Avalanche alert

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“[F]irms still have too many lawyers,” says the Chicago Tribune in the course of a rather grim 2009 forecast for American law firms. That might not be a problem for too much longer, because we’re about due for another round of bloodletting. But the next stage of the inexorable rationalization of the private bar won’t involve more of the associate and staff layoffs that marked the latter days of 2008 (though we’ll still see plenty of those). We’re now in Phase Two; partners are on the move, voluntarily and otherwise.

In the latter category, the latest news comes from the UK, where Addleshaw Goddard just told 19 partners they were no longer welcome, while Ashurst decided that 10 of their partners would be a better fit elsewhere. This is a whole different order of impact than associate and staff layoffs. There’s a difference between cutting fat and cutting bone, and in a law firm, partnership is bone marrow. It forms the underlying substructure on which everything else is built. “Partnership” carries a lot of emotional and psychological weight, and a firm can’t revoke that designation without expecting some emotional and psychological backlash.

But that looks like the lesser of the problems on the horizon. With the new year comes the end of the old year’s collections and distributions, so a lot of firms’ balance sheets are coming into focus. That means Lateral Season is upon us, and this year, the harvest looks to be exceptional.

Now that 2008 firm financials are becoming clearer, legal recruiters and consultants say lateral partner moves are bound to heat up, just as they always do at the start of a new fiscal year. But this time around, they say the added pressures of a tanking economy and firm layoffs will flood the market with even more partners looking for new homes, or for quick escape routes off sinking ships.

“This is the month to watch,” legal consultant and recruiter Colin Beebe says. “In January and February, you’re going to see a lot of partners calling and asking, ‘How do I get taken?'”

It’s not hard to sketch out the next few steps. Firms lower down the standard “profitability” (I use that term advisedly with law firms) scale will be vulnerable to raids by higher-ranking firms; in a recession, acutely so. In some firms, a few key partners — well-known in the industry, well-respected by clients and colleagues — will accept the invitation to climb several notches on the PEP ladder. It doesn’t have to be a mass defection; just enough key people in key positions whose withdrawal, like certain critically placed rocks on a hillside, can lead to a few more, and then some more, and then an avalanche.

We’ve seen it happen before, and I think we’re about to see a lot more of it. The first few months of 2009 could well be marked by a series of firm implosions, as the strong get stronger by poaching from the weak. This is inherently neither a good thing nor a bad thing — companies and organizations fall and rise regularly in normal marketplaces — but it will be a surprising and affecting turn of events for lawyers. It will be an uncomfortable reminder, as Prof. William Henderson told the Tribune, that “[y]ou have pretty weak glue holding these bigger enterprises together.”

And that’s what will interest me the most — looking for the firms that, in the natural order of things, might have fallen, but didn’t, because their glue was stronger.

I actually don’t think it will be the less “profitable” firms that are most vulnerable to poaching; it will be those that  failed to strengthen, or actively weakened, the internal bonds of unity, purpose and vision — “vision” here signifying something more meaningful than profit generation. Firms that worked staff sick, rode associates too hard and undervalued partners are in particular  trouble. Those that expelled partners solely for reasons of profitability should be declared off-limits to visitors due to the danger of imminent collapse.

The survivors will be those that have sufficient strength and cohesion to hold together when others shake apart. They’ll be the ones that, months or even years ago, sensed the emerging ethic of the time, that the day of the me-first organization is over. There’s no time left now to build that ethic into a firm; either it’s there or it’s not, and the consequences will flow accordingly.

I listened to a man deliver a pretty good speech yesterday. Here’s what he had to say about character and collegiality in the face of adversity:

[O]ur time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. … [A]t this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely [the spirit of service] that must inhabit us all. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, which sees us through our darkest hours.

How many partners in your firm would willingly — enthusiastically — assent to a drop in profits per partner in order to keep fellow partners in the fold? The answer to that question might just determine how well, if at all, your firm weathers the coming months.

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