Wednesday, December 08, 2010

BigLaw, Big Lawyers, Big Law Firms and Big Statistics: Are there Legal Metrics for Making Partner? Who Knows the Answers?

There is an entire industry devoted to "success" and its achievement, so it is no wonder that a professional statistical "metrical" approach is now also being applied to BigLaw law firms.

BigLaw insider Steven Harper challenges legal metrics as follows at his blog:
"ALM editor-in-chief Aric Press penned a provocative article about Indiana Law Professor Bill Henderson’s for-profit venture on recruiting, retention, and promotion. ( The WSJ law blog and ABA Journal covered it, too. ( Henderson is analyzing why some attorneys succeed in Biglaw and others don’t.
Does anyone else find his project vaguely unsettling?"
We do not, but then again, we do not claim to know the answers either, so read what Harper has to say.

Surely Harper makes a legitimate point that some important elements of success may simply be chance. On the other hand, there are sure to be predictive elements at work as well. What portion of success in law is chance and what portion is quantifiable?

Patrick J. Lamb, also an insider, offers a rebuttal at the ABA Journal Law News Now in his ‘Knee-Jerk Reaction’ to Profs New Co. Underscores Fear of Change in Legal Marketplace. Lamb, as the ABA editors write, is from "The New Normal ... an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, and Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group. Paul and Pat spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. We hope you will join their discussions."

We most certainly agree with Harper that the barriers to "success" that exist in BigLaw should not be overlooked by anyone who enters a large law firm solely in the hopes of "making partner", as only a smaller fraction (10-15% ?) of associates reach that level. However, that statistic is actually a bit misleading and not much of a deterrent to people accustomed to moving in the fast lane.

Many young lawyers work as associates for law firms and then leave those firms -- before "making" or "not making" partner -- for a host of reasons which may not have anything to do with the question of whether they would have made partner or not. What percentage of those associates who really want to make partner do make partner? Probably a good percentage. In a process of normal attrition, most other associates surely leave a firm voluntarily to do other things, or become partners at other law firms.

My own "alma mater" law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP (known as Paul, Weiss et al. -- or simply Paul|Weiss -- in the profession) produces not only an alumni magazine, but also an alumni directory in which the professional achievements of those who left the firm are quite as impressive as the achievements of those who stayed with the firm. Former Paul, Weiss partner Neale Albert, now retired, is quoted in the 2009 Paul Weiss Alumni News in Dynamic Duo (p. 11) as to the Paul, Weiss attitude on hiring:
"Judge Rifkind was the father of the firm we are now," says Albert. "He created a firm that was radically different from the others. He accepted people from different backgrounds -- people with creative minds. Everything else was irrelevant to him. And in a place like that, intelligence can grow into creativity."
"Success" is a very broad term, by definition. We all do what we do or have to do -- or think we have to do. Society requires a very broad spread of talent for all kinds of activities, and especially legally trained minds have many opportunities to make their mark on the world in diverse undertakings. The "right" niche for any individual then ultimately depends on their personal character and circumstances, as well as on the skills that are learned under way. It is surely a process that can not be reduced to a magic formula.

Part of the reason for the great amount of turnover and mobility in law, especially in the younger generations, is that although society may "rank" some activities higher than others, the demands of the world and the passage of time level the playing field. In the last analysis, we ALL count for something in the big picture and "make partner" one way or another, i.e. we are all ultimately partners in the human endeavor. Sometimes people just simply wind up where they are needed most, quite apart from other considerations. This may mean "not making partner" in BigLaw.

For many young lawyers, their initial job at a large law firm is a trial and error period in which they discover whether BigLaw is really what they want to do. Few people know that for certain until they are really faced with the actual job.

Many decide "no", and enter other legally-related branches, or join other or smaller law firms, or even "spin-off" and start law firms of their own. Still others leave the law entirely and go into family businesses or other ventures. Some take positions in government, corporations, public service, charities, social causes, families and academics. A smaller percentage keeps on and "makes partner".

At Paul, Weiss, for example, I was not only a summer associate, but after graduation from law school was also an associate in the corporate law department at that firm -- twice. I initially left Paul, Weiss to take an academic post with the Project on Law Enforcement Policy and Rulemaking at the Arizona State Law School and then did a type of clerkship with a legal project affiliated with the University of Nebraska Law School and the Nebraska Supreme Court called The Appellate Justice Project of the National Center for State Courts, 1973-1974.

These were career-related options I wanted to explore and my work on those projects even resulted in an opportunity to join a law school faculty -- an offer which I turned down at that time because I thought I was simply too young to be teaching full-time. I thought then, and think also now, that one should learn from experience first, and THEN teach. Surely there are exceptions.

