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BigLaw: Flat Fees and the Internal Hedge Fund: A Next-Generation Business Model for Large Law Firms

By Liz Kurtz | Monday, December 19, 2011

Originally published on September 21, 2011 in our free BigLaw newsletter. Instead of reading BigLaw here after the fact, sign up now to receive future issues in realtime.

Partners and associates alike hate the drudgery of tracking their billable hours. Clients hate paying exorbitant hourly rates, always wondering whether that associate really spent 1.6 hours composing a letter, or 23 hours reviewing documents. We all agree that hourly billing stinks — except that all other pricing models (known as "alternative fee arrangements") seem to stink more — at least from the perspective of large law firms.

As some industry insiders have pointed out, fixed or flat fees present two concerns — whether the fee is too high, and whether the fee is too low. And, of course, the risk of the latter "concern" makes the thought of fixed fees a source of terror for partners. No one wants to become the next Brobeck or Howrey. Lawyers hate risk so despite its flaws, the billable hour is a soft, fluffy guarantee that in the unfortunate event a CD of documents ends up taking 200 hours to review instead of 100, the client will assume most of the cost of the extra time.

Enter the Internal Hedge Fund …

Fear not! Some of the great minds here at BigLaw have developed a way to make flat fee billing work for your firm, giving you a devastating competitive advantage over your rivals in an increasingly zero sum game.

We call it the "Internal Hedge Fund" (although, technically, it's more like "My Law Firm's Proprietary Trading Desk"). This new though admittedly not rocket science business model kills two birds with one stone.

The First Bird: Offsetting the Risk of Flat Fee Arrangements

Let's start with a few basics — what exactly is a hedge fund? I asked Michael Nelson who practiced law at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, moved in-house, switched gears and worked at a proprietary trading desk, and now manages hedge fund Thea Capital.

"The definition of a hedge fund has become very broad," says Nelson. "Traditionally, a hedge fund employed a strategy that literally 'hedged' investments so that, for example, if you were short on one position, you would be long on another. Nowadays, the term is used to describe a huge variety of funds, trading in just about anything, that are very actively managed."

Nelson contrasts the various hedge fund strategies with the "buy and hold" position usually taken by mutual funds. In addition, he says, hedge funds are characterized by a certain fee structure, which is usually "2 and 20," or a formula that compensates managers 2% of the assets under management and 20% of the fund's profits for the year.

As you may have gathered from news coverage of our current economic climate, a certain degree of mystique surrounds hedge funds. One reason could be their history of opaqueness. According to Nelson, hedge funds were once subject to very little oversight, although the regulatory environment is changing. In addition, hedge funds can be very risky, but also extremely financially rewarding.

But the sexiest facet of the hedge fund, perhaps, is its exclusivity. "The hardest thing about starting a hedge fund is raising the money," says Nelson. Traditionally, this meant that the hedge fund was the province of the uber-wealthy, or anyone talented enough to drum up the capital required to play high-stakes investment poker.

Enter the Internal Hedge Fund for large law firms. In our model, clients pay fees for litigation and other hard-to-price legal services up front, thereby supplying your firm with lots of cash. Maybe you price to perfection, maybe you underprice, maybe you overprice. No matter. Your money (i.e., the fees that your clients pay up front) is already hard at work being actively invested by the small team of experienced hedge fund managers with a proven track record working full-time at your firm or if you prefer at their own hedge fund with your firm as the sole or principal investor.

Given the potential returns, the risk — or reality — of offering legal services a little more cheaply than you would have liked is offset by the benefit of having all that paid-up-front "straw" to spin into hedge fund gold.

What About Ethics Rules?

But wait, you say — is this model ethical? Can you collect an up-front fee for deposit directly into your firm's internal hedge fund trading account before having performed a single legal service? The ethical ramifications of alternative fee arrangements have certainly been (and continue to be) explored, but our model contains an added wrinkle in that it contemplates completely bypassing retainers and client trust accounting.

According to legal ethics maven Eric Cooperstein, the answer is a definitive "maybe." "It depends on the jurisdiction," explains Cooperstein. For the most part, he says, lawyers can take a flat fee for certain kinds of defined services. In fact, it's routine in practice areas like bankruptcy and criminal defense. Charging up front for a specific service or a "package" of services should not be problematic Cooperstein adds, as long as the fees are "reasonable" under the factors defined in the ABA's Model Rules governing billing arrangements.

Hedge fund manager Nelson points out a few additional ethical pitfalls for adopters of the the internal hedge fund model to avoid — don't allow clients to direct investments, don't forget to thoroughly vet your internal hedge fund managers … and so forth. In fact, says Nelson, having the law firm vouch for the sterling credentials of its fund managers might greatly benefit the "branding" of the fund if you decide to invite others to invest.

The Second Bird: Put Underemployed Associates to Better Use

Nelson ends our interview with a clever idea. Your firm could make use of some of those underemployed associates, thereby killing the second bird.

