Ed. note: This is the latest installment of The ATL Interrogatories, brought to you by Lateral Link. This recurring feature will give notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as about their firms and themselves.
Rob Romanoff is Managing Partner of Chicago-based Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC. He is also a partner in the firm’s Trusts & Estates Group. Rob has extensive experience in estate, gift and income tax planning and broad-based wealth transfer planning for high net worth individuals and owners of closely held businesses and their families. Rob is a fellow in the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC).
As law students gear up for fall recruiting season — yes, the Biglaw gravy train still accepts new passengers, even if not as many as before — some rising 2Ls might start to think, after researching firm after firm, “All of these places sound alike! They all have cutting-edge practices in bet-the-company litigation or cross-border M&A. They all have collegial cultures and ‘no screamers.’ They’re all committed to diversity and pro bono.”
But there are real differences between law firms. If you doubt this, just check out Above the Law’s Law Firm Directory. You can see the different letter grades we’ve assigned to firms, based on reports from lawyers who work at each firm and on overall industry reputation.
Further proof that law firms aren’t all the same: while some firms are giving out pink slips, others are issuing bonus checks. And we’re in the middle of July, not exactly peak bonus season. What gives?
Overcapacity. The Biglaw word du jour. Too many lawyers working in Biglaw to meet demand. Or is it too many lawyers in Biglaw to foist on that subset of clients still willing to pay those rates that guarantee profits-per-partner increases? Either way, the word is out. Biglaw is suffering from overcapacity. Something must be done.
Some firms will undoubtedly send out the message that every single one of their lawyers is in great demand. Debate among yourselves whether or not these firms are “stealth layoff” candidates.
Other firms have already taken action (e.g., Weil Gotshal) — sweeping, public action. Hopefully they did not enjoy what they were “forced” to do too much. The first cut is the hardest, as they say, and who can say that one of these firms won’t decide to wield the layoff katana like a sake-infused samurai?
We have partner profits on the brain here at Above the Law. Earlier today, we wrote about a law firm that instituted a 20 percent holdback on partner pay — a move that was met with anger by some.
In that story, we noted the “continued expansion in the gap in power and pay between what we’d call ‘super-partners’ — partners in firm management and major rainmakers, who are often one and the same — and rank-and-file partners.” You can see this yawning chasm in the disparities in partner pay that exist within the same firm. As partner turned pundit Steven Harper has argued, partners aren’t true “partners” when they are paid and treated so differently.
New information from the American Lawyer shows how extreme some of these gaps between partners have gotten….
One firm just started pocketing 20 percent of partner pay.
Many lessons can be drawn from the collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf. We’ve learned, for example, that it’s dangerous to have a law firm name that’s highly susceptible to puns. (Dewey know why that is? Howrey going to find out? Heller if I know.)
Another lesson: avoid excessive dependence upon bank financing. When a firm starts to spiral downwards, that spiraling can be accelerated by a bank calling a loan, not renewing a credit facility, or otherwise taking steps to protect itself that, while reasonable for the bank, can be damaging to the firm.
Biglaw partners may not be having coke-fueled orgies on piles of cash any more, but partners are still doing well compared to mere mortals.
In fact, the biggest rainmakers are doing really really well compared to many of their colleagues. According to Steven Harper, the Northwestern professor and author of The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (affiliate link), the highest-paid Biglaw partners used to make three times more than their run-of-the-mill colleagues. Today, rainmakers can pull down ten times more.
As we mentioned in Morning Docket, the American Lawyer recently released its Am Law 200 law firm rankings — a list that’s still closely watched, but not quite as prestigious as being a ranked member of the influential Am Law 100. Sorry, but being a part of the “Second Hundred” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
While the Am Law 100 celebrated a year of “slow growth” in 2012, it looks like the Am Law 200 will be known for its “bets on bulk.” When all of the big boys were busy playing it safe, perhaps out of fear of becoming the next Dewey, firms in the Second Hundred were gobbling up talent like there was no tomorrow.
