Partner Issues

Michael Allen

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Michael Allen is Managing Principal at Lateral Link, focusing exclusively on partner placements with Am Law 200 clients.

The stories about Biglaw over the past five years have been grim, but a closer inspection shows that despite a cacophony of daily doomsday stories from The New Republic, the Wisconsin Law Review, The Atlantic and other publications of varying quality, the future of Biglaw looks promising.

The size of modern-day, Am Law 100 firms allows them to downsize or expand as the market conditions dictate, but as a profession of perception, firms have to handle RIFs with care. Partners and clients might go next door if they doubt the capabilities of the firm. I have worked with partners before who moved simply because the perception of their firm’s stability was questioned by their clients….

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Bruce Stachenfeld

This is a continuation of the article I published in ATL two weeks ago. My previous article gave my view that the profitability metric of “Profits Per Partner” becomes in effect a master (rather than a servant) and is destructive and a root cause of some serious problems for Biglaw. In this article, I put forth a different way of doing business.

A long time ago, we at Duval & Stachenfeld decided that we would not make partnership decisions in our law firm based on a “numbers game.” Instead, we would look at the quality of the associates, and if they were qualified, we would make them partners irrespective of the effect that had on our firm economics. We have stuck to that view rigorously.

Over time we came to some realizations:

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Everybody in the Canadian legal profession knows that international firms Baker & McKenzie, Norton Rose and Dentons have set up shop in Canada. Baker & McKenzie has actually been in Toronto since 1962. Norton Rose absorbed the venerable Ogilvy Renault in 2011 before conquering the west by merging with energy powerhouse MacLeod Dixon in 2012. Dentons made its Canadian play in 2013 by merging with another long-established firm, Fraser Milner.

But how many people realize that there are several other prominent U.S./international firms working somewhat under the radar in the Canadian market? Powerhouses like Paul Weiss, Shearman & Sterling and Skadden Arps all have small Canadian offices where they service mostly American clients. Similarly, Dorsey & Whitney, Hodgson Russ, Dickinson Wright, Fragomen, and Clyde and Co. all have small Canadian presences.

By my count, that’s eleven U.S./international firms that have a real footprint in Canada, which leads to this question: why aren’t there more? Canada is a G8 nation with a strong economy. Our citizens are warm and friendly. We wear deodorant. Why have you forsaken us, international law firms?

Here’s what I dug up:

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A former colleague told me he spent the first few years of his career as a “soldier” for one of the powerful partners at his firm, and was ultimately driven to jump laterally at least in part to get out from under the guy’s thumb. It turns out the use of the word “soldier” wasn’t strictly a military allusion, meant [semi-] humorously to connote mindless devotion, but was actually intended more in the Sopranos vein. Or so it seemed to me anyway. Note I’ve also cast an aspersion on fraternities here, unapologetically…

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Last year, St. Martin’s Press published The Partner Track, the debut novel of lawyer Helen Wan. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, I praised the book for being engaging, suspenseful, and — unlike so many legal novels — realistic. The paperback edition of The Partner Track became available last week.

I enjoy fiction about lawyers, as both a reader and writer — my own first novel comes out in a few weeks — and I’m deeply interested in how other writers work. So I interviewed Helen Wan about her book, her approach to writing, and how she managed to write a novel while holding down a demanding job as an in-house lawyer for Time Warner. I also asked for her advice on how women and minority lawyers can succeed in Biglaw.

Here’s a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our conversation.

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We all dream of a world in which collegiality matters.

Partners at law firms are . . . well . . . partners. They look out for each other. They build each other’s practices. They work for the common good.

Perhaps that firm exists. I wouldn’t know.

From my perch here — as the guy who left a Biglaw partnership for an in-house job, and on whose shoulder other Biglaw partners now routinely cry — the view is pretty ugly. (Perhaps my perspective is distorted because of an obvious bias: Partners happy with their firms don’t come wailing to me.) What I hear these days is grim: Guys are being de-equitized or made of counsel; they think they’re being underpaid; they’re concerned that they’ll be thrown under the bus if they ever lose a step.

Several recent partners’ laments prompted me to think about something that I’d never considered when I worked at a firm. (Maybe that’s because I’m one of those guys who was perfectly happy laboring for the common good. Or maybe it’s because I’m a moron.)

In any event, here’s today’s question: I want to wrestle effectively with my own law firm. I don’t want to be nasty; I just want to be sure that I have implicit power when I negotiate with the firm. I want the firm — of its own accord, without me saying a word — to treat me right. How do I wrestle my own law firm to the ground? How do I pin my partners?

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Size matters, and to be successful today you really have to be in that Am Law 50.

Alan Levin, managing partner of Edwards Wildman, commenting on the importance of being viewed as a “tier 1″ law firm in the overall Biglaw hierarchy. Levin identified possible merger partners by commissioning a study to separate firms into “tier 1″ and “tier 2″ groupings. Locke Lord was considered a “tier 1″ firm, and Levin will become vice chair of Locke Lord Edwards if the merger goes through.

We’ve been hearing rumblings about it for weeks, and now there’s something to report: Locke Lord and Edwards Wildman Palmer have signed a letter of intent to merge.

Some folks at Edwards Wildman must be breathing sighs of relief (and hoping that nothing scuttles the deal). The past year or so has been challenging for the firm. In the spring, the firm laid off 52 lawyers and staff. In 2013, the firm experienced lots of partner defections and a significant dip in gross revenue.

It’s nice to see a troubled firm get rescued through a merger — e.g., Patton Boggs — instead of suffer the fate of Dewey. What do we know about the possible Locke Lord / Edwards Wildman deal?

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Observers of the legal industry have been wondering about the future of Bingham McCutchen for the past several months. In the wake of a rocky 2013, which triggered some lawyer departures and staff reductions, there has been a fair amount of merger talk.

Some have wondered whether Bingham might “fall victim to its own strategy” — i.e., whether the firm, which grew in power and profitability by swallowing up other firms, might itself get eaten up by a rival.

So what’s the latest on the Bingham merger talk front? And what might happen if the talks go further?

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For most people, there comes a time when you realize you have gone about as far as you can go in your chosen career. It’s a jarring moment if, like many lawyers, you have always had success in school and work and imagined you can go as far as you want. Sometimes it is also called a midlife crisis.

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