The recession, so far

Surely by now you’ve heard the great news that that the recession is over. That’s a relief, huh? It’s good to know things can now start getting back to normal, especially in the legal marketplace — all this talk of major change was making us nervous.

I don’t know about you, but the relentless good cheer of the imminent economic recovery (in North America, at any rate) feels a little forced to me. Most of the people talking about “green shoots” either badly need you to start spending money on their stuff again, or compulsively need to believe that everything’s going to be okay in order to maintain their day-to-day composure. The outlines of our self-reassurance industry have rarely been more clear.

Technically, a recession occurs when GDP declines for two or more consecutive quarters. By that definition, the current recession may indeed be ending, as consumer spending slows or even stops the rate of economic deceleration in some jurisdictions. But the opposite of “recession” is not “prosperity.” When economists use the word “recovery” to describe the immediate future, think of it the same way you’d think of recovery from heart surgery — long, slow, gradual, and prone to the risk of painful setbacks.

That risk is magnified in our current situation, because the bulk of recovery so far has come from an unprecedented amount of government spending that will end shortly, at which point consumers and businesses will be on their own. And lest we forget, consumers (especially in North America) are still saddled with enormous amounts of debt and have switched their focus from spending to saving. Not only are we not out of the woods yet, I’m not convinced we’ve even begun heading out of the forest.

It’s against this backdrop that we need to interpret reports such as this one: a study by Hildebrandt that “suggests law firm economics may be stabilizing.” An index that tracks demand for legal services, lawyer productivity, billing rates and direct and overhead expenses at large and midsize US law firms moved upwards slightly in the second quarter of 2009. That sounds great, until you look more closely at the results and see that, in the words of Buzz Lightyear, we’re not really flying; we’re falling, with style.

Demand for legal services and productivity both remained weak during the second quarter compared to one year earlier but those drop-offs were not as large as they were during the first quarter. For example, productivity was down by 11.5 percent during the first quarter and just under 9 percent during the second quarter. Demand for transaction work including corporate, mergers and acquisitions and capital markets was still far below where it was during the second quarter of 2008 but was flat or slightly up compared to the first quarter of 2009.

These are not results to set one’s financial heart racing. So if demand is still mostly flat or down, how is that law firms’ economic outlooks are improving? Here’s the rub:

The biggest element helping law firms compensate for low billing rate growth, slow demand and low productivity was that their cost-cutting measures were paying off, according to the report. For the first time in the four-year history of the index, both direct expenses and overhead expenses at law firms declined. Direct expenses, which primarily refers to compensation, were down by nearly 2 percent compared to the second quarter of 2008. “Much of this has been achieved through headcount reduction along with adjustments in compensation structures,” the report said.

So law firms’ fiscal fortunes are rebounding primarily because they fired a lot of people and froze or cut the salaries of those who remained. That’s not what I’d call a green shoot.

I just got back from a week in Dublin,  and I can tell you this: in Ireland, and in much of Europe generally, no one’s talking about recoveries and buying opportunities. The recession there is bad: institutions, businesses and individuals are all hurting, and there aren’t many signs of a turnaround. While in Dublin, I picked up the August 2009 issue of the IBA’s International Bar News, and read an article about law firms titled “Survival of the fittest”:

Jonathan Fagan, director of Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment, believes that while ten per cent of solicitors and legal executives in the United Kingdom have been made redundant already, ‘another five to ten per cent are under threat of redundancy, or have had their conditions changed or hours reduced’. He adds that ‘the headline figures produced by the media are probably inaccurate, as most of the cutbacks are with the smaller players on the high street, rather than the big boys in London and other cities’. …

Figures produced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority also show that smaller, community-based firms, including legal aid firms, are particularly vulnerable in the economic downturn. Plans by the UK government, for example, to make small firms bid for legal aid contracts, and the requirement for contracts of a stipulated minimum size, are likely to cause further harm, particularly in such areas of law as housing, mental health and debt.

This underlines what I think is an overlooked aspect of the economic situation: consumer legal spending, which is the backbone of most lawyers’ practices worldwide, is extremely vulnerable right now. Heavily indebted households likely will put off even low-cost legal purchases, banks in still-questionable health will lend to people less frequently, and government support for legal aid programs will continue to shrink. The corporate world is farther advanced in the deleveraging process than is the consumer world, but both have a whopping amount of debt still to unwind, and purchasing lawyers’ services does not top anyone’s priority list.

We’ve heard talk of recessions shaped like U’s, V’s, W’s and L’s, but I’m inclined to think this recession will look more like a square-root symbol: a sharp drop, a slight rise, then a long plateau well below the previous high-water mark. If the word “malaise” springs to your mind, that’s not a bad description of what’s likely to come. It might be wise to temper your expectations of the economic environment, and of the likelihood that lawyers can “get back to normal” anytime soon.

