Lawyers Are Not Patient …

Effective March 15, the Howrey law firm, which once employed as many as 750 lawyers, dissolved. As in past megafirm failures … Brobeck, Altheimer, Thelen, the list goes on … there never is just one, but a variety of root causes that feed the primary death blow, an exodus of lawyers.   

In Howrey’s case as a litigation-focused firm, according to the firm’s CEO (quoted in the ABA Journal), up to 11% of the firm’s billable hours were devoted to contingency matters.  “Some people, including some fairly high-level people, sort of bailed on us when they didn’t get exactly what they wanted,” the CEO said.  “You have to ask your partners to be patient until it [contingency billing] pays off, and not everyone is patient enough.”

In pure contingency law firms, that’s exactly what every equity lawyer does, wait. Wait until the judgment or settlement is paid. Why should that be different with the Howrey firm? Lawyers working on contingency matters bring no money into the firm, yet are responsible for many dollars flowing out … in the form of lawyer and staff compensation and expenses advanced to sustain the lawsuit. And if the result of the case doesn’t benefit the firm, the loss can be substantial.

But, the lawyers of the firm knew that. Thus, the question, why is it now that there is objection? Though conjecture, apparently, Howrey partners wanted pure hourly billing, less contingency work  … and were uncomfortable with advancing costs for matters in which they were at risk.  They seemingly could not determine, to the satisfaction of enough, how to divide the compensation pool when revenues arrived out of sequence to the work performed connected with those revenues.

If fees to the firm based on contingency reached 11%, it’s almost like having one client exceed the 10% threshold, a level that I’ve said before is dangerous.  Control of this much money was essentially out of the partners’ hands, unless the firm only took on matters that were virtually sure things … which conversely would lessen the likelihood of a big contingency payout. 

Other factors to consider that would lessen the threat to my 10% rule is that it’s unlikely that any one matter reached 10%; if the intake decisions were wise, the firm benefited more than it suffered from periodic big revenue bumps; in today’s world of "value billing," the firm would be at the forefront of aligning its interests with those of its clients. The firm should have been able, with good cash flow management and a committed group of partners to the team concept, to marry both worlds of contingency and hourly billings. 

The ultimate lesson in this dissolution seems to be that Howrey fostered an environment of solo silos (with some lawyers piling up cost but poised to earn a great deal of money if "their" ship came in), not an environment where everyone was pulling for the whole (irrespective of how they brought in the revenue. 

Any firm that encourages lawyers to maximize their individual compensation may have fast near-term growth.  But approaching compensation as an institution makes for greater firm harmony and longevity of the firm as an institution … and, in my opinion, greater long-term value for all

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