Committee supported Kalis unanimously.

Kalis assumed leadership of the firm in 1997, back when it was called Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. On Kalis’s watch, the firm conducted eight mergers, including the combination with Preston Gates & Ellis that resulted in the “K&L Gates” moniker. When Kalis took the helm, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart was a regional firm with six offices, all in the Eastern time zone of the United States. Now K&L Gates boasts almost 2,000 lawyers in 41 offices on four continents.

But growth brings with it growing pains. Let’s discuss those, and get some information about partner capital contributions at the firm….

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Lat had it right last week. There is a big, and growing, partner compensation spread at nearly all Biglaw shops. And as I mentioned in an earlier column, it is not uncommon to make partner and not see a bump in guaranteed pay at all. Factor in the additional expenses Lat references, such as tax and insurance outlays, and the first few years of partnership can be a net loss for some partners. Even if you finance your buy-in. And especially if you were the beneficiary of some big bonuses, for the suicidal hours you had just put in (big profits for your Biglaw firm!) as a counsel or senior associate in order to get elected.

So please don’t assume that every one of the people you see named as new Biglaw partners (usually in a breathless press release, and sometimes even with an ad in the American Lawyer) are signing contracts for their dream “lawyerly lairs” straightaway. If they are, it’s because they have family money or are a two-professional, no-kid type-family. Otherwise, they are headed for some tight times once they realize that they have to pay federal taxes (including Medicare and Social Security), state taxes (often in every state their firm operates), local taxes (for their beautiful new property), and a real accountant who can figure the whole mess out for them.

Most people don’t realize this, and Biglaw is in no rush to pop the fantasy bubble. Better to have associates motivated by dreams of what Lat referred to as “instant riches.” Better to maintain the prestige of the profession by pretending that making partner at a Biglaw firm is a tremendous achievement, regardless of what firm, practice group, or locale. It’s an achievement, sure. Just like getting elected to some political office. But there is a big difference between getting elected to the U.S. Senate and getting elected as deputy tax commissioner somewhere….

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