And remember: the recession didn’t cause all this upheaval in the legal services marketplace — it just exposed, magnified and accelerated it. Whenever and however the recession ends, “normal” for the legal profession is already gone.

Graduating into a recession

It’s rare that a reader asks me to write something on a specific topic, rarer still that multiple requests for the same subject come in. So the fact that a few people have now asked for a post about law students and the recession indicates just how much anxiety is rising in law schools and among new lawyers.

It really is amazing how fast everything changed. When the classes of 2009 and 2010 entered law school, the economy was booming (or more accurately, bubbling) and some big law firms were seriously contemplating $200,000 annual salaries for first-year associates. Now those same firms are rushing to cut salaries, while the economy, though probably past full-scale crisis, isn’t as strong as the markets would have you believe and likely is set for several years of mediocrity. So you can kind of see where young lawyers’ anxiety is coming from.

Not that everyone is sympathetic to their plight. But if you think they’re overreacting to the recession, try to remember how you saw the world in your twenties, and that no law school generation has ever graduated this deeply in debt. And try to remember, too, that our whole industry, from educators to employers, told these young people that the professional cow was full of cash and would only grow fatter. The growing ranks of unemployed young lawyers and frightened law students out there should remind us how poorly we’ve managed the business of law for years now. We raised their expectations too high and made promises we couldn’t keep, and it seems to me we bear at least some responsibility for helping them get through this.

I first wrote about graduating into a recession last January, and most of what I said then still applies. But in the intervening  months, it’s become clearer that this isn’t just another cyclical downturn. Economically, it’s all bad enough: many banks are still on life-support, people are still paying off or defaulting on various types of debt, and government spending can’t replace consumer spending indefinitely. These problems aren’t going away anytime soon. In the legal industry, the financial crisis has accelerated already-existing trends towards more power in the hands of clients and more downward pressures on lawyers’ fees — major change should now arrive ahead of schedule.

Most of all, though, the crisis has triggered upheaval for large law firms, which for years have been providing the profession with on-the-job training for its new law graduates. The newest trend is toward what NALP’s James Leipold refers to as the “collision of classes” — all those retracted job offers and deferred starting dates for 2009 graduates are leading towards their logical conclusion: no new hires from the class of 2010 (here are recent examples from the US and the UK). Granted, hiring untrained law grads and paying them scads of money to fill out dockets is a recruitment model long overdue for replacement; but for the purposes of new law grads, it means one of the tightest job markets in memory.

So what would I recommend? Well, students currently in law school need to ask themselves a tough question and come up with an honest answer: why am I here? It might well be that you’re a law student because you’re bright, well-meaning and helpful, and the law seemed like an interesting, prestigious and financially reliable career path — that pretty much describes my route. But if that’s all that brought you here, then I think you should give some serious consideration to quitting.

I know how harsh that sounds, especially since a lot of great lawyers went into law school not fully certain if this was their calling. But this is not the same profession that your parents or older siblings entered, where entry barriers were relatively low,  learning curves were pretty gentle, and steady employment was more of a question of “where” than “if.” Law is becoming a tougher profession for new entrants — standards are higher, footholds are fewer, breaks and opportunities are disappearing. It used to be that you could spend the first few years of your career learning the ins and outs of practice from large-firm employers — they’d work you hard and train you poorly, but they’d pay you well because they made money off you no matter how long it took you to get the hang of things.

Those days are ending. The vaunted law firm pyramid is being replaced by the law firm diamond — few partners at the top, few trainees at the bottom, a lot of experienced workers in the middle. Because of the economy, and because technology and outsourcing are taking away new lawyers’ traditional tasks, there just won’t be as many opportunities to get your professional sea legs in a law firm. It’s going to be a lot harder for you to gain work experience — and that’s a real problem, because these same firms, perversely enough, are also narrowing their hiring criteria to lawyers with  experience and skills. I need hardly point out that most law schools provide no training in lawyering skills, client relationships or anything else that firms are suddenly deciding they value.

Many of you, then, will find yourselves standing in front of the profession’s gates with a key issued by your law school, only to find they’ve changed the locks. And since most schools don’t seem ready to issue a new set of keys, you’ll need to find another way inside. You’re going to have to develop the necessary skills and gain the requisite experience on your own. That might take several years, during which you’re not going to earn much or make much of a dent in your student debts, and at the end of the process there’s still no guarantee of a job. So unless you’re driven to be a lawyer, unless this really feels like a calling and you’re prepared for a north-face assault on this mountain, you owe it to yourself to think about suspending or abandoning your law degree. I don’t say this lightly or happily, but I do think it needs to be said.

