The questionable future of partners and associates

The evidence is growing that neither “partner” nor “associate” is going to be a meaningful term in law firms of the future. Both of these hallowed pillars of law firms’ talent structure are starting to be used more as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves.

In terms of partners, consider this article from The Lawyer about firms trying to expand overseas but having difficulty persuading lawyers to transfer to the new offices (especially in Dubai). One tactic firms are employing is to offer lawyers who accept the foreign posting the opportunity to make partner much more quickly than they normally would. Think about that one for a moment.

Partnership, which was once considered the ultimate law firm goal, is being reduced to an incentive the firm dangles in order to get what it really wants — boots on the ground in fast-growing locations worldwide. It’s been a while since admittance to partnership actually was a genuine endorsement of a lawyer’s skills and professionalism through invitation to an exclusive, tight-knit community with common goals. But it’s still surprising to see the fast track to partnership deployed as just another behavioural incentive — especially since partnership really doesn’t turn so many associates’ cranks nowadays.

To get a sense of how firms view those associates, take a look at how the chair of Simpson Thacher responded to a rumour that his firm was culling 30 associates through poor midyear reviews, an attrition tactic not unknown to large firms: “This is something that was made up by that rag in the U.K., it’s just complete nonsense” — the rag in question being The Lawyer, not a newspaper normally associated with Fleet Street standards. Continue Reading

Associates and the bad table

The opening words to a sporty 60-second video montage at Cadwalader’s US student recruitment site are: “Make no mistake about it. A career at Cadwalader is not for the faint of heart.” So it would seem, following news that the firm cut 96 lawyers on Thursday, an astounding purge that surpasses Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal‘s recent 37-lawyer, 100-staff cut, and comes several months after Cadwalader’s January move to drop 35 lawyers.

The most recent pink slips were handed out largely in the firm’s formerly high-flying capital markets and global finance groups, which have been brought low by the real estate finance and securitization market’s struggles, and were given almost entirely to associates.There’s no small amount of schadenfruede about Cadawalader’s position to be found in the blawgosphere at the moment, much of it based on this February 2007 article in the New York Law Journal, with the built-for-irony title: “Does the future belong to Cadwalader?”

But “layoffs” (read: you’re fired, but it’s not your fault) are likely to become more frequent at the largest firms (DLA Piper announced a few in London this morning) for the totally understandable reason that the really hot parts of the economy that powered these firms over the last few years have gone really cold.

What’s funny, though, is that during these hot streaks, when associates were so hard to find and cost so much, I quite clearly remember many law firms ruing their decisions to chop associates the last time an overheated economy tanked. All those associates we fired, they said, shaking their heads, if we’d held on to them, would be able to help us now. Perfectly right, of course — and yet, now that the short-term pain of lower profits looms again, the long-term gain of associate investment apparently becomes hard to remember.

Coincidentally, today also saw the release of the American Lawyer‘s midlevel associate survey, which paints a bleak but familiar picture of associates’ waning interest in partnership or indeed any long-term law firm goals. Interestingly, though, the fear of layoffs hasn’t much to do with this, nor do issues of salary or even “work-life balance” (a term I intend to put “in quotes” until it goes away). What’s driving associates away from firms is that the work stinks. Continue Reading

The other talent war

Boston-based Goodwin Procter seems to be one of the more innovative and forward-looking firms out there (how many law firms have not one, but two people blogging on knowledge management?). They solidified that reputation earlier this week by announcing the appointment of a director of professional development and training for professional staff (HT to Legal Blog Watch). Jamie Krulewitz’s job, evidently the first of its type, is to oversee the professional development and training of the firm’s administrative and secretarial staff.

This is self-evidently a good move, because everyone in law firms needs training and development, not just the lawyers (and many firms don’t even provide lawyer T&D). Goodwin Procter recognizes that if it wants its lawyers to operate at their very best, it needs to ensure they can count on equally top-notch staff support. This is consistent with the firm’s refreshing approach to its website personnel listings which, again unlike many others, groups lawyers and non-lawyers together as both “professionals” and “people.”

What’s interesting, though, is to consider that the firm went to the trouble of a press release and announcement for a “simple” staff hire. Firms hire non-lawyer professionals all the time without any public notice, and I’m sure Goodwin Procter normally is no exception. Probably this was simply a matter of endorsing the new person and boosting her morale by giving her a high-profile welcome, consistent with what appears to be the firm’s staff-positive culture.

