Partner Profits

Missing: multiple midlevels

Even though there’s significant excess capacity — meaning too many lawyers chasing too little work — I am hearing the concern that there aren’t enough midlevel associates.

Dan DiPietro, chairman of the Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group, offering an explanation as to why he thinks Biglaw firms want to increase headcount in this time of economic stress. In the latest Law Watch Managing Partner Confidence Index Survey, law firm leaders’ overall confidence level was lower than it has been since last year at this time, with expectations for profits and revenues also on the decline. The only area where their confidence rose was in expectations for hiring associates and equity partners.

PPP: pennies per partner?

Former managing partner Edwin Reeser is one of my favorite analysts of the legal profession (or industry, as the case may be). He recently wrote an interesting and thoughtful piece for the ABA Journal with a great title: “Law firms in the Great Recession: looking for change in all the wrong places.”

I’m a sucker for a good double entendre. Here, “looking for change” has at least two meanings. First, there’s “change” in the sense of reform. Second, there’s “change” in the sense of “spare change,” reflected in the sad way that law firm are rifling through the couch cushions — de-equitizing partners, laying off associates and staff, and cutting other costs here and there. These marginal steps have helped keep profits per partner up in the wake of the Great Recession, but they’re no recipe for winning the future.

So what should Biglaw be doing to promote long-term success?

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First things first: I’m heading back to the States for a couple of weeks in October, and Troutman Sanders and Miller Canfield have already asked me to take advantage of that visit by giving my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide at those firms. That means I’ll be blowing the dust off my speaking notes and reminding myself what I say. I might as well get some bang for the dust; if you’d like me to give the book talk at your firm (or school) in early October, please let me know.

Second things second: Citi, Wells Fargo, and PeerMonitor recently released their analyses of law firm performance to date in 2013, and the pundits were all a-twitter. (Well, all a-blogger, anyway, but the pundits are so retro.)

Here’s one question the pundits posed: Why is law firm headcount up when law firms are suffering from decreased demand for their services?

That’s a pretty good question, and there’s no obvious explanation. Being a curious fellow, I used a clever technique to get to the bottom of this: I asked.

After the jump, I explain why firms are hiring more lawyers during a time of weak demand (as explained by senior partners at a couple of firms) and note an overlooked aspect of 2012 law firm performance that may affect results in 2013 . . . .

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Put your new firm under the magnifying glass.

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral partner moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Today’s post is written by Elizabeth Katkin, a Senior Director at Lateral Link, where she focuses on partner and practice group transitions and developing strategic relationships with top international firms and companies in the Middle East and Europe.

Do you have one or more of the following frustrations with your current law firm? Inadequate overall or relative compensation. No platform to support or develop your practice. Feeling shut out of management decisions — or even having a voice.

Perhaps you are just beginning the search for a new firm, or perhaps you know where you are headed next — a place with a great footprint, support in the practice areas you need, and a group of lawyers that feels like a good fit. In the world of law firm management today, you already know that what you see is not always what you get. It is essential to gauge the financial and management health of a firm before you move, both to ensure your happiness and viability at the firm and to ease your exit in the event that there is trouble in paradise.

Here are five things you should understand before giving your withdrawal notice to your current firm:

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For the past three years, Baker & McKenzie has taken the top spot in the American Lawyer’s Global 100, the magazine’s ranking of the 100 highest-grossing law firms in the world. With 74 offices in 46 counties, the firm has a presence in almost as many countries as Starbucks (which is in 50 different countries around the globe).

Baker saw its financial metrics rise like bread in the last fiscal year. Gross revenue grew by 4.6 percent to $2.42 billion; net income rose by an even larger amount, 9.1 percent, to $862 million; and profits per equity partner increased by 10.1 percent, hitting $1.2 million.

But this strong performance wasn’t enough to keep Baker at #1. Who is the new top dog?

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Representing patent trolls: harder than it looks?

Has the “mojo hand” lost its mojo?

In 2008, a paralegal at Weil Gotshal alleged in a lawsuit that Matthew Powers, co-chair of litigation at Weil at the time, ruled over his domain with the “pimp hand” and the “mojo hand.” The “pimp hand” was used to intimidate and coerce, while the “mojo hand” was used to stroke and cajole.

In 2011, Powers, one of the nation’s leading intellectual-property litigators, left Weil to start his own firm, Tensegrity Law Group. In leaving Biglaw, he also left behind a stable of blue-chip clients, focusing instead on representing plaintiffs on a contingency basis.

Two years into his new venture, some observers are wondering whether Matt Powers has lost his powers….

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To pass the time while commuting, I like to listen to podcasts. If ATL had a podcast I would add that to my listening rotation (especially if Lat is able to pull in sitting judges to guest host or as interview subjects). But this is not a column about podcasts. Though the idea for this contest came from a podcast I was listening to, the B.S. Report with Bill Simmons. The host was interviewing a former ESPN colleague, and they were discussing how certain statistics in baseball are misleading.

An example? Wins for pitchers. Apparently there is a movement to abolish that statistic. Why? Because a pitcher can pitch a terrible game, and still come away with the win, assuming his lineup bails him out. Conversely, a pitcher can pitch a beautiful game, and lose just because his hitters decide to approach their at-bats like the pudgy partner from bankruptcy at the annual intra-firm softball game. To prove the limited utility of using wins as a proxy for determining who is the best pitcher, consider the following. By nearly all accounts, Clayton Kershaw of the L.A. Dodgers is the single most dominant pitcher in baseball today. Unsurprisingly, he is reportedly in line for the richest (around $30 million a year or so) contract extension for a pitcher — ever. But he has fewer wins this season (so far) than Bartolo Colon, a 40-year-old journeyman pitcher (on his sixth team, and nearly a decade removed from his last All-Star game appearance), who is making non-equity service partner money ($3 million) by baseball standards. Wins simply do not tell the whole story.

Biglaw has its share of statistical shortcomings….

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D.C. is dysfunctional, as pundits constantly complain about. Has the lack of productivity on Capitol Hill expanded to affect the private law firms of Washington?

Perhaps. According to Citi Private Bank’s recent survey of law firm performance, which showed that the first half of 2013 was bad for Biglaw nationally, D.C.-based law firms did even worse than their counterparts in other cities.

Let’s look at the numbers….

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David Bernick

As we mentioned earlier, prominent litigator David Bernick is leaving Boies Schiller for Dechert. Bernick joined Boies Schiller just a year ago, to much fanfare, so some were surprised to see him go so quickly.

But others were not shocked. As the always insightful Alison Frankel observed on Twitter, “Is anyone who knows David Bernick surprised he was mismatch at firm dominated by David Boies?”

Perhaps not. Some of our readers predicted this union wouldn’t last long….

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The sky is not falling for the world of large law firms. But could Biglaw be a frog in boiling water? We can’t rule that possibility out just yet.

The latest report on law firm performance, focused on the first six months of this year, shows some signs of weakness. The numbers aren’t awful, but if Biglaw continues to travel down this path, it won’t wind up in a good place….

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