What if you’re among the committed, or you’ve already graduated, or you’re so close to your degree that, even taking account of the sunk costs fallacy, you might as well finish it off? To start with, you’ll need to reorient your expectations along the lines of what I’ve just mentioned, accepting that the rules changed on you mid-way through the game and that there’s nothing to be done about it. Don’t underestimate the importance of attitude: the faster you can readjust your mindset from disappointment or victimhood to determination and opportunity, the wider a gap you can create between you and your classmates-turned-competitors. Take all the time you need to fully make this transition, but don’t take a minute longer.

The next thing to understand is that it’s time for some career triage.  You might not yet be sure what type of law you really want to do, but you no longer have the option of  browsing through the racks and trying things on. Pick something you think you can do and where you already have some experience or contacts — if you DJ’ed in college, think about entertainment law; if you majored in engineering, think about IP; if you worked at a nursing home, think about elder law. This isn’t about making career choices that will bind you for decades; this is about finding a door to put your foot into, an area where you already come with some valuable attributes. You need a place to start, so choose one in familiar territory.

Next, start building networks and skills. Which networks to construct depends on where and what you want to practise. If you’re settling or setting up shop in a given jurisdiction, join the bar association of that state or province (new lawyer fees are generally low) and go to as many meetings of your local chapter and area-of-practice section as reasonably possible. Meet people, introduce yourself, ask questions, follow up. At the same time, investigate your industry: join trade groups, read industry newsletters and websites, get to know the issues facing your future clients.  And get involved in online networks: join LinkedIn and start making contacts. Join Legal OnRamp and make your mark in the groups, conversations and debates there. If it’s at all feasible, blog.

Skills, of course, are the hardest thing to acquire, part of the “how do I get experience/skills without skills/experience” vicious circle. If you’re lucky, you’re with a law firm that will actually pay you while it trains you in the lawyering skills you need. If you have the luxury of volunteer time, identify an organization (preferably in your chosen area) that needs and accepts unpaid legal help and use that opportunity to acquire skills and make personal connections. If you can afford to pay for an associate position, Dan Hull would be happy to hear from you (it would be a pretty good investment, actually).

But maybe your best immediate investment might be Solo Practice University, an online legal learning and networking institution that fills in the many practical gaps in your law school education. At SPU, lawyer faculty teach real-world skills required in numerous areas of practice as well as marketing, management and technology know-how. I received a guided tour the other day and came away impressed. Even if you don’t intend to go solo, you could learn a tremendous amount (inside and outside class) from some very knowledgeable people at your own pace for about 1/20th the cost of the average American law degree — give it a look.

Really, it might help to think of yourself as a start-up — because in a  lot of ways, you’re a start-up law business. You have a law degree, which is far from worthless; it’s now just a piece of the puzzle, not the whole thing. You also have talent, drive and dedication, which is pretty much all that most startups ever set out with, along with your own unique life experiences. Now you need to build your personal law business, from the ground up.

Like other start-ups, it might have to be a part-time effort, since you’ll likely need to take a non-lawyer position (or even one outside the profession altogether) to pay the bills. But that full-time  job is just a source of income; your part-time start-up is your calling and your passion, and it will occupy your nights and weekends. If you think that sounds like a lot of work and not much life, you’re absolutely right. Don’t leave your student lifestyle behind yet: the long hours and tight budgets will probably continue for a while, and the discipline they impose, while absolutely a short-term pain, will prove to be a long-term benefit.

A good book to read right now might be Seth Godin’s The Dip: it’s about the importance of quitting the wrong things at the right time, sticking out the right things for as long as it takes, and knowing the difference between them. The most important lesson I took from it was that every worthwhile path has numerous barriers designed to do nothing else except winnow down the number of users. These barriers are what cause the dry spells, frustration, and pain that drive many people to pursue other paths that are easier or better for them — they constitute The Dip, and they separate the curious from the committed.

For a long time, law didn’t have much of a Dip, didn’t have many barriers — most everyone who acquired a law degree ended up with a law job if they wanted it. Now there is one — a law degree has become the start of your legal training, not the end of it. If you’re in law school or just emerging from it, you need to decide whether you can and want to make it through these barriers, the ones that right now are winnowing out thousands of people from this profession. If not, there’s no harm and no foul — life is long, and there’s a new century of opportunities opening up for you.

If you do decide to go for it, get ready for a long and often difficult haul, early-morning work and late-night second-guessing. And you still might not make it. But as that wise man Tom Waits once said: if it’s worth the going, it’s worth the ride. Good luck.

How to solve the legal employment crisis

The cover story in last week’s Economist got me thinking about the looming crisis in lawyer employment. “When jobs disappear” paints a bleak picture of a rising wave of unemployment worldwide that will hurt more and last longer than past employment crises. The credit crunch has forced companies to cut costs rapidly, while the massive deleveraging underway in most consumer economies means that the eventual recovery will proceed slower and will crest lower than we’ve become used to. But the key point is this:

[W]hen demand does revive, the composition of jobs will change. In a post-bubble world, indebted consumers will save more, and surplus economies, from China to Germany, will have to rely more on domestic spending. The booming industries of recent years, from construction to finance, will not bounce back. Millions of people, from Wall Street bankers to Chinese migrants, will need to find wholly different lines of work.