"Lots of associates sit around at times twiddling their thumbs," Nelson notes. "Instead, they could conduct equity research." Think of it as the large firm equivalent of timesharing a jet. Your firm has lots of talent, some of which simply lies fallow in a down economy. Why not put it to good use? The downside — could these assignments result in higher attrition as associates given a taste of Wall Street leave the law to pursue a career in finance? It's hard to say, but we're hedging our bets.

How to Receive BigLaw
Many large firms have good reputations for their work and bad reputations as places to work. Why? Answering this question requires digging up some dirt, but we do with the best of intentions. Published first via email newsletter and later here on our blog, BigLaw analyzes the business practices, marketing strategies, and technologies used by the country's biggest law firms in an effort to unearth best and worst practices. The BigLaw newsletter is free so don't miss the next issue. Please subscribe now.

Topics: Accounting/Billing/Time Capture | BiglawWorld | Law Office Management

BigLaw: How Will a Double-Dip Recession Impact Large Law Firms?

By Liz Kurtz | Thursday, December 15, 2011

Originally published on September 6, 2011 in our free BigLaw newsletter. Instead of reading BigLaw here after the fact, sign up now to receive future issues in realtime.

I recently received an assignment from BigLaw editor Neil Squillante: "The recent volatility of the stock market may prove a harbinger of another recession. In fact, some pundits think a recession has already begun. How will large law firms handle a double dip?"

Have large law firms learned from Great Bloodletting of 2009-2010? Are they better equipped to handle another downturn? Or will they again resort to the scorched-earth layoff strategy that resulted in 10,000 or so top-of-class law school graduates becoming a lost generation?

Well, who better to pose these questions to than Bruce MacEwen, a master of law firm economics and the erudite thinker behind Adam Smith, Esq. and JDMatch? Like a Federal Reserve chairman, MacEwen takes a measured view of the situation.

We Do Not Control Our Destiny

"The kind of volatility we're seeing in the stock market is, I believe, perfectly rational" (he says professorially), given that "we're being buffeted by good news and bad news of great magnitude on what seems like an accelerating time-frame." That said, he adds, "I would not take whatever the stock market does any given week or any given month as meaning it has any unusual forecasting prowess. There doesn't seem to be a solid trend established and until that comes I think it's predicting nothing but uncertainty, which we're acutely aware of already."

As to whether disaster lurks around the bend, MacEwen delivers an informed maybe. "Six months ago I would have said a double-dip recession was extremely unlikely," he notes. "Now I think it's a 50/50 bet." Why? Well, among other things, lots of Americans are still underwater on their home mortgages, and unemployment is not only historically high, but appears poised to remain that way. We face perhaps a decade of 'supra-normal' unemployment," MacEwen says. "Many lost jobs are simply not ever going to come back."

What does this mean for law firms? According to MacEwen, "the most important thing to remember about our industry is that we do not control our destiny." Thus, "when consumers stop buying and businesses stop investing in growth and hiring, our clients are hurt," both by the decline in top-line revenues, and the simple reality of decreased workloads, which result in a decreased demand for legal services. And, of course, that also means that, if they go into a second recession, "we will inevitably go with them."

What About Large Firms Jobs?

Even if growth declines, we probably won't see "stealth layoffs," or the kind of bloodletting we saw a few years ago, right? Wrong according to MacEwen.

If a second recession comes our way, MacEwen believes, more layoffs are bound to follow. "Large firms are certainly better equipped to weather a recession now than in 2007," he opines, "but they have also learned the virtue of quickly paring capacity to match demand, and that's a lesson no one has forgotten." The pressure to maintain profits per partner is on, he points out, and law firms will do what they must to keep numbers up.

But doesn't that mean law firms are leaner, meaner, and better at staffing nowadays?

"Firms are as lean as I've ever seen them," MacEwen says. "Partly this was because the recession forced them to address deadwood which they had the luxury of letting accumulate in richer times. They won't be that undisciplined again, I predict." In addition, he notes, firms are configuring themselves to be more responsive to economic flux by exploring "all kinds of different career models" — beyond just outsourcing and the use of temporary attorneys.

MacEwen lists non-partner track associates, flex-time, and "onshoring" (the use of lawyers in inexpensive cities like Dayton, Fargo, and Wheeling) as staffing alternatives that many previously bloated firms now use to stay lean and nimble.

At the end of the day, however, MacEwen reminds us of the bleak truth. "Nothing will prevent layoffs on whatever scale it takes to get capacity in line with demand," he says. "We have lost our virginity on that score."

A Postscript Arrives at the Same Conclusion by Another Means

Apparently, my questions touched a nerve in MacEwen. After my interview and upon further reflection, he published an article — A Double Dip Recession? — in which he changed his analysis though not his conclusion. MacEwen now believes that although the last recession officially ended according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, other metrics suggest we're still in a recession. Thus, a double dip recession won't have any impact among large firms. In other words, welcome to the new normal — don't expect large firms to allow capacity to exceed demand even if that means layoffs, stealth or otherwise.

