One of the most remarkable phenomena of the modern workplace is partners from many of the New York City’s largest law firms being asked to leave their firms. These highly paid problem-solvers who have achieved success for decades in some of the world’s most competitive environments suddenly find themselves without visible means of support, shakeout victims like their counterparts in the corporate world.
Ironically, these learned lawyers often lack the self-assessment and transitional skills they need to solve the most important challenge of their professional lives – taking charge of their own careers in a new environment.
This article draws upon experiences and interviews conducted with outplaced partners who had been practicing law from 15-40 years in major New York City law firms. In the process, it appeared that their former workplaces had undergone a major metamorphosis, a striking shift from what can be referred to as the pre-1980’s “firm” model. Understanding that change was an important key to helping these attorneys find new positions and discover new paths to success.
Traditionally, the larger law firm was considered a general practice firm. The ultimate goal for the attorney was to become technically proficient. He (only the male gender is used because of the virtual absence of the female partner during this period) was paid for his knowledge, practical advice and professionalism. After a certain number of years of acceptable performance as an associate, the attorney who remained at the firm would generally be voted into the partnership. The traditional law firms were often like private country clubs for attorneys with the right credentials – highly exclusive, homogeneous, secure and closed societies.
With few exceptions, all the partners at the same level of seniority were comparably compensated. Increases moved almost in lockstep. That arrangement held until the partner reached a certain age (generally 60-70), at which point his responsibilities would be scaled down along with his compensation.
However, the “retiring” partner would still have a role at the firm. Typically, he became “of counsel,” retaining an office, benefits and a secretary. This was a way of preserving the benefits of his wisdom and experience, while allowing his transition into retirement gradually and with dignity.
The emphasis was on technical proficiency rather than business generation for most partners. New business often came through referrals and reputation. There was usually an abundance of repeat business based on long-term relationships with clients. It was considered unseemly, even unethical, in many situations, for the attorney to solicit business actively.
The firm functioned as an accommodation between the rainmaker and the technician. If the rainmaker secured a piece of business in an area where he had no particular expertise, the technician would then take over. Firms recognized that not all specialties were going to be equally productive in a given year, so partners in less active departments were not penalized. Cyclicality was built into the model.
Clients were loyal to their firms. They generally were clients of the firm and not of the individual attorney. If the law firm performed competently for them, the relationship was longstanding. One senior partner described working in a pre-1980’s law firm “like being in a cocoon for life.” It was exceptional for a partner to move or even explore the market, let alone be terminated, and those who did were often stigmatized.
During the 1980s, a convergence of factors caused profound changes in the legal profession as business became more frenetic and deals grew larger. Technological changes like faxes, word processors and mobile phones accelerated the pace of business. Financial markets were globally linked, resulting in 24-hour trading. Firms began to grow.
As the number of associates increased, the culture of the firms began to change. The attorneys’ roles changed significantly; they became part of the business team and were expected to make the same sacrifices and move at the same tempo. Attorneys from less highly regarded law schools were admitted, as were women and minorities. The walls of the country club started to crumble.
Malpractice liability suits proliferated and premiums soared as leveraged deals collapsed. Disgruntled investors in big transactions sought to spread the loss, and lawyers found it easier to sue other lawyers. Clients were abandoning their traditional loyalty to a particular firm. If, for example, a takeover threatened, the client would, as a matter of survival, retain Skadden Arps or Wachtell Lipton in lieu of their traditional corporate counsel. Long-term exclusive relationships began to dissolve.
Companies started to employ lawyers in-house to handle more routine matters in a cost-effective manner. Tensions developed between in-house counsel and outside lawyers. The latter’s close relationship with management started to erode.
Clients also began to follow individuals when they changed firms. Competent performance no longer was enough to ensure client loyalty in a world that had become transactional rather than relationship driven.
Although it was still important for attorneys to develop their writing, oral and analytical skills, there was a dramatic shift in emphasis toward business production. The salesmanship skills that had often met with disdain in years past were now revered. Partners’ compensations were no longer based upon repayment of years to the firm; rather, it shifted to a shorter-term focus – current business generation.
The older guard resented the fact that they had paid their dues, yet were having to forgo the benefits. Younger partners pointed to other firms that would reward them handsomely for the client billings they originated. Information about other firms’ compensation packages was more openly discussed and widely disseminated through legal placement firms and annual surveys in the legal trade publications. In short, the balance had tipped in favor of a “What have you done for us lately?” mentality.
Meanwhile, Wall Street generated a spiraling series of hostile, leveraged business transactions in which up-front fees for attorneys were dwarfed by investment banking fees. Partners who brought in such deals took control of many larger firms and further emphasized short-term productivity. Many partners moved over to the client side. Those who remained and held the key to the client relationship insisted on remuneration that would sufficiently offset the potential rewards of joining the client.
It became much more difficult to run a law firm profitably. Long-term fixed costs grew exponentially. Rapid growth required firms to sign leases for expansion space in an escalating rental market. Associate salaries skyrocketed as demand for their services grew. When the rising tide of the 1980s began to subside, many attorneys started chasing after a shrinking supply of premium-paying clients. Those clients, sensing their leverage, negotiated more favorable fee arrangements. A firm no longer had a virtual monopoly on provision of services to a particular client. Frequently, larger transactions were bid out. Firms were asked to quote discounted rates and other special fee arrangements.
Legal placement specialists, or “headhunters,” exacerbated this process. They lured attorneys away for more money or other rewards. Taboos about exploring other opportunities faded. Firms also started openly discussing their finances with publications such as The American Lawyer,which published information about profits per partner. The partner now had a running status and performance check against many competitors.