In its editorial leader, the magazine drives the point home further:

[M]any of yesterday’s jobs, from Spanish bricklayer to Wall Street trader, are not coming back. People will have to shift out of old occupations and into new ones.

We’ve been bingeing on reports of law firm layoffs for a few months now, and there’s every reason to think those reports will continue through 2009. But we haven’t spent as much time looking at the big picture: there is a growing population of lawyers whose jobs are gone for good, and a larger group of lawyers whose underlying business models are fast becoming obsolete.

Many of the junior associate and staff positions cut in the past several months won’t be filled again. We’ve always known that low-level associates billed out at a handsome profit by midsize and large firms would survive only as long as clients continued to tolerate the law firm business model and its rank inefficiencies. During the recession, clients just won’t be able to afford that; when the recession finally eases, they won’t be willing to afford it, hardened by the lessons meted out in the financial wilderness. Similarly, legal support staff still carry out many automatable and outsourceable tasks. By the time the recession ends, those tasks simply won’t justify a person sitting in an office or cubicle adjacent to a lawyer.

You could actually argue that there hasn’t been a “market” for many of these positions, in the sense of a financial justification or imperative, for some years now. Firms could be as inefficient in their workflow as they liked, because they could always pass the cost of that inefficiency on to the client, who would put up with it for reasons unknown. But the recession is bringing all that to an abrupt halt, and firms suddenly are having to either rectify those inefficiencies or absorb their cost. The results are plain to see on the unemployment line, which figures to get longer before it’s all over.

That’s all bad enough. But the same fate awaits other legal jobs still to disappear, including some held by senior associates, partners, and even solo and small-firm lawyers. There will still be a market demand for these positions after the recession. But the level of demand will be lower because the economy figures to putter along below its recent peak for as much as a decade, so fewer such lawyers will be needed. Moreover, the nature of what the market demands of these positions will be so different from what it is now that many lawyers will be unable to meet it.

During the recession, we’re all going to learn to do more with less. Cost-saving efficiency and “good-enough” quality will be the twin standards by which purchases of all kinds will be made, including legal services. Lawyers have never needed to be efficient and they’ve always preferred an exhaustive answer to an adequate one; they’re not going to adjust easily, and some won’t adjust at all. Clients also will need their lawyers to focus more on high-value services that demand advisory skills and judgment, and less on than repetitive tasks that require boxes to be ticked off and i’s to be dotted. That’s going to be more than a business model challenge; that’s a new way for many legal professionals to view themselves and their functions, and again, some simply won’t  have the wherewithal to meet the new expectations.

So there are two separate problems that need imminent addressing:

1. A legal employment crisis. Before it’s all over, tens of thousands of lawyers and legal support professionals will have lost their jobs and will have little prospect of finding replacement positions (the Economist reports that the chances of an unemployed American worker finding another job soon are the lowest since records started being kept 50 years ago). Younger lawyers are deep in debt and short on experience; older lawyers have families to support in the teeth of an economic meltdown and are too highly specialized to be easily retrainable and transferable to other professions or industries. What will they do?

And more importantly for the profession, who will help them do it? Governments are preparing aid and retraining packages for workers in manufacturing and other hobbled industries; who’s doing the same thing for lawyers whose careers have been cut down by the financial crisis and the recession it spawned? Whose job is it to do that? Law societies and state bars exist to govern the profession, not to care for its members. Bar associations look out for lawyers, but they are strapped for resources, and not every lawyer is a member. Law schools lose interest in their students shortly after graduation. Who will help meet the unemployed lawyer crisis?

2. A legal training crisis. As heart-wrenching as the fate of jobless lawyers is, an arguably bigger problem is arising profession-wide: the adjustment to a new type of legal career. Technology, globalization, and extra-professional competition have already damaged or even eviscerated many types of legal careers. It doesn’t take long to count all the residential real estate lawyers in jurisdictions where title insurance has taken hold, or the thriving general practices anywhere (but especially in small towns). Estates and family lawyers were already feeling competitors’ breath on the back of their neck. But when the recession really takes hold, few legal positions will be safe: who, for instance, will be able to afford to go to trial? Pro se representation is now a growth industry.

The types of work for which lawyers will be in demand and from which they can make a living are changing, and no one really knows into what. But our law school, bar admission, and continuing education systems continue to grind along churning out lawyers suited for 20th-century practice. Practitioners have complained for years that law schools don’t prepare their students for practice; but the irony is that even if every law school changed overnight to become full-scale career preparation institutes, it still wouldn’t help that much. That’s because no one can say what market demands and consequent skills will be required of lawyers in the year 2015, 2025 or 2035. It’s a serious problem for education generally (the linked video is incredibly insightful), but no less an issue for the legal profession for that.

