Profits

As we mentioned last week, the American Lawyer recently released its highly influential, closely watched Am Law 100 law firm rankings. And despite all the doom and gloom permeating the legal profession, as well as the stagnant bonuses for associates lucky enough to make it into Biglaw, partners at large law firms are living just as large as ever.

In a way, the recovery in Biglaw is not unlike the recovery in America in general. If you were already well-off, you’re doing great now. It’s just not trickling down to anybody else. See, e.g., anemic spring bonuses.

Interestingly enough, the division of the world into “haves and have-nots” continues even into the world of major law firms. Partners at super-top-tier firms are putting even more distance between themselves and partners at less high-powered or less profitable firms.

Let’s look at the numbers, shall we?

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Defections continue at Dewey & LeBoeuf. On Tuesday, the WSJ Law Blog and Thomson Reuters reported on the departure of four M&A lawyers for DLA Piper. As we mentioned on Monday, antitrust litigator Eamon O’Kelly just flew the Dewey henhouse for Arent Fox. The recent departures take the number of partners who have left Dewey in 2012 to at least 40 (a decrease of about 13 percent in partner headcount).

The four attorneys who just jumped to DLA are John J. Altorelli and Alexander G. Fraser, who were partners at Dewey, and Patrick Costello and Gerald Francese, who were counsel. All four will be partners at DLA, and Altorelli will serve as co-chair of DLA’s U.S. finance practice, as well as a member of the executive committee. Although DLA is not a paradise, presumably the Dewey defectors determined DLA Piper to be more stable than Dewey (unless they took an “any port in a storm” approach, which is certainly possible).

In other Dewey news, the American Lawyer is revising the 2010 and 2011 financial results for Dewey — downward. And we’re hearing rumblings about some of the firm’s international offices….

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(Plus information on international offices.)

If you think this economy is just kicking the asses of recent graduates, associates, and support staff, you are forgetting one critical group: partners without portable books of business. Those who make it rain are getting soaked with wealth, but everybody else is just trying to get a drink.

We’ve heard many stories about partners without business quietly being “pushed out” or de-equitized. But we rarely see an entire group of partners publicly “demoted” en masse.

Well, on Monday a Biglaw firm did just that…

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There were a few rough patches last year for O’Melveny & Myers. The elite firm, founded in California but now international in its coverage, experienced a significant number of partner departures. It conducted some staff layoffs. And there was turnover at the top, with New York litigator Bradley Butwin picked to replace D.C. power broker A.B. Culvahouse as chair of the firm (ending Culvahouse’s leadership term about a year early.)

Has OMM turned a corner under the new leadership? Butwin and the other new leaders at the firm have started implementing a new strategic vision for the firm, and thus far, things seem to be going well. The firm’s latest financial results were healthy, with the key metrics of profits per partner and revenue per lawyer hitting record highs in 2011 (reaching $1.73 million and $1.02 million, respectively).

What have these financial results meant for O’Melveny associates? The firm recently announced its 2011 bonuses….

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(And other OMM developments.)

In terms of firm finances, Paul Hastings had a perfectly decent 2011. Revenue and profits were fairly stable, according to Am Law Daily. Gross revenue fell by 2 percent to $884 million, and profits per partner fell by 1.3 percent to about $1.97 million. On the brighter side, revenue per lawyer surpassed the $1 million mark for the first time, hitting $1.01 million.

So how are those revenue-generating worker bees being compensated? Bonuses are out at Paul Hastings. How are PH associates reacting?

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The absence of spring bonuses makes cute animals sad.

Today is March 1. By this time last year, about a dozen firms had announced spring bonuses, as you can see from our prior coverage.

This year? Crickets.

Perhaps there’s no cause for worry right now. Things are going just as my colleague Elie Mystal predicted: “You’re going to get your money. My prediction: an extra $10,000 to $20,000 depending on class year, starting with third-year associates. It might be announced really late, end of February or early March, once firms realize they need to keep their talented midlevels.”

I can’t say I share Elie’s optimism….

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We’re getting the sense, based on anecdotal evidence showing up in our inbox, that law firms are quietly making cuts to the ranks of attorneys and staff. They’re doing so somewhat stealthily, however — in dribs and drabs, spread out over decent stretches of time, often invoking performance reasons. So we’re having a hard time obtaining enough information on any one firm to issue a report.

We need your help in keeping law firms honest. If you have layoff news to report, please send it our way, by email or by text message (646-820-8477 / 646-820-TIPS). As you’ve probably already noticed, we do not name our sources.

One firm that’s being commendably upfront about its reductions is Bingham McCutchen. This afternoon, the firm announced some staff layoffs….

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Over the past few weeks, we’ve been receiving interesting reports about Dewey & LeBoeuf. They were nothing but vague rumblings for a while, but they’ve now reached the point where we have enough to write about.

So let’s check in and ask: How do things stand at this major, top-tier law firm? In other words, “Where’s LeBoeuf?”

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Last year, Sullivan & Cromwell announced spring bonuses on January 21st. Today is February 3rd. It might be time to panic.

The conceit of this entire bonus season has been that the ridiculously low bonuses bar set by Cravath, Swaine & Moore was just an opening figure. People really didn’t expect that Cravath would halve bonuses. I mean, it’s CSM. They can count. Their profits went up. Why would they pay out 50% less than last year?

Well, I guess the answer “because they can” is going to have to be enough for Biglaw associates everywhere….

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At the start of this new year, what is the outlook like for legal employment? There’s certainly a fair amount of bad news out there, particularly for recent law school graduates.

But what about for denizens of Biglaw, the lawyers fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to work at the nation’s largest law firms? What does 2012 hold for them?

Earlier this month, my colleague Elie made some predictions for the legal profession. I will follow in his footsteps and venture some prophecies of my own for the year….

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