If I had two billion dollars

There is persuasive authority for the proposition that if I had a million dollars, I’d buy your love. So what would I be able to buy with two billion dollars? Apparently, a whole lot of wide-eyed attention and breathless commentary from various legal media outlets. That’s pretty much all I’ve seen over the last few days after Latham & Watkins, DLA Piper and Skadden Arps each announced that it had broken the $2 billion revenue barrier in 2007.

Now, if this is the sort of thing you like, then the foregoing links will give you more than enough to pass the weekend, what with the debates over total firm revenue versus profit per partner versus profit per equity partner, each metric relatively able or unable to determine the richest and/or most profitable large law firm in the world. For myself, I’d like to step back here and suggest that the more we obsess over law firms’ enormous revenue or profit figures, the farther away we travel from why we’re in this gig in the first place.

It bears repeating that lawyers, like the laws that enable their businesses, exist for the purposes of clients, not the other way around. I constantly see lawyers get that formula backwards, viewing clients primarily as a means to their own ends rather than as ends in themselves. Our profession is deeply immersed in the concept of clients as sources of work, suppliers of problems, lifelines of status, fonts of revenue — as entities from whom we receive, rather than to whom we give. A lot of lawyers, subconsciously or otherwise, regard clients as holding value only insofar as they provide us with the raw material of lawyering.

Kant could have told you how categorically important it is to treat people as ends in themselves, that striving to enable another’s dignity and happiness is the overriding purpose of human relationships. That, fundamentally, is why law remains an important calling and (done right) an immensely fulfilling vocation. It’s no coincidence that law, medicine and ministry — each centered on alleviating unhappiness and enhancing the human condition — were the first three lines of work to be considered “professions.” If we want to understand what we mean by professionalism, we need to remember where the word came from.

Instead, we seem to be devoting way too much time these days to checking out salaries, comparing disposable incomes, tracking the size of law firms, and keeping score of who’s moved where, who’s charging what, and how much money is being raked in. Nowhere in the stories of the $2 billion law firms will we read about the success and satisfaction of these firms’ clients. I don’t wish to suggest their clients are unsuccessful and dissatisfied — the firms are obviously delivering enough value for the clients to maintain the relationships — but it’s telling that it’s not even part of the discussion. Where do we think that $2 billion came from?

And there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that clients in the broadest sense aren’t happy — individual clients who never hear from their lawyers or are beaten down by the costs of law, corporate clients that rail against rising fees and complain about lawyers who never visit the factory or take the time to learn their industry. Practice management people constantly exhort lawyers to communicate with clients more often and take an obvious, direct interest in their goals and ambitions. It’s hard not to conclude that if more lawyers thought about their clients primarily as real people or valuable organizations, rather than as bringers of problems and payers of bills, these exhortations would not be necessary.

Please don’t take any of this as a rebuke of profit in the legal profession. I’m a free-market guy and a strong supporter of hard work, competition, and maximizing the fruits of your labour. Lawyers have a great deal to learn about good financial planning and management, and none of the foregoing is meant to suggest that we should invite the wolf at the door to come in and stay awhile. Alex Rodriguez earns more by the fifth inning of Opening Day than I make in a year; good for him, and for anyone who gets the most rewards out of his or her skills and hard work.

But profits are an effect, not a cause. They flow naturally from the provision of a valuable service; if you focus on the service and care about who you’re serving, the money will come. If you focus on the money first and the client second, eventually you’ll have neither. We talk about money far more in this profession than is good for us, our clients, and our image. A lot of people think of it as harmless fun, and maybe that’s all it is. Or maybe it’s a symptom of a value and priority structure that’s getting seriously out of whack.

It’d be nice to see the equivalent of an Amlaw 100 for clients satisfied, or lives improved, or companies thriving. We won’t, of course, simply because those sorts of things don’t lend themselves to metrics, and it’s human nature to love rankings and ratings and top ten lists and whatnot. But it hardly matters. What good lawyers really do — people helped, misery alleviated, problems solved, success enhanced, dreams validated, society improved — doesn’t need to be ranked and measured, except by the calculus of the human heart. The happiest lawyers you know learned this a while ago.

So, read the stories. Scan the rankings. Marvel at a two-billion-dollar-a-year legal enterprise. And then let’s get back to making things better for other people.

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