Partner Issues

In 1983, when I graduated from law school, essentially no one wanted in-house legal jobs, and people who worked in-house weren’t held in very high regard.

To the contrary: With few exceptions, in-house lawyers were viewed as failures. These were the folks who couldn’t succeed at real jobs. People went in-house because law firms wouldn’t have them; jobs with short hours, low pay, no challenging assignments, and no stress were the only available alternative.

That was not simply my narrow-minded perspective. It was the widely shared belief of generations of lawyers who came of age in the law before about 1990. I recently had a drink with the general counsel of a Fortune 250 company, and he (or she, but I’ll use the masculine) told me that he could never be a success in his father’s eyes: “My father was a partner at a major law firm. He was pleased with me when I clerked for a federal appellate judge, took a fancy government job, and later became a partner at a big firm. But then I went in-house, and he lost all respect for me. He wanted me to ‘succeed’ in the law — to try high-profile cases and argue important appeals. When I went in-house, he quickly decided that I was a failure, and there was never any chance that he’d change his mind.”

Although that’s a sad story, I’m pleased to report that, at least in the context of in-house legal jobs, Bob Dylan had it right: “The times they are a-changin’ . . .

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Juan Monteverde and Alexandra Marchuk

The courtroom battle between Alexandra Marchuk and the litigation boutique where she once worked, Faruqi & Faruqi, rages on. As longtime readers will recall, Marchuk alleges that F&F partner Juan Monteverde sexually harassed her, in severe fashion, and that the firm’s leaders ignored his alleged misdeeds.

But no matter who wins in court, it’s possible to argue that the firm is ending up the loser. It has endured extensive bad publicity, and some of the resulting instability has apparently led to lawyer departures.

Who are the latest attorneys to defect from Faruqi & Faruqi?

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral partner moves from 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.

A law firm’s compensation model for partners is oftentimes as mysterious as the disappearance of D.B. Cooper, but the payoff for solving this mystery is many times more rewarding.

When partners look for new firms, they generally have a shortlist of expectations, such as good culture, strong practices and platforms, stable finances without too much debt, stellar reputations, and last but certainly not least, healthy compensation.

There is a common misconception I observe with junior partners. Many of them assume that the compensation for their book of business will scale linearly from firm to firm…

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Bruce Stachenfeld

Ed. note: Please welcome our new columnist, Bruce Stachenfeld of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP.

What is a law firm? Unlike a lot of businesses, there are really no assets except the lawyers and (in some instances) the brand name. For most law firms — especially newer firms and start-ups — there is no brand name; that leaves the lawyers as the only assets. And for brand-name law firms, if the talent starts to leave, eventually the brand dies.

As one of my partners once said to me: “Bruce, all of the assets of this business go down the elevator every night. Your job is to get them to come back up in the morning.” He just said it casually, but it hit me strongly later on as I realized he was completely right. The entire point of running a law firm was to keep the lawyers in the firm. You can always get more clients if you lose them, but without the lawyers, you have nothing to sell and it is game over.

Accordingly, to answer the question posed at the outset as to what a law firm is…. it is a collection of lawyers who are together because they wish to be together. If they don’t wish to be together any more, then they leave, and that is the end.

And what is a great law firm?

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Last week, the American Lawyer announced its eagerly anticipated Am Law 100 rankings, reflecting the financial performance of major law firms in 2013. On the whole, the news wasn’t bad. The elite firms did great, and most other firms eked out “modest, hard-won gains.” Am Law suggested that the big vereins underperformed, but that indictment might have been too harsh.

The Am Law data focuses on last year. What about last quarter? How are law firms doing in 2014 so far?

A new report from Citi Private Bank, a leading provider of financial services to leading law firms, has some answers….

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On Monday, we heard rumors of momentous events at Patton Boggs, the troubled law and lobbying firm. One of the rumors was that the partnership was holding a meeting to vote on something major — although what exactly was not revealed.