How to Receive BigLaw
Many large firms have good reputations for their work and bad reputations as places to work. Why? Answering this question requires digging up some dirt, but we do with the best of intentions. Published first via email newsletter and later here on our blog, BigLaw analyzes the business practices, marketing strategies, and technologies used by the country's biggest law firms in an effort to unearth best and worst practices. The BigLaw newsletter is free so don't miss the next issue. Please subscribe now.

Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management | Technology Industry/Legal Profession

BigLaw: Management Lessons and More From Willkie Farr & Gallagher's 22-Year Chairman Jack Nusbaum

By Liz Kurtz | Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Originally published on June 21, 2011 in our free BigLaw newsletter. Instead of reading BigLaw here after the fact, sign up now to receive future issues in realtime.

Lawyers never rise from working in the mailroom to running the law firm — at least not without a three-year leave of absence to attend law school. But Horatio Alger stories exist in our profession. And they're just as inspiring because very few lawyers rise to the pinnacle of the world's largest law firms.

Jack Nusbaum not only achieved this feat, but then bypassed rival law firms one by one on a meteoric climb up the AmLaw 200 during his 22 years at the helm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher.

Like just about everyone reading this newsletter, Nusbaum became an associate after law school. But his career path quickly diverged from the norm as he became a partner just five years later. A gifted lawyer, manager, and rainmaker (the legal profession's equivalent of a triple double), Nusbaum cultivated important clients, worked on matters of great significance, and found himself appointed chairman of Willkie in 1987.

It's never easy to manage but it's certainly easier when times are good. Willkie emerged from the 2008-09 recession relatively unscathed while many of its peers endured a bloodbath the likes of which the legal profession had never experienced. Indeed, some large firms continue to struggle to this day. In January 2010, the New York Law Journal reported that Willkie "had avoided the layoffs and associate deferrals that have stung other firms." The article credits Nusbaum with a diversification strategy he began putting into place after the legal profession's second worst recession in the early 1990s.

Accordingly, we asked Nusbaum if he might share his observations about the large firm world and the most salient management lessons he accumulated over the course of his tenure as chairman. He accepted our invitation. Read and heed BigLaw subscribers.

Get a Head Start and Seize Opportunities

While Nusbaum spent many years at the top of a legal powerhouse, he is strikingly modest about his own accomplishments, including his startlingly fast rise to partnership. But how exactly did he achieve that feat? I had to ask.

By the time Nusbaum graduated from law school (an event, he jokes, that pre-dates the invention of the automobile), he had already worked at Willkie for three years — though not in the mailroom. He was working as a fiduciary accountant at the firm, planning to attend school at night and eventually work at a large accounting firm. When a partner suggested that he instead attend law school during the day, and design his work schedule around classes, Nusbaum agreed.

He attended Columbia Law School while working flexible hours at the firm. The lawyers for whom he worked — as an accountant — took notice, and began asking him to take on matters outside the realm of accounting. Before long, Nusbaum was a de facto junior associate. "I had a head start at practicing," he says modestly, recalling how even as a junior member of the firm, he would receive an assignment along with instructions to "get a younger lawyer" to assist him.

There's No Substitute for Face Time With Clients

In 1987 when a senior partner left the firm, Nusbaum took over as its chairman. "The most difficult time was the beginning," he says, noting that "Willkie Farr was a very nervous firm" when he ascended to its leadership. One departing partner had taken a great deal of business with him, and the firm's biggest client, Shearson Lehman, was in the process of "imploding."

How did Nusbaum approach the task at hand? "The real key to holding the firm together," he realized, "was holding the clients together." Nusbaum attributes his ability to do this in part to luck, but also to his instinct for inspiring confidence. Nusbaum felt that top clients had good reason to stay with the firm, and recalls how he went about personally visiting each of them to convince them that the service for which Willkie was known would not diminish despite personnel changes. His outreach to clients worked.

Leadership Requires Moral Authority

Nusbaum does not have to think long or hard about what makes a managing partner successful. "The most important element," he says, "is moral authority."

Why is moral authority the most essential arrow in the managing partner's quiver? Among other things, he explains, a partner at the top of a horizontal organization like a law firm is first among his peers, and lacks the dictatorial power (or, as Nusbaum more diplomatically phrases it, the "real authority") to force his partners to do much of anything. That's especially true at a firm like Willkie with luminaries such as former New York Governor Mario Cuomo among its ranks. There are no Steve Jobs in the legal world.

"Lawyers tend to be Type A personalities," says Nusbaum, "and Type A personalities tend to approach things with a certain degree of skepticism. To get law firm partners with skeptical, Type A personalities to accept decisions, you need to establish moral authority."

No easy prescription exists for acquiring such gravitas, but Nusbaum equates moral authority and credibility in a manner of speaking. "You have to be good at what your partners do," he explains. "That means not only being a talented, well-respected lawyer," but it also requires that you "understand what they do," so that they feel you have thoroughly considered the decisions that affect them.

