Partner Profits

For all the talk of layoffs and worries over an unstable legal economy, Biglaw just keeps getting bigger. Today, the American Lawyer magazine announced its Global 100, a ranking of the world’s 100 largest law firms in terms of total revenue. The view from the top is simple: as we learned from the 2013 Am Law 100, slow and steady does win the race, because Biglaw is at the biggest it’s been in years, and partners’ profits are headed up, up, up.

Now that we’re on the long road to recovery following the recession and collapse of the U.S. financial markets, there are some lessons to be learned from the past five years. Some firms were able to cash in modestly on their success, while other firms buckled under the pressure and were forced to close their doors for good. The game of musical chairs in the top 10 of the Global 100 reflects this economic uncertainty.

DLA Piper is the new top dog in terms of total revenue. Which firms are the leaders of the pack in other metrics, such as profits per partner and attorney headcount?

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It seems that Weil Gotshal & Manges enjoys the title we recently bestowed upon it: “the reigning drama queen of Biglaw.” The juicy news and novel plot twists just keep on coming.

For those of you just tuning into “As The Weil Turns,” here’s a quick recap. Last week, eight prominent partners left Weil’s Dallas office for Sidley Austin. There was lots of speculation for what motivated the move. The Boston office of Weil instituted an unusual policy for raising attorney morale. Weil in Houston lost another partner to a rival.

Today brings more news: fresh partner departures from Houston, additional drama out of Dallas….

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“Who shot J.R.?” That was the question that everyone (hi Mom!) was dying to know on the wildly popular prime-time soap opera of Dallas.

“Who drove out Yvette Ostolaza?” That’s the question everyone is dying to know on the wildly popular prime-time soap opera of Weil Gotshal.

Okay, “drove out” is probably not the right phrasing here, for reasons we’ll explain below. But there’s no denying that people are keenly interested in the drama surrounding the departure of eight Weil partners to Sidley Austin in Dallas.

Let’s take a closer look at the situation, shall we?

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Some of our older readers may, like me, remember the television show Dallas. This deliciously dishy, prime-time soap opera was packed with suspense, drama, and conflict.

Suspense, drama, and conflict have also haunted the high-powered law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges this year. In June, the firm conducted major layoffs, which shocked the legal world due to Weil’s profitability and prestige. In April, Weil lost some prominent litigation partners to Quinn Emanuel in D.C., amid significant controversy.

So it’s fitting that today’s juicy story comes from the Dallas office of Weil Gotshal, which just lost a slew of partners to a rival firm under interesting circumstances….

(Please note the various UPDATES added to the end of this post.)

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Partner, can you spare a dime?

Last week, we discussed the first part of an interesting essay by former managing partner Edwin Reeser that appeared in the ABA Journal. Today we’ll tackle part two.

Are you still depressed after reading in-house lawyer David Mowry’s recent reflections on the legal profession? If so, maybe stop reading here and come back later.

But if you’re willing to wallow, on this Friday the 13th and Yom Kippur, venture beyond the jump….

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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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