So we have an immediate problem — a growing crowd of lawyers whose jobs aren’t coming back and whose interests have no obvious advocate — and a mounting crisis — a fundamental change in the nature of legal services for which our profession seems largely unprepared. Are there any roads leading out of this morass? I think there’s at least one: opening up the deep and largely untapped potential of the latent legal market.

Several commentators have pointed out the unrealized market of millions of people who, as Richard Susskind memorably expresses it, need a fence at the top of a cliff, not an ambulance at the bottom. Preventive legal services — customized legal checkups and health regimens that anticipate and reduce the occurrence and impact of legal problems — is the way of the future for many lawyers. Whether online or in person, for corporations or individuals, bespoke or varying slightly from a standard construction, these kinds of services promise the dual benefit of using lawyers’ most valuable skills as well as helping achieve the larger social good of a more legally informed and prepared population. A legal problem may be solved in months or weeks; good legal health requires a lifetime of wise legal advice.

If you’re a person, organization or corporation looking to catch the next wave, here it is: open up an institute dedicated to retraining current lawyers and training prospective ones to provide preventive legal services to latent legal markets (here’s a great model). It’s not enough simply to teach lawyers to carry out their current practices more efficiently and effectively; we need to start training them in the ways of an entirely different type of legal business from that which now holds sway in the profession. We need lawyers who can not only see and analyze legal problems that have occurred, but who can anticipate and reduce the risk of problems that could or will occur if left untreated. We need fewer antibiotics and surgeries in the law; we need more flu shots, vaccines and diet-and-exercise regimens.

A legal profession centered around the prevention of problems first and the resolution of problems second would be a better, happier, healthier and more socially beneficial profession than the one we have now.  We’re facing both a drop in the demand for traditional legal services and the rise of a jobless lawyer population ready and willing to try something different. There may be no better time to give this approach a legitimate shot.

The other shoe

If you like your comedy dark, track the law firm layoff news. There’s the partner at Pillsbury LLP who, seated on a crowded but quiet commuter train into NewYork City, conducted a loud cellphone conversation with a colleague at the office that revealed planned associate layoffs at the firm, right down to naming the names of pending victims. There’s McDermott Will & Emery in Chicago deciding to eliminate free coffee in the lobby of one floor of the firm’s offices, a move purportedly meant to express congruence with larger cuts but that came across to many observers as, you know, kind of chintzy. There’s the saga of a laid-off associate in the engaging Above The Law serial “Notes from the Breadline,”  with updates like this:

The next morning I e-mail the partner to tell him that I’d like to talk to the client, explain my departure, and say goodbye. A few hours later, I have heard nothing in response, so I call him. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” the partner says breezily. “I talked to them already.” I ask him what he said. “I told them that you decided to ‘move along,’ if you know what I mean,” he answers. No, I think, I don’t know what you mean.

But whether firms choose to take the callous route, or seem to be trying to soften the blow (cf. Latham & Watkins’ severance, Simpson Thacher’s pro bono plan)  the practical and human reality behind the thousands of layoff notices at big law firms is just plain ugly. I won’t bother trying to update the latest round of notices — suffice to say some of the biggest names in the US and UK legal profession are shedding anywhere from 10% to 20% of their associate workforce and an equivalent or greater number of staff. But when you look behind the rain of numbers, something interesting starts to emerge: the sense that these are just the warm-ups, not the main event.

First of all, cutting associates by the hundreds is not something you do if you expect the economy to turn around soon — otherwise, you’re just paying termination costs to people you’re going to have to rehire in less than a year. Firms understand perfectly well the negative fallout from layoffs, so a bloodletting on this scale indicates two things. One is that there’s no work for these people and none is expected soon, which must reflect what clients are telling firms about their own near-term prospects. The other is that firms don’t expect to need so many associates when things pick up again — partly because the post-recession workload won’t be as heavy, and partly because the good old days of stocking up on associates and riding their billable hours to profit are coming to a swift end. In other words, this isn’t just reducing headcount and expenses — this looks like the start of a fundamental and possibly permanent restructuring of the law firm model.

Secondly, there’s the other shoe that hasn’t yet dropped — partner cuts. With a few exceptions, we haven’t heard the ugly word “de-equitization” spoken much over the last several months. That might be because there won’t be any — that firms are confident that the associate and staff firings will be enough to safeguard profitability and keep the ship afloat, making more drastic moves unnecessary. Or it might be because the associate and staff cuts are the easy place to start, a non-controversial way to improve the bottom line short-term and give everyone a clearer picture of exactly what the profitability situation actually is. Once that picture emerges  by early summer, and is overlaid with what the firms’ internal assessments are saying about the subsequent 12 to 18 months, then the second round of personnel explosions should start going off.

