Part I of this series considered the possibility that a key metric — average partner profits — has lost much of its value in describing anything meaningful about big law firms. In eat-what-you-kill firms, the explosive growth of top-to-bottom spreads within equity partnerships has skewed the distribution of income away from the bell-shaped curve that underpins the statistical validity of any average.
Part II considers the implications.
Searching for explanations beyond the obvious
In recent years, equity partners at the top of most big firms have engineered a massive redistribution of incomes in their favour. Why? The next time a senior partner talks about holding the line on equity partner headcount or reducing entry-level partner compensation as a way to strengthen the partnership, consider the source and scrutinize the claim.
One popular assertion is that the high end of the internal equity partner income gap attracts lateral partners. In fact, some firms boast about their large spreads because they hope it will entice laterals. But Professor William Henderson’s recent analysis demonstrates that lateral hiring typically doesn’t enhance a firm’s profits. Sometimes selective lateral hiring works. But infrequent success doesn’t make aggressive and indiscriminate lateral hiring to enhance top line revenues a wise business plan.
According to Citi’s 2012 Law Firm Leaders Survey, even law firm managing partners acknowledge that, financially, almost half of all lateral hires are no better than a break-even proposition. If leaders are willing to admit that an ongoing strategy has a failure rate approaching 50 per cent, imagine how bad the reality must actually be. Even worse, the non-financial implications for the acquiring firm’s culture can be devastating — but there’s no metric for assessing those untoward consequences.
A related argument is that without the high end of the range, legacy partners will leave. Firm leaders should consider resisting such threats. Even if such partners aren’t bluffing, it may be wiser to let them go.
“We’re helping young attorneys and building a future”
Other supposed benefits to recruiting rainmakers at the high end of a firm’s internal partner income distribution are the supposedly new opportunities that they can provide to younger attorneys. But the 2013 Client Advisory from Citi Private Bank-Hildebrandt Consulting shows that lateral partner hiring comes at the expense of associate promotions from within. Homegrown talent is losing the equity partner race to outsiders.
In a similar attempt to spin another current trend as beneficial to young lawyers, some managing partners assert that lower equity partner compensation levels lower the bar for admission, making equity status easier to attain. Someone under consideration for promotion can more persuasively make the business case (i.e., that potential partner’s client billings) required for equity participation.
Such sophistry assumes that an economic test makes any sense for most young partners in today’s big firms. In fact, it never did. But now the prevailing model incentivizes senior partners to hoard billings, preserve their own positions, and build client silos — just in case they someday find themselves searching for a better deal elsewhere in the overheated lateral market.
Finally, senior leaders urge that current growth strategies will better position their firms for the future. Such appealing rhetoric is difficult to reconcile with many partners’ contradictory behaviour: guarding client silos, pulling up the equity partner ladder, reducing entry level partner compensation, and making it increasingly difficult for home-grown talent ever to reach the rarified profit participation levels of today’s managing partners.
Broader implications of short-term greed
In his latest book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, Richard Susskind wrote that most law firm leaders he meets “have only a few years left to serve and hope they can hold out until retirement… Operating as managers rather than leaders, they are more focused on short-term profitability than long-term strategic health.”
Viewed through that lens, the annual Am Law 100 rankings make greed respectable while masking insidious internal equity partner compensation gaps that benefit a relatively few. Annual increases in average partner profits imply the presence of sound leadership and a firm’s financial success. But an undisclosed metric — growing internal inequality — may actually portend failure.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask lawyers from what was once Dewey & LeBoeuf and a host of other recent fatalities. Their average partner profits looked pretty good — all the way to the end.
Steven J. Harper, a former partner at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, is the author, most recently, of “THE LAWYER BUBBLE – A Profession in Crisis.” A version of this column was first published on Steven J. Harper’s blog at thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com and on The American Lawyer’s Am Law Daily, http://www.americanlawyer.com/amlaw_daily.jsp
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