Requirements for Success
The requirements for success in large New York City law firms have changed drastically. Acquiring technical proficiency is no longer an attorney’s only goal. Marketing and business production skills are now essential.
Outplaced attorneys interviewed believed that if they had generated more business, they would still be at their former firms. One partner, who faced mandatory retirement, said that if he had brought in $500,000 or more in annual billings, he would have remained in an “of counsel” position at an acceptable level of compensation. Another said, “the greatest security is to develop your own practice.” Yet another put it even more succinctly: “Happiness in law is portable billings.” All believed that they should have paid more attention in their earlier years to client development instead of putting in 16-hour days and 70-80 hour weeks on client matters for the firm.
While hindsight is 20/20, why would these partners have been expected to continue their professional lives differently? Until about 15-20 years ago, the economics of the profession created a comfortable, collegial and stable environment. For the most part, the business was just there. Once attorneys cleared the barriers, stated and unstated (right college, law school, class rank and performance during tenure as an associate), then 30 or more years of secure, increasing income awaited.
Although law firms purported to be democracies with all partners comparable in status, they were, in fact, oligarchies with central “management,” Executive committees made major decisions for the firm. In reality, many partners did not possess sufficient information to understand how tenuous their positions were.
Today’s attorneys have to consider other professional options and apply self-analysis in relation to their present circumstances, not only from the point of view of protecting their earning capacities, but also to maintain and develop a satisfying career. Attorneys willing to go through the self-analysis and learn from it can better manage their careers and plan their next move. Those unwilling to do so may find themselves out of control in changing environments.
For attorneys who seek to gain better control over their careers, career management professionals can help identify any problem or problems and suggest strategies through a variety of career counseling techniques: tests and inventories, autobiographical exercises and counseling sessions in which probing questions are asked.
For example, tests and inventories are useful because they provide insights that are not readily available, and they allow individuals to compare themselves to a normative group. Through autobiographical exercises, career management professionals can help attorneys, at least in part, uncover themes and skill patterns in their lives relevant to the career counseling process.
In the counseling sessions, the career management professional can help attorneys face the realities of the world of work and dispel common myths about it such as “A person is a job title rather than a person with specific abilities and skills that can be transferred from one position to another.” In addition, the sessions can provide attorneys with a better sense of how well their personal attributes fit their current positions or contemplated positions.
Self-directed attorneys, who are not seeking advice from a career management professional, must analyze their own skills, interests and personal work style in relation to their present and possible future situations. By doing so, they can better conceptualize which decisions, trade-offs and reasoned choices can maximize their own career satisfaction. In many cases, self-directed attorneys can clarify what changes need to be made in their professional lives by merely speaking to colleagues and friends and doing informational research.
Whether attorneys seek support from career management professionals or choose to self-analyze, it is clear that they must learn as much as possible about their skills, interests and personal styles in relation to their present situation. This information will provide the tools needed to take control over their careers rather than becoming victims controlled by external forces.
The second most important skill to master after self-analysis is that of developing and maintaining a practice. For the first several years of an attorney’s practice, the focus should be on the development of technical skills. Junior attorneys should try to go to firms that provide the broadest instruction and exposure to different types of work and are good fits for their personalities. After three or four years of practice, if not sooner, they should start to think about the second phase of their careers: developing a practice and bringing in business.
Cultivating relationships takes time, which is why even the most junior attorneys should begin thinking about successful colleagues from college or law school or social associations. If they cultivate those relationships, they may result in business in the future.
If a friend respects an attorney’s intelligence or judgment, then as the friend achieves prominence, he or she might choose the lawyer friend as counsel. Attorneys should take the time to do little favors for friends, answering discrete questions in their area of expertise. Friends will find ways to reciprocate by steering business to the law firm. This is a good way to develop mutually beneficial relationships and lay the foundation for future business.
Attorneys at the mid-to-senior level need to market actively. They should entertain prospective clients, write articles, make marketing presentations, look for speaking engagements, be involved in professional organizations and attend various social activities with or for potential clients. When the law firm does not support these activities, then from a career management perspective, attorneys should look for creative ways that prepare them for the future.
It seems clear that certain individuals have a higher level of innate ability for developing business. However, many law firms have formal training programs and seminars in which they attempt to teach business-generating skills to partners and other attorneys. These efforts have been generally unsuccessful unless the attorneys are coached and nurtured over time.
In addition, attorneys ought to have a great deal of curiosity about the industries they serve. They can build on knowledge of particular businesses, which usually comes from representing their clients, by matching their legal aptitudes and personality characteristics with the special needs of those industries. This is a very promising way for attorneys to establish a network of contacts and increase personal satisfaction and credibility in a particular field. It may also provide a good idea of what part or aspect of a specialty or field is being underserved.
In short, significant careers do not happen by chance. They happen by knowing oneself and one’s field well and by continuously managing the interface between them.
The practice of the New York City law firm has shifted to a business model and is unlikely to revert to the pre-1980’s model. Because the future is uncertain, all attorneys, including the big firm partners, must always think of themselves as a business within a business. They must constantly stake out opportunities to steer work to their firms while also self-analyzing to be sure that the environment in which they are working is satisfying.
Although a static environment may seem secure, it often is not. On the other hand, the greater volatility of the current law firm environment can be exciting. New opportunities and niches are constantly opening up and waiting to be filled.
Written by Sheryl A. Odentz who is president of Progress in Work LLC, a career management firm for attorneys. This article was published in the New York Law Journal on, Monday, June 24, 1996.