Most people would agree that many large law firms overhired, to at least some degree, on staff and associates — that’s why these cuts have come so large and so quickly. But what’s not talked about much is that many law firms are also over-partnered. The Boomer generation has swelled the ranks of law firms partnerships just as it swelled the upper ranks of every business and organization in North America. I think you’d have a hard time maintaining that all those partnerships were equally earned on merit and productivity — or that, if they were up for partnership today, all or most of those lawyers would get serious consideration. Gen-X lawyers have complained for years about how the Boomers took all the best seats at the table largely by virtue of arriving first. I think we’re starting to see the same thought occur, belatedly, to the partners themselves.

Most law firms of any size are riddled with inefficiencies, from how they bill to how they compensate to how they process tasks to how they hire. We’re beginning to see, through the steady rise of flat fees and customized pay and automation and outsourcing, each of these inefficiencies start to be squeezed out of the system. Through all of this, one  inefficiency — the composition of partnerships — has been all but sacrosanct. I think we’re a few months and a deepening recession away from seeing that final wall breached.

The disappearing associate

Well, that was ugly. In case you missed it, or you need a summary, here’s what happened on a day (yesterday) that the ABA Journal called Black Thursday and Above The Law readers have decided should be named (a little early) the Valentine’s Day Massacre:

This doesn’t include announcements of other cost-saving measures, like more salary freezes and Luce Forward rescinding its offers to new graduates and cancelling its 2009 summer program. If there’s one certainty you can take from this very unhappy day, is that this is just a sampling of what’s to come. (This morning, Peter Zeughauser agreed: “There will be more. Materially more. I’m aware of some big ones coming up.”) We’re at the beginning of this process, not the end.

And what process is this? Well, as previously noted here, it’s of course the marked decrease in client engagements; but it’s also the fallout from the 2008 financials finally becoming clear and the dire need for firms to keep partnership revenue and marketplace confidence as steady as possible. But I’m also coming to think it’s about something else: a serious, gut-check re-evaluation of the whole purpose of law firm associates. I count 297 lawyer firings in that list above; so far as I know, not one of them was a partner.

It’s becoming more evident that we’re not just looking at a normal recession with the usual coping tools (layoffs, salary freezes) from law firms. We’re looking at an extreme recession  (or worse) that happens to be occurring at a time of particular vulnerability for law firms and an unprecedented willingness or necessity to reconsider traditional approaches. With every brutal update, the good folks at Citi and Hildebrandt are speaking more plainly:

[T]he current economic downturn can be viewed as an opportunity to make some fundamental changes in the way law firms are structured and do their business – changes that are not only long overdue but that will also serve the profession well as it emerges from the current recession. …

Among the measures that Citi and Hildebrandt strongly urge is the abandonment of lockstep compensation for associates:

In the current economic climate, it is irrational to have half or more of a firm’s highly compensated lawyers on largely seniority-based salaries…. Firms that have not already done so should seriously consider modifying their associate compensation structures to allow a substantial portion of compensation to be tied to individual performance in support of the firm’s goals and strategy. Firms should also be willing to consider moving away from locked-step associate advancement (and compensation) toward competency-based models. The legal profession is one of the last industries still to cling to this outmoded seniority-based method.

This would not be an unprecedented measure, of course. But as sensible a move as this would be for many firms, events are overtaking it. Some firms are already in the uncomfortable position of having clients refuse to pay for work billed by first- or second-year associates, on the premise that these novice lawyers add inconsequential value to the task at hand and that the client is not going to pay the law firm’s on-the-job training costs. A few others are facing up to the reality that Indian firms can and will complete associate-level tasks for dimes on the dollar, or that new software can streamline and automate the due diligence and document review process on which so many associate hours have been billed.

What we’re looking at here is the real possibility that the law firm associate, in its current form, will not survive this crisis. As the number of associate billable hours clients are willing to pay declines, so too does the need to develop and maintain these vast grazing herds of associates within firms. Partners are going to have to start thinking seriously about what purpose associates serve when they no longer constitute the bottom two-thirds of the profitability pyramid. If you can’t sell the billable hours they’ve been churning out, what do you do with them? What, exactly, is the law firm associate for?

The standard answer, of course, is that associates are future partners in training — that’s what the recruitment brochures maintain. That might be more convincing if attrition — natural and otherwise — didn’t slice off about three-quarters of all lawyers between first year and the partnership committee. It might be more convincing  if more firms had a rational system for identifying, assessing and hiring associates, actively trained those associates from day one in the firm’s financial and culture realities, and had a strategy setting forth how many future partners are expected to come up through their own ranks as opposed to through lateral hiring.