That sounds reasonable enough, but it must have been challenging at a large firm like Willkie given its many practice groups, right? Not for Nusbaum whose background lies in transactional work, including mergers and acquisitions.

"The difference between the disciplines is highly overrated," he says. His belief is that if a lawyer is "good in one practice area, he or she can be good at another." The common denominator among the practice areas is having the ability to "figure out issues, and being skilled at persuasion," Nusbaum posits. "Whether you're using those skills to communicate with a judge, with opposing counsel, or with your peers," he adds, "is irrelevant."

What General Counsel Really Want

In response to the often-posed question of whether clients hire firms or lawyers, Nusbaum responds, with a laugh, "Yes."

"As legal practice grows more specialized," he explains, clients are drawn to hire lawyers with established expertise in a particular practice area. This tendency reflects the growing power of general counsel who don't want to be criticized for failing to find the best lawyer for the job.

But, he observes, while "at the end of the day, it starts with a particular lawyer, it doesn't end there." The best lawyer, he explains, is often the one with the best team. "If an excellent lawyer is with a major firm, it gives clients a comfort level" that is invaluable.

The Changing Landscape of Large Law Firms

After more than four decades as a large firm insider, Nusbaum is uniquely qualified to assess the ways in which our world has changed. Among the most pronounced trends he identifies is the evolution of law as a business — fueled in his opinion by American Lawyer's rankings, changing client expectations, and the rising prominence of general counsel.

Nusbaum explains that corporate bosses used to hire a law firm themselves. A company's general counsel simply did not occupy the role they do today. But, in recent years, "more highly qualified lawyers became GCs, and they are much, much more discerning than the average boss." One result of this development is the diminution if not outright disappearance of client loyalty and therefore, the need to practice in a way that reflects the intense competition in the legal marketplace.

While older colleagues may "grumble" about this shift in power, and long for the days of the "relationship partner," Nusbaum looks on the bright side. He points to the efficiencies made possible by better technology. "It gives us an ability to practice law at a speed that simply wasn't possible before," he says, and with a greater degree of thoroughness.

His enthusiasm, however, comes with a caveat. "Technology places a much greater burden on the older generation to train new lawyers, and make sure they understand the concepts they're dealing with," Nusbaum warns. While technology facilitates research, document drafting, and communication with clients, Nusbaum is insistent about the critical role of training.

"We don't want young lawyers who are just mechanics, but don't know how to drive the car," he says. "Technology allows us, on one hand, to practice without the fear that you've missed something, whether it's a typo or a case." On the other hand, he continues, young lawyers need training and judgment to use these tools effectively.

Knowledge Is a Journey

As I wrap up my interview, Nusbaum has some additional words of wisdom.

First, lawyers — junior, senior, young, old — would do well to realize that you'll never know it all. Although some practitioners complain about the need for CLE, Nusbaum views it as a positive requirement, which "forces you to constantly re-learn your trade." Moreover, he adds, "it forces you to teach young lawyers, which is a service to both the person learning and the people being taught."

Second, lawyers should never underestimate the importance of watching others, whether by sitting in the boardroom or the courtroom. He describes the doggedness with which he watched his mentors, and how much he learned by observing their interactions with clients, their personal styles, and the arguments they made — or didn't make.

And, as one who had valuable mentors, Nusbaum believes in the power of inter-generational teaching. "There's an old saying that 'the fish rots from the head,'" he says. "Don't ask me how it gets done, but it gets done — the knowledge gets passed on from generation to generation." Otherwise, firms like Willkie would not survive.

Sometimes, the process of teaching and learning is easy to identify. For example, Nusbaum says, "the best mentors are those who will sit down with a brief or a contract, go through it with care, and explain what's good and bad about it." Of course, he adds, "this is not entirely selfless because you, as the mentor, will be working with this person again."

Other times, the process of passing on knowledge, values, and professional skill may be more abstract. The higher-than-average rates of attorney retention at Willkie may be one such example. Nusbaum describes the firm as one that has always inspired loyalty among its ranks. "I've been here for forty-plus years," he says, "and the attorneys who are running the firm now were summer associates."

What's the secret? He pauses, before answering with characteristic firmness. "Giving people the opportunity to do stimulating, economically rewarding, good work," he says, and then adds, "We intensely foster the desire to make this a home for life." For Nusbaum, at least, there's no place like home.

How to Receive BigLaw
Many large firms have good reputations for their work and bad reputations as places to work. Why? Answering this question requires digging up some dirt, but we do with the best of intentions. Published first via email newsletter and later here on our blog, BigLaw analyzes the business practices, marketing strategies, and technologies used by the country's biggest law firms in an effort to unearth best and worst practices. The BigLaw newsletter is free so don't miss the next issue. Please subscribe now.

Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management

BigLaw: Women in Large Law Firms: The Enemy Within?

By Liz Kurtz | Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Originally published on March 1, 2011 in our free BigLaw newsletter. Instead of reading BigLaw here after the fact, sign up now to receive future issues in realtime.

