Partner Profits

I’ve just celebrated my fourth anniversary working in-house, and I’m now officially out of touch with law firm life.

I thought I knew all the law-firm-partnership tricks. For example, when law students ask at interviews what percentage of firm partners hold equity status, some firms answer: “At this firm, all partners are partners.” That’s true, of course, but tautological; it says nothing about the equity and non-equity ranks.

On the other hand, this non-responsive answer serves a useful purpose. It may help to convince law students (or lateral associates) that they have a real chance at making partner at the firm, even though the equity partnership ranks are tiny and getting thinner every day.

But I recently learned about a new game that law firms play. This one is aimed not at deceiving law students or lateral associates, but rather the granddaddy of law firm rankings: The American Lawyer’s profits per partner calculation.

I thought I knew all the ways law firms could try to mislead The American Lawyer. There’s the possibility of outright lying, of course, and then there’s using funky methodologies that inflate profits per partner from $1 million to $1.8 million for the year 2011. But there’s a new game in town. It may well be widespread, but I heard about it only recently….

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Partnership: Biglaw’s ultimate brass ring.

Becoming a Biglaw partner does not necessarily mean you’ll live happily ever after. It doesn’t even guarantee financial security. Indeed, some partners end up filing for personal bankruptcy.

But that’s an anomalous case. Partnership at a major law firm might not guarantee you happiness — sometimes you have to leave the partnership to follow your bliss — but it generally brings with it tremendous pay and prestige.

That’s especially true of partnership at the nation’s 10 most prestigious large law firms. Most of them have only a single partnership tier — equity or bust, baby — and sky-high profits.

Who are the new partners at these 10 firms, and what do their selections reveal about Biglaw today?

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When you read about a multibillion-dollar, highly contested corporate takeover, there’s a decent chance that Wachtell Lipton is involved. The firm, which routinely tops the American Lawyer’s profits per partner rankings and Vault’s prestige rankings, is known for its expertise in mergers and acquisitions.

Charter Communications’ unsolicited $61 billion bid for Time Warner Cable? Yup, Wachtell is on the scene, representing Charter (with help from Kirkland & Ellis). If a deal goes through, count on an eight-figure fee for Wachtell.

And some of that lucre will trickle down to associates. Wachtell Lipton is known for gigantic bonuses, which can match (or even occasionally exceed) an associate’s base salary.[1] And it pays out bonuses in lockstep fashion, without regard to hours (unlike, say, Boies Schiller, another firm famous for its generous bonuses).[2]

How were Wachtell bonuses in 2013? Inquiring minds want to know. Alas, we don’t have the 2013 info (yet) — but here’s what we’ve heard about 2011 and 2012….

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As discussed last week, I agreed to answer some questions from Professor Bill Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of law in exchange for his kind agreement to be interviewed (parts 1 and 2 of that interview available here and here) for this column. This week, I conclude our exchange by answering his final three questions. In so doing, another year of writing for ATL will come to a close, and I wanted to take the opportunity to thank everyone who interacts with this column, whether as reader, commenter, interview subject, or editor. May 2014 be a year of success, health, and growth for us all.

BH: You have chided your fellow lawyers to give back to the next generation of lawyers. I certainly agree. However, between moral exhortation to do the right thing, or changing incentives within law firms, where should we focus our efforts?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “A Discussion About Biglaw’s Present: My Turn (Part 2)”

Earlier this year, partner bonuses at Hogan Lovells generated some controversy across the pond. Certain partners in London questioned the process by which payments were determined and wondered whether partners in management received too much relative to rank-and-file partners. Squabbles over partner pay are something the firm’s incoming CEO, D.C.-based Stephen Immelt, can look forward to addressing when he takes over next summer.

Let’s now turn from partner pay in London to associate pay in New York. The NYC office of Ho-Love recently showed its associates some love, in the form of year-end bonuses. Were they as controversial as the London partner payouts?

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The elite California law firm of Irell & Manella is a top firm for diversity. It’s a top firm for associate satisfaction. And, on a related note to associate satisfaction, it’s a top firm for bonuses.

Year-end bonuses at Irell & Manella for associates who meet their hours typically beat the New York market by a healthy amount. In recent years, they’ve been as high as twice the Cravath scale.

Alas, that’s not the case this year. But the Irell bonuses are still nothing to scoff at….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Associate Bonus Watch: Irell & Manella Beats The Market Again (But By Less Than Usual)”

Last week, part 1 of my written interview with Professor William (Bill) Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law was published here. Again, I’d like to thank Professor Henderson for agreeing to this interview and for all the important work he is carrying out. As with my prior interviews, the commentary below Professor Henderson’s answers is mine alone.

AP: What current Biglaw practice do you find most disturbing?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “A Discussion About Biglaw’s Present: An Interview With Indiana Law’s Bill Henderson (Part 2)”

One of the most important voices in the academic legal community, particularly on the topic of the business of law, and Biglaw in general, is Professor William (Bill) Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. I personally have long admired his work, and I was very pleased when he reached out to me after he had read my column on Biglaw’s “sticky seniors” problem.

At that point, I asked him if he was willing to do a written interview, and he graciously agreed, on the condition that he later have the opportunity to ask me questions. I look forward to doing so, and in the meantime I hope you find his answers to my questions as informative as I did. I’d like to thank Professor Henderson for agreeing to this interview, and for all the important work he is carrying out. As with my prior interviews, the commentary below Professor Henderson’s answers is mine alone.

AP: You got in touch with me regarding my column on Biglaw’s issues with senior partners. What are your thoughts on the issue?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “A Discussion About Biglaw’s Present: An Interview With Indiana Law’s Bill Henderson (Part 1)”

Last week, we joked about the glacial pace of the 2013 Biglaw bonus season. After all, Cravath made its announcement on December 9, and in that time, we’ve only heard from as many firms as days have passed since that time — seven.

Well, maybe things are finally heating up. Yesterday afternoon, two more firms sent out word of their associate bonuses by class.

We know Paul Weiss is looking hot, hot, hot these days, but were their bonuses just as sexy? And what about the bonuses at Bracewell & Giuliani, a firm that posted a double-digit increase in gross revenue?

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(Plus Bonus News From Bracewell & Giuliani)”

At a roulette wheel in Vegas, you know the odds. The folks with all their money on red have a less than 50 percent chance of winning (47.37 percent, to get technical). There will be highs and there will be lows, but over the long haul, those poor saps swizzling their comped drinks will come out on the losing end.

On the other hand, you put all your money on black because the guy on your flight told you to. Intellectually, you recognize you have the same odds of pulling out a victory as the overmatched retirees from Kansas City betting on red, but you’re absolutely positive you’re going to win.[1]

Welcome to the positive expectation bias. Rational thought flies out the window as you ignore facts you know (or at least strongly believe) to be true, instead placing blind faith in the proposition that everything’s going to turn out well for you.

Law firm managing partners are expected to be a little more risk-averse compared to other chief executives, but it turns out law firm managing partners are not immune to a little irrational gambling from time to time….

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