Since all of these things are true at very few firms, and none of them are true at many, we’re left to conclude that as a general rule, associates are hired to be billing machines. If that machine stops working, then we have a serious problem.

Paul Lippe of Legal OnRamp noted in an American Lawyer piece:

[T]he recession will last through 2010. Law firms will use this period to substantially restructure, and beginning in 2011, things will start growing again. While there’s a lot of detail and nuance around the form this restructuring will take, it can be described in simple terms. A typical law firm bill in January 2011 will generate the same dollars for partner work as it does today, but it will generate half the revenue for associate work.

Paul’s article is titled in part: “The End of Leverage.” “Leverage” in law firm terms means associates. It’s not hard to see where this is taking us.

And in truth, not every law firm has been slow to figure this out. Calgary energy law boutique Thackray Burgess has 29 partners and 0 associates. The firm employs more than 20 “consultants,” independent contractors who look like associates but are paid by the hour, work however many hours per year they feel like, pay the firm a fee to cover their overheads costs and a percentage of the hourly rate they charge their clients, and keep the rest themselves. I don’t love the hourly billing aspects of this setup, but the idea of associates as independent contractors, retained for what the client requires and no more, makes perfect sense. Axiom Legal and Virtual Law Partners have also re-engineered the traditional associate position. I’m sure there are other examples, and more will come.

By the time this recession runs its course — and no one really knows when that will be — both client expectations about the manner in which rote legal work is done, as well as the technological and offshore solutions available to do that work, will be so different from today that there’ll no be going back. The idea that a firm can employ dozens if not hundreds of inexperienced lawyers primarily to generate revenue on low-value work will eventually be seen as a relic of the 20th century. Firms will still hire and retain associates — new partners, even laterals, have to come from somewhere — but there’ll be far fewer of them, they’ll be selected, evaluated and trained far more systematically, and they’ll be engaged, billed and compensated much differently than they are today.

We should make no mistake about how profound a change this will be, nor believe that its ramifications will be limited to big law firms. To a growing degree over the last decade or two, large multi-service law firms in urban locations have been completing the job of legal education that law schools and governing bodies have been haphazardly starting. We can complain all we want about overpriced, underskilled associates in firms; the fact is that these firms and their clients have been subsidizing the bar admissions process, providing the last three years of what amounts to a seven-year law degree. When modern marketplace economics finally puts an end to this practice, who will pay new lawyers with few skills and massive law school debts while introducing them to law practice? Who will be responsible for completing lawyers’ education and training them? We’re going to need answers to those questions, and fast.

Like I said, we’re at the start of this process, not the end. The fundamental restructuring of the law firm business model that Citi and Hildebrandt are calling for is at hand, and the changes we’re seeing now stand a very good chance of being permanent. There’s a reason I used “fired” instead off “laid off” at the start of this post.


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What the recession will bring

My newest Law21 column is up at Slaw. Click the link to go read it, and then take some time to peruse all of Slaw’s other great posts and conversations at what Dennis Kennedy calls the best law blog in the business. As always, I’ll also post the article here.

“Are we looking at a second Depression? I don’t think so,” said Paul Krugman, NewYork Times columnist and Nobel-Prize-winning economist, during his luncheon address to the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association’s World Summit last week in Vancouver. Then he added: “A month ago, I would’ve said, ‘Absolutely not.’ But today, I’m going to say, ‘I don’t think so.'”

That was the standout quote for me from an economic assessment so pessimistic that at its end, Krugman admitted: “I wish I had some positive things to tell you.” But aside from, as he said, having “people in Washington I can now talk to,” he didn’t have much good news to share. The powerful tremors emanating from Citigroup add to worries that even an astonishing American stimulus package of $800,000,000,000 — a financial adrenalin shot roughly equal to Australia’s entire GDP — won’t cover even half of the expected $2,000,000,000,000 in losses this recession is pounding out. Every country’s economy is in trouble, and even those with the political will and financial tools to address the problems seem stymied. Europe is facing particular challenges, while China — whose financial statistics are “science fiction,” Krugman said — is facing a sharp downturn. He thinks the eventual solution to banks in crisis is going to be nationalization — though he observed that not even the Obama administration is psychologically ready to take that step yet.

Now, another Great Depression is still a considerable distance away (we’re nowhere near 25% unemployment, GDP cut in half, or a stock market reduced by 90%, for example). And since whatever the mainstream media brings you is pre-inflated at least 20% by hype, you could be forgiven for thinking that things are bad, certainly, but not borderline catastrophic. But while Krugman’s grim outlook took me aback, what really struck me was the lack of surprise among audience members, including a lot of general counsel and in-house lawyers from national and global entities. Some of them nodded in agreement and all of them seemed to have had their beliefs confirmed, not undermined, by his remarks. They had the air of people who know exactly how bad things might be.