But try this exercise: read the announcement again, this time not as a press release, but as if it were a recruitment piece for non-lawyer professional staff: Continue Reading

Core competence: 6 new skills now required of lawyers

Up till now, the necessary and sufficient skill set for lawyers has looked something like this (in alphabetical order):

  • Analytical ability
  • Attention to detail
  • Logical reasoning
  • Persuasiveness
  • Sound judgment
  • Writing ability (okay, that one’s apparently optional for some)

This list doesn’t include such characteristics as knowledge of the law, courtroom presence, or integrity — these aren’t “skills,” per se, so much as information one acquires or basic elements of one’s character. Even innovation, which I prize so highly, is first and foremost an attitude and willingness to think and act differently.

Rather, I’m concerned here with actual skill: a ready proficiency or applied ability acquired and developed through training and experience. Your degree of character, diligence and intelligence are innate characteristics; skills are what you acquire through their application. If you possessed these six skills in sufficient abundance, you were fully qualified to practise law.

Well, not anymore. From this point onwards, while these skills remain necessary, they’re no longer sufficient: they constitute only half of the set necessary to practise law competently, effectively and competitively. Here’s the new six-pack, the other half of tomorrow’s — no, today’s — minimum skills kit for lawyers (again in alphabetical order). Continue Reading

Don’t be stupid

Google is of course famous for choosing the motto “Don’t be evil.” A lot of law firms could do themselves a favour if they adopted a slight variant: “Don’t be stupid.”

Law firms love to roll out big announcements of one kind or another, this or that latest success or significant hire. But it’s in the countless little things, the daily offences against sensibility that add up to the institutional bad habits of a lifetime, where firms undercut all the progress they could and should be making. Too many law firms are their own worst enemies.

You see this in partnerships that won’t enforce the rules against uncooperative or alienating partners who happen to bring in a lot of revenue. You see it in senior lawyers who consistently hoard the best work and the most client contact, driving juniors first to frustration and then to competitors. You see it in firms that know perfectly well that women lawyers leave because the partnership track conflicts irreconcilably with their priorities, yet refuse to change an iota of the process. You see it in firms that unfailingly prioritize short-term profits over long-term interests, and more besides.

You see it especially in hiring decisions, as Alex Novarese put it bluntly at Legalweek:

In any one year in the City you’ll see a good handful of senior hires that are breathtakingly ill-conceived. ‘Bad’ in these cases can mean … good lawyers with no cultural fit with their new employer or being the wrong personality type for the task at hand.… [But] there’s also a rich seam of chancers, time-wasters, burn-outs and the plain bored on the transfer market. And within this circle there’s a hardened sub-group that have such serious problems that it’s a miracle they made it past the first lunch or interview, let alone got a lucrative new equity partnership. These are the cases in which the failure is not to do with lack of due diligence, more a complete collapse of common sense.

And you see it in a story I heard this morning: at an established law firm not in a galaxy far, far away, a 71-year-old partner dies suddenly, to the shock and consternation of everyone. Particularly hard hit is his long-time secretary, who of course accompanies the late lawyer’s other colleagues to his funeral last Friday. The following Monday, the secretary arrives at the office and is told she’s being laid off. I leave to your imagination the dazzling impact this doubtless will have had on firm morale.

This blog always tries to provide solutions to any problem it raises. Here, there’s not much I can say beyond, run your firm according to the minimum standards of any self-respecting business. Be fair towards everyone, reward good behaviour, hire the right people, think about tomorrow, and try not to fire people after their boss dies. Don’t be stupid.

Your invisible professionals

So here’s a typical situation: I’m assigning an article for one of our CBA publications on a law firm practice topic — say, business development, or extranet use, or associate retention efforts, or what have you. And I want to find interviewees with knowledge and expertise to speak with our writers for said article. So one of the first places I’m inclined to look is within law firms themselves, to speak with the professionals in charge of these areas.

Except I can’t. Because with few exceptions, law firm websites do not list biographical or contact information for their non-lawyer professional staff. According to most law firms’ websites, even some of the largest and most challenging to operate, their offices contain lawyers and nobody else — all the day-to-day operations that sustain the firm, from accounting to marketing to IT to knowledge management, apparently happen independently, as if by magic.

