The dying cult of the corner partner

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Let’s start with an odd fact: the self-interest of a law firm is fundamentally opposed to the self-interest of its most powerful partners.

Here’s how I see it. The more influence a lawyer wields over a given client, the more stature, leverage and tactical advantage that lawyer gains within his or her firm; these benefits grow in proportion to the size of the client and its strategic importance to the firm. This partner’s influence naturally tends to undermine the firm’s security: the partner could bolt at any time, depriving the firm not only of a key client but also of the partner’s substantial contribution to the firm’s average PPP, which in this environment might actually be the greater threat. This creates a dysfunction in the relationship between a firm and its best lawyers: the more the lawyer succeeds, the less control the law firm has over its own destiny.

The firm recognizes this fact, of course, and it takes steps to mitigate the inherent risks of a powerful partner. It invests heavily in firm-wide marketing and “brand,” to ensure that its individual stars don’t shine more brightly than their corporate constellation. More importantly, it strives to create teams for critical clients, to attach multiple lawyers to these clients and to increase the “stickiness” of the relationships. I’ve written elsewhere that if you have an irreplaceable employee, your goal as a manager is to make that employee replaceable.

The partner, no fool either, recognizes these attempts and does everything possible to undermine them, most notably by hoarding the most significant work and key client interactions and by keeping more junior partners at a safe distance (tactics that dovetail nicely with lawyers’ natural proclivities anyway). This power struggle takes place every day in almost every sizable firm, often with neither side consciously realizing what it’s doing and why.

That struggle, however, usually leads to a long-foregone conclusion: the partner wins. And that’s mostly because of one of the legal industry’s most durable and reliable mantras: “Clients hire the lawyer, not the firm.”

The lawyer and the firm are always fighting over who gets to take the client to the dance; but in the end, the client invariably chooses the lawyer for its date. It’s not an entirely irrational choice. As I’ve catalogued before, law firms traditionally have been unable to guarantee the consistency of their service delivery, the reliability of their systems, or even the quality of their lawyers. And powerful partners are very good at creating industrial-strength personal bonds with clients. But there’s something else, something more pernicious, at work here: there’s the cult of the corner partner.

There is no more powerful person in a law firm (arguably, in the legal market itself) than the corner partner. You know the one I mean: extraordinary skills, extensive connections, huge book of business, intimidating presence, and (to put it politely) an outsized personality. Corner partners don’t have to occupy actual corner offices, of course: what distinguishes them is not their dual window views, but their status (real or perceived) as the sine qua non of the firm’s profitability and prestige.

No major firm decisions are taken without the input or acquiescence of corner partners; no new initiatives proceed without their approval and no member of the firm, up to and including the managing partner, survives a serious conflict with them. We sometimes call them “rainmakers,” but that sells them short: they’re more like the patriarchal (or matriarchal) overlords of the firm. Some are benevolent overlords, using their influence to ensure the long-term prosperity of the firm and its members; I don’t think it’s overly cynical to call such partners the exceptions rather than the rule.

Everyone buys into the cult of the corner partner, and this is nowhere more evident than in law firms’ single-minded preoccupation with, and frenzied pursuit of, lateral partner hires. Subscribing fully to the “Clients hire the lawyer” mantra, law firms clamber over one another in the mad scramble to poach partners with big books of business in key practices or industries, invariably with escalating promises of more and more money.

If its efforts are successful, the law firm trumpets its poaching expedition in a flurry of statements and press releases (in which the new corner partner can be expected to speak glowingly about the advantages of the new firm’s “larger platform”). This has been the primary growth strategy for hundreds of midsize and large law firms through North America for several years now. The resulting free-agent culture of the BigLaw bar, as well as the increasingly yawning spread between the annual incomes of a firm’s highest- and lowest-paid “partners,” are hardly surprising results.

But should this state of affairs change in any meaningful way — should the power of the corner partner begin to wane, should the cult lose some of its fervour — then the implications for law firms and the legal market would be immense. This week, Ron Friedmann gave us a thought-provoking post that quotes extensively from an analysis by Steve Nelson, managing principal of The McCormick Group, who believes that this very change might be upon us.:

There is a widening gap between the prospective portable billings that incoming laterals vouch for and the actual results that occur months after the laterals arrive. While some of this can be attributed to overly optimistic predictions by the laterals themselves, we believe that other factors are more significant. In particular, the old adage about “we don’t hire law firms, we hire lawyers,” often no longer applies. Instead, in an era where increased pressure is on corporate counsel to reduce outside legal spending, there has been an increased emphasis to consolidate legal providers who both know the client’s business and can offer increased efficiencies. So the ability of one partner (or sometimes even a group) to hold onto a significant amount of a client’s business in a particular discipline is diminishing each year.