Last spring, I published in BigLaw, Large Firms Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, which focused on the ongoing struggle for gender parity in large law firms, and on the issues that continue to render the large firm environment hostile to women despite our significant presence in the legal profession (and, for the record, in every other notable field of human endeavor except the MLB, NFL, and NHL). Subscribers were quick to share their reactions, relating stories of perpetual work-life imbalance, pay inequity, and the barriers faced by ambitious women who toil in the unforgiving vineyards of large firms.

A few months later, I addressed in Female Lawyers Just Want to Have Fun But a Good Man Is Hard to Find the grim plight of all the single ladies — or at least those who happen to be law firm associates — who attempt to navigate a world far more hostile than that of the large firm — the dating scene. Again, subscribers responded in force, sharing tales of woe, insights on the perils of looking for Mr. Right, and general lamentations on the apparent incompatibility of love and law — or, specifically, biglaw.

The responses I received were kind, supportive, and had the "thank you for sharing!" genuineness that made me thankful the sisterhood of lady lawyers. In other words, when it comes to the challenges facing women in large firms, we're all in this thing together, right? Right?

The Enemy of My Enemy Is … My Enemy?

To quote a most unwomanly source, "Not so fast, my friend".

Exhibit A: This recent email from a BigLaw subscriber, whom we'll call "Lucy." Lucy writes:

"I appreciate your efforts (and those of others in the media) to bring to light the difficulties of being a woman in the man's world of biglaw, whether in terms of pay, workplace dynamics, or the perpetual challenge of balancing life and work. But can we talk about the elephant in the room, please? It's not always 'the man' who is keeping us down. In my experience, the enemy isn't necessarily the guys you work with: it's the other women. I've talked to a number of girlfriends about this and, basically, survey says: women make crappy bosses. They make crappy mentors. Unfortunately, they often make crappy colleagues. Don't get me wrong: I work with women who I admire and look to for professional guidance. But don't tell them I said that."

First of all: thank you for sharing, Lucy. Alas, I wish I could tell you that your experience, though unfortunate, was a singular aberration. Apparently, it's not.

Can We All Just Get Along? Um, No.

Exhibit B: An email from Dawn, another BigLaw subscriber and correspondent. Says Dawn:

"When I started at my current firm, I was no stranger to the difficulties of associate life. But, after years of working in biglaw, I knew what to expect, and I felt pretty comfortable with my ability to handle the typical crap — long hours, condescending bosses, the constant struggle to balance work and life, and the general disregard, at the firm, for those efforts. What continues to surprise me, though, is the relentless criticism from one of the female partners I work with. It's not the nitpicking about copy or the constant weekend assignments that bother me: it's the fact that she can't stop reminding me that every success I have is because of the way I look. If I win a motion in court, she immediately asks me what I was wearing. If I recount an exchange with opposing counsel in which I feel that I did well, she'll say something like, 'Well, they know what you look like, don't they?' She's worse than a man. Ladies! Can't we all just get along? Again: apparently not. But why?"

Well, posits Veronica (a senior associate at a large firm in Chicago), the oft-cited statistics and studies about the hardships of life as a woman in the big, male world of law may offer an explanation. "When it comes to large law firms, women are competing for scarce resources, too," she says. "Partners aren't being made the way they once were, and women partners are still a fraction of the number that are. It may not be a conscious calculation, but women are probably more likely to view their immediate competition as other women — whether they are or not. Unfortunately, that attitude is not conducive to team play, "You go, Girl!"-style support, or solidarity within the ranks."

Another subscriber — large firm partner Jessica — expands on this point. "All this talk of 'gender parity' is well and good," she told me recently, "but let's face it: women are different than men, which means that they work, react, and process experiences differently. Women tend to take criticism more personally, for example." She hesitates before continuing. "I'm going to be lambasted for saying this," she warns, "but we also tend to let jealousy and insecurity color that process of personalization, even if the criticism is totally innocuous."

"It's true," says Deanna (a large firm associate with whom I spoke) when I tell her about Jessica's take on things. "There may be a dark, ugly seed of jealously lurking in even the most outwardly accomplished female professionals, which was probably planted there in high school. Women look at other women — especially if they're younger, more attractive, or particularly popular with male co-workers — and, instead of being happy for their success, feel threatened. I hesitate to say this, but if there's nothing legitimate to criticize, we tend to revert to the old standbys: she's a tramp, and that skirt makes her butt look fat."

According to my informal poll, women at all levels of the biglaw hierarchy share this deeply catty — and apparently deeply shameful — urge. Though many agreed that women often let personal bias based on nonprofessional qualities (such as looks, age, and perceived sex appeal to male coworkers) color their professional opinion of female colleagues, none wanted to be identified as doing so. Said one associate, who is struggling with a female supervisor, "Every encounter we have feels like a tense deposition. I wish we could just stop the dep and get a ruling from the judge that we're BOTH pretty."