We reached out to Patton Boggs, which shot down the rumors of a meeting, so we ended up not doing a story. But there may have been some truth to reports of exciting goings-on at the firm — developments that could help the firm in its struggle for survival.

The firm just removed the albatross of litigation with oil giant Chevron from around its neck. As you may recall, Chevron sued Patton Boggs for PB’s representation of plaintiffs in an Ecuadorian environmental case that Chevron alleged was nothing more than a shakedown — a view that Judge Lewis Kaplan (S.D.N.Y.) vindicated in March.

But escaping from the Chevron quagmire did not come cheap for Patton Boggs. How much did the firm have to cough up to make this case go away?

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The arrival last week of the latest Am Law 100 rankings brought a hot-button subject back to the headlines: vereins.

As The Economist concisely explains, a verein is “a Swiss partnership that lets [law firms] maintain separate national or regional profit pools under a single brand.” For purposes of preparing its influential Am Law 100 rankings, the American Lawyer treats a verein as a single firm — a decision that some at non-verein firms object to.

Let’s hear some of the complaints — and then, interestingly enough, a defense of the vereins’ financial performance in 2013, which might have been better than Am Law suggested….

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Last week, I addressed how technological advances and freer access to information can help ex-Biglaw partners like myself transition to a boutique practice without disruption — from the standpoint of being able to conduct a litigation practice in much the same way it was conducted while in Biglaw. As I said, it has become much easier to gain access to the litigation work product of Biglaw firms, for example, reducing Biglaw’s edge in knowledge management over a start-up firm like ours.

Of course, how best to exploit that work product requires training and skill, and to some extent a Biglaw-caliber background to begin with. In other words, the information may be more accessible, but it does not come with an instruction manual. At least when it comes to patent litigation, everyone needs to learn the trade the hard way.

But there is another important area where Biglaw’s edge is eroding….

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First, two plugs; then, crystal-ball-gazing about a certain breed of law firm. Plug one: Please take a look at “How To Write Articles That Don’t Generate Business.” I amused myself writing it; perhaps you’ll be amused reading it.

Plug two: I’ll be back in the States for a few weeks in June, and I’m taking advantage of that opportunity to give my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law at three “Vault 50” firms. So long as I’ve dusted off the notes to give those three talks, I might as well speak at your firm, too, Please let me know if you’re interested.

Finally, some crystal-ball-gazing: I’ve been picking for years on the fictitious law firm of Bigg & Mediocre. For good reason: To my eye, a fair number of firms have decided that adding more offices and lawyers is the cure to all that ails them and that relentlessly focusing on quality is a failed strategy of the past.

Recent empirical evidence now suggests that I may actually have a point. The Am Law profitability ratings for last year show that the super-rich firms are getting richer, and the run-of-the-mill big firms are doing okay. But one group is getting crushed, seeing substantial decreases in both revenue per lawyer and profits per partner: what Am Law calls “the giant alternatives” or the “vereins.”

My mental category of “big and mediocre” doesn’t match Am Law’s “giant verein” group. To my eye, a few of the global giants have managed to pursue both size and quality. But several have not. (I can’t say publicly which firms I would place in which category, because my employer is the world’s leading insurance broker for law firms, and I can’t go around offending the clients and potential clients. Let me just say that your firm is great. Not just great — stupendous! But the other guy’s firm? Not so much.)

So “big and mediocre” got its clock cleaned last year. I’m predicting that big and mediocre will get its clock increasingly cleaned over time, and within a couple of decades, will suffer the fate of the sundial.

Why?

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As we’ve mentioned before in these pages, lawyers as a group are highly susceptible to addiction. The rate of alcoholism among lawyers may be twice as high as it is among the general population. If you think you or a colleague might have a substance abuse problem, try reaching out to a Lawyer Assistance Program for help.

Alcohol problems afflict the high and the low. As for the high, let’s tell you about a managing partner who needs to manage his drinking….

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