Here’s a partial list of the key professionals within law firms who are rarely mentioned on firm websites:

  • Chief Administrative Officer
  • Director of Associate Retention
  • Director of Business Development
  • Director of Finance
  • Director of Human Resources
  • Director of Information Technology
  • Director of Knowledge Management
  • Director of Marketing
  • Director of Student Recruitment
  • Head Law Librarian
  • Webmaster

In fact, almost the only non-lawyer professional you’re likely to find on a law firm website is the Director of Media & Communications, if only because that person’s name shows up at the bottom of press releases. Then again, it’s just as likely the director’s name won’t show up — it’ll be the more junior media liaison who’s supposed to get all the calls from the press.

If this were just an inconvenience for media types like me, then you could almost forgive this oversight, despite all the lost opportunities to promote the firm’s name in the legal and business press. But the real damage, I think, is to the morale and status of these staff members, who work just as hard and take just as much pride in their craft as any lawyer, but who receive no public recognition from their employers. Continue Reading

Don’t blame the recession

Bear with me for a moment while I start with a media story. The Washington Post has announced another round of buyouts of writers and editors, including several very senior and respected professionals. Commenting on the impact of the mass exodus is Post writer Howard Kurtz (HT to Rob Hyndman), who notes:

“The talented reporters, editors and photographers walking out the door are part of the heart and soul of a living, breathing organism. How do you replace a Tom Ricks, one of the best Pentagon reporters ever? Or a Sue Schmidt, the investigative reporter who revealed Jack Abramoff‘s dirty dealings? Or Robin Wright, who’s covered the Middle East for a quarter-century? What about battle-scarred editors with deep knowledge and a light touch?

I know, I know. The future is digital. … That’s why The Post (and every other paper on the planet) is beefing up its online presence and why I write a daily blog for the Web site. But — and stop me if you’ve heard this one — newspapers matter. … The economics of the Web, for now, won’t support a staff that can hold public officials accountable across the region and still cover every Nationals game.

Now, if these talented, even legendary professionals are the heart and soul of a great newspaper that does important work, why exactly is the Post is clearing them out? Does a struggling manufacturer discontinue its best products?

Yes, I know newspaper circulation is down, at the Post and elsewhere, and that the web is the future. But good reporting on the web requires the same courage and tenacity demanded by print reporting — and with those qualities not yet in abundance in web journalism, that’s all the more reason the Post should retain its best assets and further strengthen a powerful brand-name advantage that’s the envy of most other newspapers.

“No one yet knows how to monetize web news,” the Post could have said, “but we figure outstanding journalism matters no matter where it appears. We’re going to lean into the wind and reinforce our prize-winning team in the face of change and contraction.” Instead, the message the Post has sent comes down to: “Times are tough, so we’re jettisoning our best and brightest in the hopes that lower costs will restore our profit margins.” That kind of thinking isn’t the Internet’s fault.

This brings me back to the law, because the Post‘s plight reminds me of a number of stories in the legal press about law firms “de-equitizing” partners, cutting associates, and even firing secretaries with the recession setting in. Continue Reading

Surviving a succession crisis’s Small Firm Business features an article today about succession planning for law firms. I’ve seen a lot of these articles lately, talking about the importance of transitioning clients from one generation of lawyers to the next, encouraging leadership development among younger lawyers, and motivating more senior practitioners to mentor the younger ones and share files and client contact. All sound advice, of course. But from the tone of some of these articles, you’d think this process was just a task force and a subcommittee away from easy implementation.

The fact is, succession planning in law firms is a monstrous challenge. And if you’re just now getting around to thinking about it, then there’s a pretty good chance you’re already too late. Shifting the bulk of client responsibilities from more senior to more junior lawyers isn’t something you roll out on short notice. If your firm culture doesn’t already endorse in some way multi-generational client responsibility, genuine mentoring efforts, and innovative compensation methods, be realistic that the odds are against a happy ending.

Why is succession planning so hard? Pick your poison:

1. Loss of power. Succession planning hits every lawyer, especially older ones, at an almost feral level. Change in law firms is always hard, but when you’re talking about fang-and-claw issues like money, power and control, lines will be drawn and obstinacy will rule the day. Those with power will cling to it all the more tightly when they feel it’s threatened.