Run With the Pack, Not Against It

What, if anything, can we do to ease the intra-squad squabbling? Jessica, the partner, suggests that women — at all levels — focus on the basics. "Don't play up your sexuality at work," she says. "Don't gossip about your female coworkers. Don't act differently around the men in your office than you do around the women." Most importantly, she adds, "Be nice! Make friends with women you work with. Women tend to circle one another like wary animals. Don't be afraid to make the first friendly overture — it's not a sign of weakness."

Thank you, Jessica. We'd love to hear your thoughts, BigLaw subscribers, so click the Comment link below.

How to Receive BigLaw
Many large firms have good reputations for their work and bad reputations as places to work. Why? Answering this question requires digging up some dirt, but we do with the best of intentions. Published first via email newsletter and later here on our blog, BigLaw analyzes the business practices, marketing strategies, and technologies used by the country's biggest law firms in an effort to unearth best and worst practices. The BigLaw newsletter is free so don't miss the next issue. Please subscribe now.

Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management

BigLaw: The Wimpification of Large Firm Partners

By Liz Kurtz | Thursday, March 3, 2011

Originally published on January 31, 2011 in our free BigLaw newsletter. Instead of reading BigLaw here after the fact, sign up now to receive future issues in realtime.

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published a provocative essay by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua entitled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. Based on her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua's essay shocked readers with her unapologetic espousal of the "Chinese way" of child-rearing. Among other things, "Chinese" mothering employs a combination of discipline, tough love, and tactics "that would seem unimaginable — even legally actionable — to Westerners." A similar schism exists between the large law firms that once roamed corporate America and their decidedly less imposing successors today.

The senior partners in your firm secretly bemoan this lost world. These cagey, grizzled veterans were raised in a professional environment in which, for example, associates never would have complained about whether the firm respected "work-life balance." Why? Because associates weren't women, or attempting to balance work and life, and would have known that any whining about "balance" (or even "life") would have prompted a look that could kill from their superiors. Get a few drinks in these guys and they'll sum up what they think of Generation X and Y partners with one word — wimps.

If it didn't violate the firm's policies pertaining to sensitivity, diversity, and non-discrimination, they would still train associates in the same glorious tradition. They will tell you this with the leg of an adversary, whom they have nearly finished chewing into digestible pieces, dangling from one corner of their mouth. They'd also tell you …

True Partners Versus Wimpy Partners

A lot of people wonder how large law firms used to raise such stereotypically successful lawyers. They wonder how we produced so many document review whizzes and motion practice prodigies. Well, as associates we were never allowed to:

• Attend a sleepover with non-cohabitating partners on a weeknight.

• Have a "playdate," if "playdate" is defined as "non-billable activity."

• Go to our kids' school plays.

• Complain about not being able to go to their kids' school plays.

• Watch TV or, heaven forbid, play computer games (although, in my day, computers were the size of a two-car garage).

• Obtain a verdict, reach a settlement, or arrive at any other disposition in a matter that was unsatisfactory to the client.

• Not become the top lawyer in every subject except admiralty or anything related to international human rights.

• Play any instrument as it might distract from the work of the firm.

Conversely, I know many biglaw partners, almost always born after 1960, who are not cut from the same sturdy cloth from which I and my generation were hewn, by choice or otherwise. These partners — "Wimpy Partners" or "WPs," stand in sharp contrast to us — the Greatest Generation of Law Firm Warriors. That's right! We viewed litigation as battle. We knew how to hunker down in a foxhole. And we definitely knew how to carry a heavy load 26 miles, uphill, in the driving snow. Because we were men of true grit, I shall call us "True Partners."

Look at the list above. It would make most WPs blanch. Even when WPs think they're being strict, they usually don't come close to being like True Partners. For example, my WP colleagues who consider themselves strict make their associates work for at least a few hours on Saturdays. That's easy. It's the overnight shift, and the wee hours of Sunday morning, that separate the men from the boys.

I can't entirely blame WPs though as they're a product of their times. True Partners could get away with things that WPs can't. Once when I was young, I was less-than-reverential to a senior partner, who angrily called me "garbage." It worked. I felt deep regret. But it didn't damage my self-esteem. I knew exactly how highly he really thought of me, since I had billed 4,700 hours the previous year.

True Partners could do things that would seem unimaginable — even legally actionable — to WPs. True Partners could say to an associate, "Hey fatty — lose some weight." By contrast, WPs have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of "health" lest they hurt someone's "feelings" and incur liability. These fat associates then end up in therapy for eating disorders and a negative self-image, and require both time off and the expenditure of health benefits.

True Partners could order associates to win. WPs can only ask their associates to try their best. True Partners could say, "You're lazy. Your adversaries are getting ahead of you." By contrast, WPs have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they're not disappointed about how the young lawyers they hired, and rewarded with oversized salaries, turned out.

