Friday, August 16, 2019

"Being a Law Firm Partner Was Once a Job for Life. That Culture Is All but Dead."

An interesting article from the Wall Street Journal, from August 9, 2019.  This headline will surprise virtually no one except K-JD gunners, but it still bears reading for those who still think law school is a done-deal.  It also echoes many, many prior comments on this blog alone from seasoned practitioners that warn that the Law School sugar-plum-fairy pipedreams of Big Law (or Mid-Law, or Small Law) should not be taken without copious amounts of salt.

Being named a partner once meant joining a band of lawyers who jointly tended to longtime clients and took home comfortable, and roughly equal, paychecks. Job security was virtually guaranteed and partners rarely jumped ship. 

That model, and the culture that grew up around it, is all but dead. Law firms are now often partnerships in name only. Full-time chief executives, some without law degrees, have replaced the senior partner running human resources and accounting. Law firm names have trended toward the shorter and snappier, more befitting a tote bag than a law library.

Many firms have expanded rapidly to mirror the growth of their corporate clients, with hundreds of partners spread around the world. The largest, Dentons, recently hit 10,000 lawyers in 78 countries, around a third of them partners.

“Can you be partners with someone you don’t even know?” said legal consultant Aric Press.

In the new paradigm, lawyers are expendable, and partners may jump to a competitor for the right amount of money, taking as many clients as possible with them on the way out.

One criticism I have is the discussion of top partners making $1.75 million to $15 million, while the lower-caste partners "only" make $800,000.00 at someplace like a Kirkland & Ellis.  All too many gunners and Law School Deans alike look at that and say, "well, that's a problem I'd like to have, ha ha," which completely misconstrues the point:

As firms compete to keep profits rising for those at the top, lawyers further down the ladder are sometimes getting left behind. Promising associates who could once expect to be named a partner within seven or eight years are waiting 10 years or more.

Firms have created new steppingstones along the way to appease them—and keep them grinding.

One newly promoted partner at a big firm said he was shocked to learn he would have to spend a year as counsel, an increasingly popular interim title. The firm told him it was to prepare him for the bigger change of being partner. “I wouldn’t be a cynical lawyer if I didn’t think there were other profit-motive reasons,” he said.

Another popular stop-off is “non-equity partner,” the title held by those 560 Kirkland lawyers not invited to the California retreat. They earn a salary rather than sharing firm profits.

And, of course, the model has changed since the 80s (or 70s, or 60s):

Making partner doesn’t just take longer. It takes hustle. A few decades ago, partner titles were handed out largely on the basis of being technically proficient. Now, being a business generator is a crucial component.

Janice Mac Avoy, a Fried Frank partner, said when she earned the partner title 23 years ago, the business model was “wait for the phone to ring” and do a good job for the client on the other end.

When a partner suggested a lawyer being considered for promotion had great contacts and could generate new business, she recalls a fellow partner saying, “You know that’s not an appropriate consideration.”

Those who do make the cut encounter a new set of stressors. Bureaucratic tasks pile on top of the same billable-hour expectations. New partners face pressure to bring in enough new business to cover their own salary, plus those beneath them.

Kevin Smith went to law school in the early 2000s because he had lawyers in his family and wasn’t sure what else to do. After graduating, he clerked for two federal judges then joined an international law firm.

Making partner five years later was one of the best days of his life, he says. He soon realized the new title “makes all the bad things worse” about working in a law firm. “There’s more email, more of the blame if anything goes wrong, just more stress in general,” he said. 

After 6½ years, he quit the partnership to travel abroad while working part time for the firm. 

Of course, the Law School Cartel mentions none of this.  Often, it is these same attorneys who leave these same realities in order to become Law School Professors, thereby indirectly encouraging others to make the same errors they made.  But no one really talks about this except the scamblogs, who are largely comprised of people who know.

So, yes, back in the "halcyon" days of law practice (if there ever truly was such a thing), working for a large firm was likely the correct way to go, and if you can somehow manage to get the Golden Ticket, perhaps even now.  That is rarely the case today, and as indicated above has little to do with being technically proficient and "waiting for the phone to ring", or in some cases even being able to generate some business.  As is the case with many things, a few get spectacular results, more get good but profoundly difficult results, and many, many more are shown the door.  Like many things in life it is a numbers game, and when a firm has thousands of lawyers with a multiple-caste system, the odds are not good.

0Ls, pay heed to this.  The Cartel wants you to sign on the dotted line, and they are loathe to talk about the realities on the ground because the same realities would give any reasonable person pause, especially when the alternative is hanging a shingle Day One.  The world has changed a bit since 1960 or 1980, yet the Cartel pretends that everything is the same as it ever was.