Profits Per Partner

Complaining about profits per partner as a metric is a favorite pastime of Biglaw partners. Sometimes it can look like sour grapes by partners at firms that don’t excel in the PPP department.

But, to be fair, there certainly are things to complain about when it comes to profits per partner. For example, PPP is an average that can sometimes conceal a great deal of variability. It tells you exactly what its name suggests — average profits per partner, i.e., total profits divided by the number of partners – but it doesn’t tell you what the average partner takes home in a year.

To get a better sense of compensation for an average partner, we’d need to know the “spread,” i.e., the ratio between the compensation of the highest-paid partner and that of the lowest-paid partner. Thankfully, there is (some) information on that.

How do partner compensation spreads look these days at leading law firms?

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The current discussion regarding the decision by Dentons not to report its average profits per partner (“PPP”) to the American Lawyer is interesting. While I was at Greenberg Traurig, then-CEO Cesar Alvarez used to have a pithy statement on the whole PPP issue, along the lines of: The only thing partners really care about is “profits per me.” There is a lot of wisdom in that statement. In my experience it is true for existing Biglaw partners, potential laterals, and those (fool?) hardy associates aspiring to partnership.

At the same time, the popularity of the American Lawyer’s various charts and rankings can’t be denied. And PPP is one of the catchier columns on those charts. It is used as a proxy for determining everything from firm prestige, to strength of client relationships, to how well a firm is managed.

Savvy associates can and do use it to determine associate quality of life at a particular firm. Your firm has a blazing PPP and no big contingency windfalls feeding the flames? Good chance you are looking at a never-ending flow of “interesting work,” coupled with the partnership prospects of a diminutive drone buzzing around hoping to get noticed by the queen bee. In contrast, you might enjoy a better lifestyle if employed as associate #614 by a Biglaw 2.0 monolith, but you also run the distinct risk of making partner only to realize that the financial gulf between you and the “real” partners is a broad one….

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* In defense of its PPP metric, the editor-in-chief of the American Lawyer revealed a shocking statistic about Dentons: the firm’s PPP was likely down about 20 percent year over year. [Am Law Daily]

* A judge dismissed many of defunct firm Heller Erhman’s remaining unfinished business claims in the case against its former partners. Dewey know some partners who are thrilled? [WSJ Law Blog]

* From 2012 to 2013, NLJ 350 firms saw the rise of “other” attorneys — staff attorneys, of counsel, and lawyers who were neither associates nor partners. We’re living in lean times. [National Law Journal]

* “No one predicted there would be this kind of huge drop in applications.” Apparently law school deans thought prospective students would be thrilled about their lack of job prospects. [Hartford Business Journal]

* Shelly Sterling has asked a judge to rule that she can sell the Los Angeles Clippers over her husband Donald Sterling’s protests. We’re very eagerly awaiting their impending divorce train wreck. [Bloomberg]


[A] focus on profit undermines the differences between the practice of law being a profession rather than solely a business. It is easy to anticipate the assertion that we choose not to report aggregate annual average profit numbers because they are not as high as some other firms. But that assertion simply assumes that the way things have been done in the past is the way they should be done in the future.

– Global chief executive officer Elliott Portnoy and global chair Joe Andrew of Dentons, explaining in a letter to the American Lawyer the reasons why the firm will no longer report its average profits per equity partner.

(Dentons, a verein that recently merged with two firms, had PPP of $625,000 in 2013, which put the firm in 96th place on the Am Law 100 when ranked by PPP.)

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.

Alliteration aficionados are bemoaning the tongue-twisting fusion of Squire Sanders and Patton Boggs into Squire Patton Boggs. I prefer the feudal-esque Squire Boggs, but then again, I was not on the naming committee. Aside from this rebranding exercise, Squire Patton Boggs makes it clear that mergers (or acquisitions) are easier to execute in principal than reality.

Many of the firms in the Am Law 200 are the result of previous mergers including WilmerHale and DLA Piper. Most of these mergers were consummated before the recession, and since then, the parity between Am Law 200 firms has been dwindling.

The race for supremacy in the legal market has created a system with far less parity than before and consequently, a greater degree of difficulty for mergers. For example, the spread of Profits Per Partner in 2003 is right-skewed — and this will likely always be the case — but overall, there is little variance in spread of PPP in 2003 when compared to the spread in 2014…

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To quote a recent headline, Midyear Bonus Bonanza Unlikely In 2014. We’d agree with that, at least as a general matter. Midyear bonuses are so “unlikely,” in fact, that we haven’t received any emails from anxious associates asking us about the possibility of midyear bonuses.[1]

But there are exceptions to every rule. Which highly profitable, finance-focused law firm just announced bonuses for both lawyers and staff?

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Today, the American Lawyer released its Am Law 200 law firm rankings — a closely watched list of the law firms that are rich and prestigious, but not quite rich and prestigious enough to become a member of the elite and influential Am Law 100. If this were law school rankings, you could think of the “Second Hundred” as the institutions that came in just a step below the lauded T14.

As we noted when the Am Law 100 rankings came out in late April, the key takeaway was that the super rich were continuing to get richer. When it comes to the Am Law 200, flat performance is still very much the new up. There were some outstanding performances, though, and 20 firms out of the Second Hundred were designated as “super rich,” just like their Am Law 100 cousins.

While some firms came out on top, others were merely surviving. How did the Am Law 200 stack up?

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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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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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This week has been a big one for rankings. On Monday, the American Lawyer released the 2014 Am Law 100 rankings, chronicling how Biglaw fared in 2013. Last night, we released our top 50 law school rankings, based on the latest employment data from the ABA.

The process of getting measured causes people to modify themselves toward the metric; just ask any bride trying to fit into her wedding dress. So it shouldn’t be surprising that, with rankings on the brain, law firm leaders have been cutting headcount to boost profits.

Which major law firm just announced double-digit cuts, perhaps in an effort to get into fighting shape by Memorial Day, before the arrival of summer associates?

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