When it comes to training associates, True Partners produced lawyers who displayed excellence in their written work, mastery as oral advocates, and professional rainmaking success. True Partners understood that nothing was fun. If you were good at a task, it might have more enjoyable aspects, but that wasn't the point. The point was simply to be good, and to get good at anything you have to work hard.

Three Key Differentiators

I've thought about how True Partners could get away with what we did. I see three big differences between the True Partner and WP mind-sets.

First, I've noticed that WPs are extremely anxious about their associates' self-esteem. They worry about how their associates will feel if they fail so they constantly try to reassure their associates about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance at an oral argument or in a settlement negotiation. True Partners assumed strength, not fragility, and as a result we behaved differently.

Second, True Partners believed that associates owed them everything. It probably had something to do with the favor extended to these associates when they were hired in exchange for a biweekly paycheck and a chance to work at our venerable institution. Associates would spend their lives repaying this favor by working tirelessly. By contrast, I don't think most WPs have the same view of associates being permanently indebted to their employers. This attitude strikes me as a terrible deal for the WP.

Third, True Partners believed that they knew what was best for associates and, therefore, could override the associates' own desires and preferences. WPs worry a lot about their associates. But as a partner, one of the worst things you can do for your associates is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.

WPs try to respect their associates' individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, True Partners believed that the best way to protect associates was by preparing them for the future, which, unless your work was stellar and your hours considerable, was destined to be brutish, nasty, and short.

Once you obtain these skills, work habits, and inner confidence of a True Partner, no one can ever take them away from you. Should they attempt to do so, you will have the tools with which to tear them a new one.

How to Receive BigLaw
Many large firms have good reputations for their work and bad reputations as places to work. Why? Answering this question requires digging up some dirt, but we do with the best of intentions. Published first via email newsletter and later here on our blog, BigLaw analyzes the business practices, marketing strategies, and technologies used by the country's biggest law firms in an effort to unearth best and worst practices. The BigLaw newsletter is free so don't miss the next issue. Please subscribe now.

Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management

The BigLaw Yearbook: Highlights and Lowlights of 2010

By Liz Kurtz | Monday, December 20, 2010

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Originally published on December 13, 2010 in our free BigLaw newsletter.

Ah, 2010, we hardly knew ye! As the year winds down in a flurry of drunken holiday parties and year-end bill collecting, we ask: Was it was a very good year for large firms, as Frank Sinatra might have sang? Or should we describe it in more modest terms? What is the takeaway from a year in which venerable institutions such as lockstep compensation and the billable hour found themselves under attack?

Well, BigLaw readers, while we would like to present an Academy Awards-style photo montage (set to stirring music, of course) commemorating the major events that transpired in 2010, we're scribes, not auteurs. So you'll have to settle for this text-based look back at the year that was.

Work-Life Imbalance

Work-life balance loomed large in 2010 — not because anyone actually achieved it, but for the ongoing conversation about it. Are we any closer to figuring out how to make biglaw life work?

Sadly, despite the significant volume of collective wisdom published in the blawgosphere this year by luminaries such as Bruce MacEwen and Vivia Chen, we still have a long way to come, baby.

If you're looking for the low-down-and-dirty on the competing demands of work, life, and love in the world of biglaw, check out this BigLaw column on why "J" and "D" may be scarlet letters for all the single ladies of law.

Not to mention this biopic (alas, also text-based) of the associate-turned-therapist who tends to the wounded psyches of law students-turned-associates, and this checklist to verify that you're truly ready to give up on the unicorn-like mythical notion of "balance" and leave biglaw behind.

Partner Paroxysms

While 2010 didn't feature the degree of bloodletting that characterized 2009, the legal profession remains a changing landscape. While some young, optimistic associates hope to dodge the "Of Counsel" bullet and make it to the putative promised land of partnership, it aint what it used to be.

In 2010 partners — perhaps more so than associates — felt both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.As we discussed earlier this year, gone are the days when "partnership" and "security" were synonyms. The trend toward bulkier partnership ranks in recent years led, this year, to a widespread, recession-inspired culling of the herd, intended to combat the phenomenon of "overpartnering."

But 2010 was also the year in which some brave souls left the comfort of biglaw partnership behind to pursue entrepreneurship — like former Latham & Watkins mega-partner Joshua Stein whom we profiled in this newsletter. Stein is one of several large-firm superstars to go it alone, suggesting that the agility and autonomy of a marquee solo practice, not to mention the freedom to have Ice Cream Fridays five days a week, may make BigSolo the new biglaw.

Of course, if solo practice isn't your thing, you can always hang around and torture associates. But don't go crying to Legal Tease when you discover that associates hate you.


Have we reached a consensus on alternative billing, legal process outsourcing, or social media? I didn't think so. Let's just continue to talk amongst ourselves. BigLaw has, of course, discussed these perpetually hot topics since, oh, 2009.

Earlier this year, we explored why biglaw breeds bill padders and how to curtail it before someone at your firm ends up taking a perp walk.

We also brought you this interview with Jonathan Goldstein, a former large firm lawyer who helped build one of the world's largest LPO providers and then sell it to Thomson-Reuters.