Law firm lawyers should be concerned by that. They should also be concerned by this: for the most part, surprisingly little was said about the problem of outside counsel costs. This wasn’t because the problem had gone away; from my reading of comments on stage and in conversations, it was because legal costs had ceased to be something to talk about and had become something to be dealt with. The simplicity and finality of that sentiment were unnerving. I asked an in-house lawyer to name one thing her outside law firms could do to make her happier. “Reduce their costs,” she replied. Fair enough, I said; should they do it by outsourcing, or by automating, or by — she cut me off. “I don’t care,” she said flatly. (Patrick J. Lamb reports a similar experience.) Continue Reading

Staff cuts and short-term thinking

That sound you hear is the rapidly accelerating crash of dominoes. The mainstream legal media is tracking, body blow by body blow, the shocking personnel reductions taking place at law firms throughout the US and UK. One after another, firms are laying off employees, and it seems each firm’s announcement gives three others the confidence to go ahead and announce their own. I’ll be exploring this in greater depth in a post early next week, but for now, I wanted to point out an interesting subtext in all these cuts: the extraordinarily high rate of staff-alone layoffs.

It’s not just that firms firing lawyers are also firing two to three times as many non-lawyers; an unusual number of firms are firing only staff. Here are just some of the staff-alone cuts reported in the last couple of months: 9 at Squire Sanders, 14 at Ice Miller, 20 at Moore & Van Allen, up to 25 at Buchanan Ingersoll, 30 at Fish & Richardson, 36 at Fenwick & West, 38 at Cassels Brock & Blackwell, 40 at Goulston & Storrs, 60 at Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, 65 at Akin Gump, 72 at Dechert, and an astonishing 106 at Ropes & Gray and 115 at Reed Smith. Remember, these aren’t part and parcel of bigger, organization-wide cuts — each of these firms let go of staff, but no lawyers.

The official reason for these layoffs, of course, is the recession, though the actual causes and motivations will vary from firm to firm. But a staff cut without a corresponding lawyer reduction is a little odd. If a firm chops 30 or 40 associates, you expect to see another 60 to 90 staff go with them, on the theory that these support staff no longer have lawyers to support. So what does it mean when a firm jettisons scores of staff members but leaves the lawyers untouched? Beyond the well-known fact that many firms view and treat their staff the same way golf and country clubs do?

One possibility is that firms have to cut fixed personnel expenses somewhere, but they fear the recruitment black eye that comes from associate layoffs and the seismic impact of partner cuts, so it’s the secretaries, paralegals, IT and marketing people who get the heave. Another is that these firms were overstaffed to begin with, not an unreasonable guess — everyone was living large in the recent boom times, and if a one-to-one ratio of lawyers to assistants made some of the fee earners happy, it was all worthwhile. A darker possibility — that associates are keeping the administrative tasks to themselves to maintain their billable hour totals, depriving assistants of work — is all too likely.

It’s also very likely that in many of these cases, the firms either don’t realize or don’t care about the negative effects of deep, across-the-board staff cuts. Aside from the damage to morale, chopping people in key areas like marketing is just foolish, a reflection of the belief that marketing is a cost center, not an essential element of the firm’s business model. Ron Friedmann rightly points out, in two recent posts, that indiscriminate staff cuts reflect the fact that the “firm has no idea what support is really required. Evenly distributed cuts imply that rational decisions were made in the past, that support needs remain constant over time in spite of the march of technology, and that wild gyrations in practice group revenue have no impact on support needs.”

It looks like many firms are missing an opportunity here to carefully and intelligently review their support needs and re-engineer both their personnel and their infrastructure investment accordingly. Simply cutting staff jobs provides only a short-term bottom-line assist while creating many other short- and long-term problems, whereas a more creative approach could both save money and improve the firm’s operations at the same time. Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Equip every lawyer with voice-recognition software, so that memos and messages need no longer be dictated or even typed out. Ditto for real-time docketing and billing programs.
  • Get lawyers blogging about their areas of practice, the release of relevant decisions, changes to applicable laws, and more — instruct them in 21st-century personal marketing.
  • Outsource or offshore functions like human resources, IT or even research and other quasi-legal tasks — firms have already done this, from West Virginia to India.
  • Then, save jobs through upsizing: convert legal secretaries to workflow managers, specialize assistants by assigning them to practice groups, train marketers to conduct client meetings and do cross-selling — basically, give your non-lawyer employees the chance to show what else and what more they can do for you, rather than automatically putting them first in line on the chopping block.

There’s a better way to cut costs than simply throwing staff overboard while keeping lawyers around — all it requires is a little more ingenuity, far-sightedness and courage than law firms are used to showing. And as 2009 unfolds, we’re going to see all three of these traits evolve from nice-to-haves to full-scale survival skills.

Avalanche alert

“[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.