After returning to Paul, Weiss and once again concentrating on corporate law, I soon thereafter accepted a unique position at the University of Kiel in Germany, where a law institute was concentrating on the problems of occupied and/or divided nations (at that time, Germany, Korea, the Baltic, etc.). That job turned out to be the end of my BigLaw career. Two years in Europe went to five and five to ten and today it is already 35 years and counting.

Europe had me firmly in its grasp. After various stints in industry and consulting, I then later taught Anglo-American Law, Legal Writing and Legal Research in the FFA Program at the University of Trier Law School in Germany. Currently I am busy as an author in various capacities, e.g. as co-author of the English-German German-English Langenscheidt Routledge Dictionary of Business, Commerce and Finance, which just appeared in its 4th edition and is the standard work in its field.

My own BigLaw "career" had little to do with "making partner" but much more to do with what I wanted to do in my life. I was by talent and inclination in fact quite well-suited to a large law firm and prospered there exceedingly, but I was still very young and not that settled. I graduated from law school at age 24, whereas the average age of my graduating class at Stanford Law School was 28. I was also unmarried at the time, so there were also no special ties to bind me to any one geographic place, leaving me free to experiment with numerous life design possibilities, which I did.

"Nuts and bolts" BigLaw is exceedingly pragmatic and focuses on problem-solving, whereas "academic" law focuses on the discussion of problems and issues, often quite apart from any workable solutions. Professors have time, lawyers seldom do.

In BigLaw the solutions MUST work and the realities of the economic and legal world set demanding timelines. A senior partner who assigns the writing of a legal memorandum to a young associate is almost always looking for assistance in making a real-life decision. Time is money. That partner is generally not looking for a time-consuming law journal note that discusses all of the dicey questions raised by the legal problem in question - the partner wants a legal basis TO ACT swiftly.

I recall a senior partner once calling me in, showing me a 25-page memo from an outside source, telling me it was brilliant, but calling it "useless" to him as it stood, and  asking me to deliver the next day in two pages or less a memo on exactly WHAT New York law provided that he could or could not do in the legal matter at issue, as he HAD to do something. That is BigLaw.

Who makes partner? "Those who want to" is probably the best answer, but the following may help:
  • Associates should be willing to concentrate on the acquisition and exercise of professional competence in a particular legal field, for example, corporate law, or a branch of that, e.g. mergers. Clients are paying for legal, financial and business expertise and experience.
  • Associates must have or learn to acquire and implement the "human skills" that are necessary for interaction with others in the legal field, including clients, law firm partners, associates and staff, as also interpersonal relations with out-of-house attorneys, administrators and officials, i.e. you have to "fit" as a cog in the human operation of things. EQ (emotional intelligence) can often be more important than IQ.

  • There has to be sufficient stability in one's own personal life, so that a BigLaw career has a solid foundation under its feet, i.e. your "personal life" has to be play a supporting role rather than be a hindrance to your work.
  • Of course, you must also be prepared to work hard, but that applies everywhere. A law firm is not a beach.
In any case, I do not think there is any big secret about "making partner".

Sometimes it is merely a question of supply and demand. What skills are needed where?

Anyone who becomes competent in a given field of law, who interacts successfully with the human world around him, and whose personal life is a source of stability is going to be pretty successful anywhere. And if one can bring in clients (be a rainmaker), the path to glory is a straight one.

In my early days at Paul, Weiss, I was one day driven to the front door of our then 345 Park Avenue building in a Rolls-Royce by a friend and upon exiting the car nearly ran into a group of visibly beaming law firm partners who were just leaving the building. What was it that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby: "... personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures....". In commenting on that quotation, Martin Weigel writes in What Really Matters In Communication And Character. And Why It Will Liberate Us From The Past:
"The famous screenwriting doctor Robert McKee for example, has distinguished between what he calls characterization and character:
“CHARACTERIZATION is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes – all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out. The totality of these traits makes each person unique because each of us is a one-of-a-kind combination of genetic givens and accumulated experience. This singular assemblage of traits is CHARACTERIZATION. . . but it is not CHARACTER. True CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure - the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature."
The most dominant shared "characteristic" of the partners at the firm was perhaps equanimity, a special type of coolness approaching delight under pressure that comes from knowing your stuff and knowing that you are good at what you do. Competent people visibly enjoy what they do. If equanimity marks your professional demeanor, you may well be on the road to success.

Last but not least, therefore, is CHARM.
Keep smiling.
In many of life's situations, it is EQ and IQ all rolled into one.
Let the metrics measure that.

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