2. Resistance to change. Lawyers don’t like change at the best of times, so don’t expect them to suddenly start liking changes to who gets to lead trials, drive deals and get client face time. As independent professionals, they will fiercely resist management’s attempts to dictate how “their” clients are handled.

3. Few future leaders. Senior lawyers will say that the juniors “aren’t ready” to take on more responsibility — and often, they’re right, because the seniors have systematically excluded the juniors from meaningful client contact and lead roles on key matters. You can thank firms’ compensation systems in part for that, rewarding lawyers for direct proximity to clients and encouraging hoarding.

4. Generational conflicts. I still can’t get over the resentment that Boomers and even some Xers feel towards the Millennials now moving up the ranks. Gen-Yers are not a passing fad — there are 25 years of Millennials lined up to enter firms, and they’re going to change a lot more than the furniture in the reception area. Too many firms waste too much energy in pointless conflicts between older and younger lawyers, and it can make real succession planning a very unpleasant chore.

So what can you do if your firm is in this situation — late to the succession-planning party and facing multiple challenges to success? Continue Reading

The culture-driven law firm

The era of the free-agent lawyer, and the law firm lateral hiring frenzy that it spawned, is drawing to a close. The rise of the culture-driven law firm is at hand.

It’s going to take me a while to explain how I got here. I’ll try to do this in two parts.

1. Followership in law firms

This all started when I came across a provocative article called “Leaders need followers: tips for team performance“ by Australasian legal consultancy FMRC Legal. The thrust of the article is that successful law firm management hinges on followership — lawyers’ ability and willingness to align their personal values and goals with those of the firm. I first came across “followership” in the law firm context in a 2005 blog post by Gerry Riskin, which was in turn expanded upon by Patrick J. Lamb shortly thereafter.

Here are some excerpts from these three insightful articles that I think sum up what they’re saying. Continue Reading

Law firm success metrics

How successful is your law firm? A question that broad is bound to invite myriad answers, depending on when and to whom you pose it. The traditional terms by which lawyers have described their firms’ success have been financial, most recently through Profits Per Partner (PPP) and then, after non-equity partners were introduced into the mix, Profits per Equity Partner (PEP). The AmLaw 100 (2008 edition due next month) ranks US law firms primarily on PEP, as does a report on the 50 most profitable US firms just published in The Lawyer.

The noisy annual springtime rite of massive law firms shouldering past one another on the PEP rankings suggests that a more comprehensive approach to the question of law firm success metrics would be welcome. And there are now encouraging indications that a counter-trend is emerging, in which the profession buckles down to find a better way to measure just how well firms perform against their own expectations and those of their competitors.

First, let’s look at the problems with PEP as a meaningful guide to law firm success. It has its virtues, no question, primarily as a rough equivalent to corporate return on equity. But it is deeply unreliable as a single gauge of law firm profitability and success, since it ignores elements such as sustainability, efficiency, client and non-partner satisfaction, and corporate social responsibility, among others (not to mention the transparency and reliability of the figures themselves).

Two articles published last year by lawyers at UK law firms nicely eviscerate the value of PEP as a stand-alone metric, one by Allen & Overy partner Guy Beringer in March 2007 and the other by Philip Fletcher of Milbank Tweed in a May ’07 LegalWeek article. Together, they enumerate many of the critical success factors for which PEP doesn’t account.

Philip produces a comprehensive list of what PEP can’t cover: sustainability of revenue over time, the skewing influence of superstar fee earners or one-time revenue boosts, divergent accounting practices, currency differentials in foreign offices, debt levels, recruitment and retention efforts, pro bono work, and overall collegiality. PEP speaks little or not at all to these factors. For his part, Guy lists four reasons why PEP is not only inappropriate, but even dangerous for firms to follow:

First, it ignores the two audiences that determine the success or failure of a law firm: its clients and its people. Second, it tells you almost nothing about the underlying performance of a firm in terms of efficiency and sustainable profitability. Third, it is out of touch with a world which increasingly requires a demonstrable level of corporate responsibility and a broader contribution to the communities in which firms operate. Fourth, it is a calculation in which both the numerator and the denominator have become more impressionist than real. Continue Reading