The Wall Street Journal carried a column on November 11, 2013, “Big Law Mergers Questioned," that contained two blinding glimpses of the obvious – one explicit, one implicit.The explicit one was straightforward, yet seemed to elude the understanding of the writer:that in pursuing mergers to create ever-bigger organizations, law firms are simply following the paths of their clients.We saw this in the 1930s and 1940s and later when unions became larger in order to do battle with management. Today law firms are combining in order to be more respected, better received, and perceived as players in the corporate world. Small law firms supposedly can’t play in the same ballpark as a very large customer (corporate America).
Does merging law firms to make them bigger actually make them better?The answer is “yes” only when the parties have thought through what they want to accomplish and what synergies exist between them.One has to be old enough to recall that corporate America once thought that “bigger was better” when viewing itself.Then these conglomerates seemed to collapse of their own weight. The phrase, “getting back to core competencies,” became the watchword and large enterprises began breaking up into smaller units.
That’s where we get the second “blinding glimpse” – the smallest unit in a law firm is the lawyer. And corporate client after corporate client in the Journal article said that the individual lawyer is most important to them. “We hire lawyers, not law firms,” the GC of Hewlett Packard said flatly. There is some disagreement over this assertion.
Theoretically teams institutionalize the work done for a given client as they involve other firm lawyers in the delivery of legal services, even if one lawyer remains the client’s primary contact. But in a megafirm of thousands of lawyers, team members are interchangeable.
When you have a problem with your car, do you contact GM or Toyota headquarters, or the friendly mechanic at your neighborhood garage?Even neighborhood garages grow, but their size is infinitesimal compared to GM or Toyota. There is a limit to "bigger is better" beyond which "core competencies" begin to falter. Firms are kidding themselves if they think bigger by itself makes them better. And clients, often wanting to be close to the center of the law firm, will still engage a smaller, but yet large (regional) law firm.
Life After Law, What Will You Do For the Next 6000 Days? My soon- to-be-released book is a guide to why aging baby boomer lawyers should be planning for their next career. The ABA has concluded that 400,000 lawyers will retire in the next 10 years. That is equivalent to the entire membership of the ABA, the largest volunteer organization in the world!
According to a different report, without reference to law, 10,000 people retire daily!
Look for a dramatic change in our culture as we seek to learn how to live longer, productive lives in different careers. Of course, the economy will also change as older folks become the dominant consumers in this country.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, staff writer, Jacqueline Palank discusses the Justice Department’s attempt to control fees that bankruptcy lawyers seek. Creditors and employees may, at times, be a bit disgruntled by such fees. So, now, the U.S. Trustee Program appears to be entering the fray.
Before going further, it should be noted that i) any fee sought by an attorney must first be approved by the client going into bankruptcy; ii) the fee cannot be paid before a Bankruptcy Court Judge approves the fee request; iii) the legal fees most often are a pittance compared to the debts of the company and thus have little or no impact on either the creditors or the employees. In fact, the current proposal is limited to companies whose assets and debts exceed $50 million, hardly your “normal” bankruptcy.
The only reason for focusing on the legal fees is that this is a topic that makes good reading in the tabloids, including the WSJ. While the quoted hourly rate received by some attorneys seems high, by comparing this to the compensation received by incompetent CEOs and others in the C-suite offices, it is insignificant. Why don’t the tabloids focus on the cause of the bankruptcy? Why not focus on the compensation of the management team, oftentimes earning historically astronomically higher multiples compared the lowest paid employees of the company? Why not seek redress against the management that is responsible for bringing the company to its knees? Although this focus may be more important for us to understand how our economic system works, it clearly is not sexy enough to sell many papers.
The U.S. Trustee is proposing, according to the writer, several new approaches to control lawyers’ fees, including:
• Though the lawyer applicant must disclose his/her hourly rate now, the Department wants the lawyer to disclose the lowest, highest and average hourly rates the law firm charges in all its matters.
• The Department wants the lawyer applicant to create and disclose to the Court a budget for legal expenses. This budget would, necessarily, disclose to all involved, including the creditors who are adversaries of the bankrupt, the legal strategy to be engaged in by the client.
In the 1960s, the Supreme Court ruled that it was anti-competitive for bar associations to maintain a listing of suggested fees for different types of work. This listing, in particular, helped younger and newer lawyers set their fees at rates that were more in line with more senior lawyers. Not having such a list would compel lawyers to set their own fees, the theory being that lawyers would then be more competitive with one another to the consumers’ benefit. The Trustee by its first proposal ignores this. The existing disclosure already provides information that tends to be anti-competitive. Law firms can see what others are charging and price their services accordingly, causing rates to slowly increase over the years.
