Peer pressure

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“If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” Every parent has uttered some variation on that line to a child who insists on doing something unwise, over-priced, or physically perilous simply because “everyone else is doing it.” Training children to resist peer pressure is one of the thankless but necessary tasks of parenthood, one we hope will pay off later in life with adults unafraid to assert their independence and chart their own paths.

Lawyers, unfortunately, don’t receive that kind of parental guidance — if anything, we’re over-encouraged to copy the example of our predecessors and to always rely on  precedent. And of course, the financial rewards of the traditional lawyer billing model are so obvious that lawyers have a lot of incentives not to blaze any new trails. Hence, the “mastodons” of which Sun GC Mike Dillon memorably wrote a couple of years ago — vast herds of massive beasts that stay tightly packed and lumber together in the most convenient direction. Generally speaking, law firms recruit, hire, compensate, bill and manage their affairs pretty much the same as other firms — a recipe for disaster in the corporate world, but a guarantee of continuity in the bubble-wrapped legal universe.

But with the recession grinding steadily on, and many firms forced to make increasing resort to staff, associate and even partner cuts, something interesting is emerging: the upside of peer pressure. Just as firms felt obliged to match their rivals’ associate salaries and bonuses in the boom, they now feel even more obliged to make equivalent provisions for those cast aside in the bust. Most large-firm severance packages cluster around the 2-3 months’ notice mark — and there’s a vocal community ready to track all those packages and publicly note any firm that deviates from the norm.

Firms that exceed the average, like Latham & Watkins, rescue or even improve their brand among recruits; firms that fall short can be excoriated. Take the example of DLA Piper’s London office, which managed to squeeze several years’ worth of bad publicity into a single week.  A series of memos and meetings following the firm’s decision to cut 140 staff and lawyers revealed a huge amount of internal animosity that still has the UK bar talking. In the wired age, the cost of looking cheap or insensitive in the eyes of the blawgosphere just isn’t worth the risk of pinching pennies.

But the positive effects of peer pressure can reach beyond severance packages. When Simpson Thacher & Bartlett hit upon the innovative idea of sending underemployed associates into public service work, it was only a matter of weeks before other firms copied the idea themselves. And Norton Rose’s decision to explore four-day work weeks in order to save jobs is already generating positive press — it’s likely only a matter of time before this one picks up  momentum too.

The upshot of these developments is that firms are being strongly motivated to do as well by their current and former employees as possible — the astounding level of animosity levelled at AIG executives these days should frighten any rational organization — and that can only be a good thing for both law firm workers and the overall level of workplace relations. But the really neat thing is that the herd mentality might actually help the larger cause of innovation and practice management reform in law firms. The need to be seen as actively and creatively responding to the crisis is pushing more firms to try new things and announce them publicly.

Take the example of lockstep compensation, a longstanding tradition that has merit in tightly focused, culturally solid firms, but has the effect elsewhere of rewarding lawyers simply on the basis of seniority. When Howrey LLP set out to overhaul its lockstep compensation system two years ago, the response from the profession was dismissive at best. Now, firms are jostling with each other to be the latest to institute merit-based pay and similar sins against the status quo. Not even partners are safe from the change in the herd’s mood — either from the prospect of potential explusion or from having to share the pain of the firm’s struggles.

Then there’s annual rate increases, a law firm tradition as reliable as the spring equinox. Even as recently as last fall, firms fully expected to issue their normal rate-increase notice to clients. Now, though, as Altman Weil’s Tom Clay puts it: “Nobody is that naive — or dumb.” In worst shape of all might be the almighty billable hour itself. When managing partners of top-rated firms talk to the New York Times about killing the billable hour, you know a paradigm is shifting.

And where paradigms go, law firms hasten to follow, even if it means facing up to some pretty radical changes in how they do business. Lawyers don’t like change, but they like isolation much less. As more and more lawyers and firms shuffle hastily towards new ground, it looks as if a watershed shift in private law practice –  a cross-over moment, a critical-mass point — is now only a matter of time. Where’s your nearest bridge?

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