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Legal Commentary

: Adam Smith, Esq.

The Profit Imperative

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The news out of Dewey & LeBoeuf--that 66 partners, or about one in five of their 350 partners, have seen their compensation cut over the past 15 months by up to 80%--begs for an explanation, or at least some commmentary. First, what's going on in the firm's own words:

The reductions are meant to weed out less-productive partners, firm Chairman Steven Davis tells The Am Law Daily.

Those affected by the "substantial performance-related reductions to their compensation" represent a wide range of practices, Davis says. The partners include some who have been practicing for 25 or more years.

Of the 66, the more fortunate are now taking home $25,000/month, the standard draw for partners. Lower-tier partners have faced more drastic reductions, with monthly draws of as little as $10,000, or an annual total of $120,000 -- $40,000 less than the starting salary for a 2008 incoming first-year.

Both Davis and executive director Stephen DiCarmine characterize the recent actions as an intensification of the firm's long-term strategy of replacing poor performers with higher-producing laterals. "We have a merit-based compensation system," Davis says. "There are a variety of outcomes that people have experienced. It probably occurred to a greater and enhanced extent due to the merger."

Paying partners less than first-year's? What on earth, you may be asking yourself, is going on here?

To begin with, I have nothing to say about the selection criteria for who's taking these hits and who isn't (or, as the firm puts it, who is "experiencing which outcomes"). I can only take the firm at its word that they are intended to be performance-related and to alter the mix of partners over time.

The point I'm interested in is a larger one. Why would a firm feel compelled to take such drastic measures in order to--at least partially--protect the very high incomes of its other partners?

This brings us to what I call the "profit imperative."

First, required is a small digression into the wonderland that is law firm accounting. Partners (we're talking equity partners) actually wear three different and distinguishable hats, in terms of their economic participation in the firm:

  • Workers/producers, in which role their job is to actually bill hours and perform client work. In this role, their appropriate compensation is what the firm would have to pay a non-equity partner to perform the same work.
  • Managers/administrators, in which role they help run their practice groups or departments, manage staff, mentor associates, participate in firm committees, and so forth. In this role, their appropriate compensation is what the firm would have to pay nonlawyer executives to perform the same work.
  • And last and only last, equity partners, which is to say, owners with a residual claim on the profits of the enterprise after all other expenses and claims have been satisfied--including, if you want to be rigorous about it (and some of us do), paying the first two sums listed above out of operating income.

But of course, in wonderland, partners view themselves as wearing one and only one hat, namely the last one. This means they view their compensation as coming entirely from their role as equity owners. And given the current realities of law firm organization, finance, and accounting, they are entirely right to see it that way, however economically irrational that might be in the abstract.

Why does this matter? Only because, as we're about to see, "profits" in law firm land have a special meaning, and that's why they're imperative.

If equity partners across BigLaw had been raised from 3L status on to understand, internalize, comprehend, and expect that their compensation would consist of those three different components, the last of which is highly variable, profits would not be as imperative as they are. But that's not the world we live in.

So now that we're all agreed on the financial irrationality of partners' compensation being paid entirely out of "profits," and are equally agreed that this is culturally embedded and not about to change in your lifetime or mine, it's a baby step to seeing why profits in a law firm cannot fall precipitously and expect the firm to remain in equilibrium. It comes down to expectations.

Perhaps the simplest way to explain this is to contrast it to a normal company, say, Toyota or GM.

As is exhaustively known, GM has been bleeding cash and losing money hand over fist for most of this young Century, yet it continues to exist. The fact that it may not continue for too much longer, and that its pleas for help from Washington may be rewarded, only speaks more strongly of its durability. As for Toyota, it's been coining money during the same period and, even though it may suffer its first loss in its 70 years of operations, there is absolutely zero doubt about its continued viability as a global industry leader.

And the point would be?

  • Law firms cannot survive a single year with zero profits.
  • That, as we know, is all that partners have to take home.
  • If partners have nothing to take home, they will be gone.
  • And the firm will be no more.

This may provide perspective on the drastic measures Dewey has taken. There are, of course, other examples of unprecedented Hail Mary's techniques being employed:

  • Norton Rose is floating the notion of a four-day work week;
  • CMS Cameron McKenna is asking partners to "volunteer for de-equitization" (no, I'm not making this up);
  • 92% (92%!) of City of London partners recently polled by Legal Week predicted a drop in profits of more than 15%;
    • 65% predicted it would be more than 20%;
    • 47% predicted it would be more than 25%; and
    • 17% predicted more than 30%.
  • And the drastic cuts being implemented far and wide are, at the moment, unavoidable:  "Tony Williams, former managing partner of Clifford Chance and the co-founder of Jomati consultancy [and a good friend of mine—Bruce], said: "You always have to look forward. Cutting people has not just been a knee-jerk reaction [to falling profits]. You have to take the appropriate decision at the appropriate time.""

The point?

Simply that noisy protestations about how firms are cutting people loose in wholesale numbers—be those protests boisterous and cynical or heartfelt and agonized—miss the point that a reasonable level of profitability for a law firm is not a luxury and not an option.  It is as required for survival as oxygen is to us.

Full post as published by Adam Smith, Esq. on March 17, 2009 (boomark / email).

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