Intruding into practice areas, such as general business matters, estate planning, tax work, and other areas of work performed by the firms who also do bankruptcy work has no bearing on the special expertise of large company bankruptcy lawyers. No area of law other than bankruptcy requires such disclosure for court approval. Fees are left to be negotiated between attorney and client. Other than precedent, there is no reason disclosure should be made here either. But, the process should not be extended. “Transparency” is a bogus issue. This is not some backroom conspiracy. All the proceedings are public and must be approved by the Court before attorneys are paid anything.
Budgets are good. I recommend them to my attorney-clients with whom I consult. This is a process, however, between the client and the attorney. By requiring that these budgets, which reveal legal strategy, be made public, the U.S. Trustee is saying that bankrupt companies have no rights. They have no right to advocacy; they have no right to develop a strategy that might affect creditors’ claims; and they have no right of privacy. This is clearly contrary to the U.S. Constitution and our entire judicial system. While the bankrupts, and their inept management, may have proceeded down an economically unwise path, they still have rights to seek the best of what is left to them in their economic environment.
Don’t worry about the lawyers hourly rates once the bankruptcy petition is filed. They are regulated first, by the client, and second, by the Court. Who is watching the compensation of the management team before they enter bankruptcy? Why are they not punished with fines, or worse, for malfeasance and negligent management tactics? Why are they allowed to benefit so expansively at the expense of their workers? Why don’t the tabloids focus their sharp light there?
Oh, I forgot, the tabloids need to sell papers, they are part of the industrial complex that both Presidents Washington and Eisenhower warned us about as they left office.
From Lawyers USA, we learn that the American Bar’s Ethics Commission has recommended that states rules be changed to allow non-lawyers to own up to 25% of law firms.
Rules against lawyers sharing fees with non-lawyers might need to be loosened to allow U.S. firms to compete globally. The proposal says that any firm with non-lawyer owners must have “as its sole purpose providing legal services to clients.”
This is the foot in the door.The next thing you’ll see is Latham & Watkins, or other billion dollar law firm opening offices in Wal-Mart or Target stores for curbside service. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It will certainly bring the law to the people … And it will certainly change the perception of the law.
I’ve always maintained that the rules of professional conduct are controlled by the large firms, AmLaw 100 and 250. When their economic needs change, the rules get changed and the sole and small firm practitioners have to adapt accordingly. In other words, the rules are not made in a vacuum, not made because of their inherent righteousness or goodness. They change and are made to serve the economic interests of the few … oh, if the public is served, so much the better.
But if you’re a solo, watch out … your interests may not matter. Such has been the case in recent times when solos’ interests were not protected, in fact hurt, by changes in the rules .. But, here, to allow the larger firms to complete on a global scale, we see the rules begin to change and allow allied professions to join in the ownership of law firms, not merely as allied professionals independently serving the same client.
Economics control .. as always … even here in the rules of professional conduct.
Departures from large law firms continue. And more than one person is now asking what is the "normal" rate of departures? One estimate suggested 7%.
We are living in an environment that many people call a “new normal.” Our economy, as well as the legal community, has been turned upside down in the last couple of years. There is no ”typical” answer that has emerged yet. Departures are sometimes voluntary for better opportunities (or retirement) and sometimes involuntary where law firms are seeking to adjust their supply of lawyers with their clients’ demand.
As I mentioned in a recent interview in the New York Times, older lawyers are being asked to leave law firms when their productivity declines. That didn’t happen so frequently in the past. Generally, the age factor is only coincidental with the decrease in productivity. Though sometimes it is directly correlated because of a change in attitude by the experienced practitioner who wants to slow down and spend more time in other adventures. This tends to be a personal decision, not a trend. We have many lawyers in their 70s and 80s still active and capable contributors to their clients and the profession.
At the other end of the spectrum, newer lawyers who are not asked to become a partner in a firm believe their opportunities will be greater with another firm. They seek to make a lateral transfer from their existing firm to another one. The second law firm may accept them because they see a skilled practitioner, someone who received training at the expense of another law firm, who will fill a gap in their business model. This comes when they want to grow and enhance their capacity for clients or begin a new practice area to enhance their service offerings for existing clients. The nes lateral fits well under these circumstances.
Then, there are the new law school graduates who are finding the pipeline from education to practice being clogged up by the decrease in client demands and oversupply in some law firms. It will take several years for this phenomenon to adjust. Until then, I don’t think we can say there is a “typical” law firm departure rate.