It’s difficult to overstate how significant this development would be on the corporate legal market. Both lawyers’ personal career trajectories and law firms’ strategic growth plans have long revolved around the idea that the partner is king and the corner partner is emperor. But there’s growing evidence that the emperor is perhaps not actually as fully dressed as we had thought.

I’ve heard of multiple law firms expressing disappointment over the failure of ballyhooed lateral acquisitions to deliver the promised injections of business and profit. Often, the new partner’s expenses (including paying for the entourage that accompanied him or her from the old firm) cancel out the new revenue streams; the partner is a zero-sum acquisition. More problematically (but quite predictably), the new corner partners don’t cross-sell to, or grow the business books of, their new partners: they guard their client relationships just as jealously here as they did there. And it need hardly be added that new corner partners are an unstable resource: just as the best predictor of divorce is having been divorced before, the best predictor of a partner leaving a firm is that partner having bailed on a previous one.

But there’s more to it than just profit churn and instability: there’s also a growing loss of faith in the lateral acquisition model itself. The tipping point here might prove to be the failure of Dewey & LeBoeuf, a mega-firm built on a stack of lateral partners the way Yertle’s kingdom was built on a stack of turtles. We’ve only begun to see the damage Dewey’s fall will wreak on the traditional BigLaw model, but I suspect one of the first victims will be the cult of the corner partner. Lawyers and law firms are remarkably susceptible to fashions in strategy and management; but as soon as one of these trends becomes unfashionable, it can’t be abandoned fast enough. Law firms everywhere are now waking to a sudden thought: not only does corner partner poaching not accomplish much, it can be incredibly destabilizing. Once that thought crystallizes, look out.

What’s really interesting, though, is that this isn’t just about the fall of the corner partner; it’s also about the rise of the law firm.

A funny thing happened following the financial crisis: law firms realized they needed to get better at what they did if they wanted to survive and prosper. What’s more, they actually began following through on that realization. One of corner partners’ strongest advantages over their firms has always been that most firms were haphazardly structured and amateurishly managed, never more than the sum of their parts: the best partners always looked better by comparison. That is now changing.

  • Professionally trained managers now occupy more positions of influence in law firms.
  • Practice and industry groups operate with more precision and panache.
  • Associate training and partner competence has received more attention and resources.
  • Knowledge management has developed real engines of expertise circulation.
  • Legal project management has brought order and discipline to the legal production process.

Law firms, after many years and many false starts, are finally starting to get their act together. Not all of them, by any means, and mostly in fits and starts. But there is unmistakeably a change in the air. Law firms are taking themselves more seriously as corporate entities, and clients are taking notice. We are seeing the start of a shift in the balance of power between law firms and their most accomplished lawyers.

Obviously, it’s very early days for this phenomenon, and as always, anything could happen. The history of both lawyer behaviour and law firm management provides ample evidence for pessimism. And even if diminished and brought to heel, corner partners remain extremely formidable forces within their firms and the larger legal market; there will always be outstanding lawyers and they will always command more than their share of the sunshine.

But I do think the days of law firms dancing attendance on, and throwing borrowed money at, the latest free-agent power broker are drawing to a close. The focused, streamlined and systematized law firm is, gradually but inevitably, on the rise. The cult of the corner partner is in slow but irreversible decline, and much of our conventional wisdom about the legal market is going down with it.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.

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One Response to “The dying cult of the corner partner”

  1. Erik Mazzone

    You list failure to cross-sell, smaller than expected portable business, and excessive expenses as being the primary reasons why a lateral partner acquisition might not succeed.

    I’d add one more: the failure to accurately assess value.

    Law firms hire laterals, as you alluded, the way baseball teams buy free agents: based on statistics of past performance which the acquiring firm hopes augur future results. In most cases, I gather, the statistics are quite sparse and leave a lot of white space in between the rough measures of origination, production, realization.

    The problem is that some portion of the value created (origination, production, realization) by the partner at her former firm may be due to internal firm relationships or other architecture or systems unseen by the acquiring firm.

    In order for Partner A to be a smashing success at the acquiring firm, she must create more value than she did at her former firm (or else, one assumes, the former firm would have engineered to retain her.)

    If the firms use the same value measures (as they likely do) how can they hope to have more than even the barest hope of increased value creation?

    To rely on another baseball example, a left handed hitter will probably hit more home runs in Yankee stadium with its short right field fence than in another stadium with a longer right field fence. Same hitter, same bat, same ball, different result. The stadium itself creates some value, or maybe the opportunity for value creation.

    Due to the stadium dimensions, the player is more valuable to the Yankees than to his former team. But to know that, the Yankees need to look at a lot more than how many home runs he hit for the last place.

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