Of course, as could’ve been expected, this kind of aggressive hiring had some pretty major effects on firms’ financial performance. So how did the Am Law 200 stack up? Let’s find out…
As we mentioned in Morning Docket, the American Lawyer recently released its highly influential, closely watched Am Law 100 law firm rankings. They say that “slow and steady wins the race,” and with regard to economic recovery, Biglaw firms seem to have taken that up as their new motto.
Yes, partners are still living as large as they ever were, but their success now comes in the form of single-digit returns with regard to key financial metrics. The divide between the “haves and the have-nots” in the world of major law firms has grown to epic proportions, and some Am Law 100 staples have fallen out of the top hundred firms altogether. Welcome to the new normal.
Are you ready to get excited about “modest” and “spotty” gains across the board? Let’s dig in….
What’s happening to the compensation of top partners at one major firm.
What kind of world are we living in? As we mentioned yesterday, a law school just announced that it’s lowering tuition — a shocking move, given that law schools almost always increase tuition by a few percentage points per year.
And now we get this news: a major law firm is cutting — yes, cutting — pay for top partners. This is a big surprise too, given that the powerful trend in the industry has been in favor of a growing divergence in pay between the highest- and lowest-earning partners. According to one recent study, “the spread in compensation between the highest- and lowest-paid partners in law firms has increased to 6-to-1 or 7-to-1 from the previous count of 4-to-1 or 5-to-1.”
So which firm is making this move, and what’s motivating it?
If you follow the world of large law firms, then you are probably familiar with the incisive and candid commentary of Steven J. Harper. Over at his blog, The Belly of the Beast, Harper offers excellent insights into the world of Biglaw.
Harper knows so much about that world because he spent his entire legal career in it. He joined Kirkland & Ellis after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1979. He practiced litigation at the firm for about 30 years, until his retirement in 2008, at the early age of 54 (which you can afford to do when you’re an equity partner at a firm as lucrative as K&E).
In addition to blogging, Harper has written four books. I spoke last week with Harper about his latest book, The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (affiliate link), and about his views on the worlds of Biglaw and legal education….
Ms. JD is hosting their 2nd annual cocktail benefit to raise money for the Global Education Fund. The event will be held on August 21, 2014 at 111 Minna in San Francisco. Our goal is to raise $20,000 to fund the legal educations of four dedicated law students in Uganda who count on our support to continue their studies at Makerere University during the 2014-15 academic year.
The Global Education Fund enable womens in developing countries to pursue legal educations who otherwise would not have access to further education. According to the World Bank, investment in education for girls has one of the highest rates of return to promote development. In Uganda, more than 45% of women over the age of 25 have no schooling at all, and men are more than twice as likely as women to have access to higher education. Together, we can work to end educational inequality. For more information about the program, please visit http://ms-jd.org/programs/global-education-fund/
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past seven years. You can reach them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We at Kinney Asia have made a number of FCPA / White Collar US associate placements in Hong Kong / China thus far in 2014. Most of such placements have been commercial litigation associates from major US markets, fluent in Mandarin, switching to FCPA / White Collar litigation. Some have already had FCPA experience, but those are difficult candidates for firms to find (this will change in coming years as US firms are now promoting FCPA / White Collar to their 2L summers who are fluent in Mandarin and have an interest in transferring to China at some point).
Legal Week quoted Kinney’s Head of Asia, Evan Jowers, extensively in the following relevant article here.
There is a new trend in the market, though, where mid-level transactional US associates, fluent in spoken Mandarin and written Chinese, are interviewing for and in some cases landing junior FCPA / White Collar spots in Hong Kong / China at very top tier US firms.
When the LexisNexis Cloud Technology Survey results were reported earlier this year, it showed that attorneys were starting to peer less skeptically into the future, and slowly but surely leaning more toward all the benefits the law cloud has to offer.
Because let’s face it, plenty of attorneys are perhaps a bit too comfortable with their “system” of practice management, which may or may not include neon highlighters, sticky notes, dog-eared file folders, and a word processing program that was last updated when the term “raise the roof” was still de rigueur.