Wondering why so many of our jobs — even our legal jobs — are being outsourced in the first place? Maybe it's because large firms, like American school children, are way behind the technology curve. The results of a study released this spring show that large firms are slow to adopt even basic technologies that can increase efficiency..

As for social media … we don't know what to tell you. Whether it's a good marketing tool or not remains up for debate each week in BlawgWorld, but one thing is certain: If you're going to swim in the Internet's Zuckerberg-infested waters, take these steps to protect your online reputation.

Bonuses, Reviews, and Layoffs Oh My

The thrill of an annual bonus brings with it the concomitant anxiety of your pending annual review. While it might be too late, we have a word of advice on how to prevent a bad review — avoid being a jerk or worse.

Of course, when you receive your review, you may need help translating the coded phrases and idioms unique to the dialect known as biglaw speak. Look no further than BigLaw columnist Legal Tease's explanation of what partners really mean when they commend your "positive attitude."

Alas, if you find yourself on the wrong side of a layoff, check out these tips, for how to handle that first, inevitably awkward, encounter with the jerk who canned you.

Finally, BigLaw readers: We wish you a very happy, healthy, and successful New Year — when we'll see you back here.

How to Receive BigLaw
Many large firms have good reputations for their work and bad reputations as places to work. Why? Answering this question requires digging up some dirt, but we do with the best of intentions. Published first via email newsletter and later here on our blog, BigLaw analyzes the business practices, marketing strategies, and technologies used by the country's biggest law firms in an effort to unearth best and worst practices. The BigLaw newsletter is free so don't miss the next issue. Please subscribe now.

Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management

BigLaw: Talking Points for a Post-Layoff Encounter With Your Former Boss

By Liz Kurtz | Tuesday, November 30, 2010

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Originally published on November 29, 2010 in our free BigLaw newsletter.

First, they spot you in a crowded room. You flirt. You exchange contact information. Eventually you meet in a more intimate setting where you chat for just long enough to size each other up. Before you know it, you're being introduced to the rest of the gang. Don't they seem nice? Aren't they just the kind of folks you could see yourself spending some serious time with? And it turns out that they like you, too! They welcome you into their well-appointed inner sanctum, where you spend a blissful summer dining well, basking in praise, and admiring the fabulous new accessories you can suddenly afford. But then a year or so later everything changes.

Is There a Cure for the Post-Summertime Blues?

Ah, the thrill of a new relationship! The all-consuming immersion. The heady sense of possibility. The flush of novelty … and, of course, the big paycheck. We're talking of course about those early days at the large law firm where you summered and accepted an offer.

The lusty beginning eventually gives way to something a bit more measured — perhaps a relationship based on mutual respect, or more likely, one characterized by simmering resentment and financial dependence.

No matter that you think of yourself as a steely pragmatist who sys things like, "It's only a job," or "I'm just trying to pay down my loans because what I really want to do is [insert noble public interest job here]." The trappings of biglaw — the exaggerated sense of importance, the cushy surroundings, and the fluffy paycheck — make it hard to leave despite the enervating and unfulfilling existence.

Which is precisely why, when hard times come a-knockin' and the firm delivers the unfortunate news of your pending unemployment with a blandly unapologetic "It's not you, it's me," speech, it's hard not to feel like a jilted lover.

Like all jilted parties, you probably go through a painful recovery. You cry. You mope. You cold call headhunters. You send out 13,000 resumes. At some point, Starbucks calls to tell you that you're overqualified for the position. You wonder if sending a resume there in the first place made you look desperate, but why dwell on it?

Sooner or later, you're back on your feet, or at least leaving the house in the morning to go to an actual office, rather than the table in the back corner of the Starbucks to which you applied. You don't need that stinking law firm! You don't need those jerks!

Alas, sooner or later, you'll run into those jerks. With any luck, you'll know ahead of time — say, if you're going to a professional conclave where you're likely to come face to face with your former colleagues. This scenario is far preferable to an unanticipated street encounter — during which you're invariably clad in sweatpants, eating a Starbucks marble pound cake, and sobbing — as it gives you time to think strategically.

Have a Ball

Indeed, such was the case with an associate whom we'll call Cinderella — a pseudonym that — wink wink — has nothing to do with the fact that Cindy often found herself trapped in the office toiling away while her evil "stepsisters" engaged in frolic and detour. In any event, Cindy was a devoted associate who fell victim to the layoffs that swept our profession last year. After a hard landing, uncushioned by even a handkerchief-sized severance pillow to break her fall, Cindy found work at another firm. Suffice to say that, between a massive pay cut and a career "readjustment," Cindy's life is very different today.

Cindy called me recently to say that she would be attending a professional function at which she expected to see not just any old colleague, but her Former Boss (FB). What, she wanted to know, should she say to the woman who had worked her like a pack mule before kicking her unceremoniously to the curb? What should she avoid saying? What if she got wasted and threw a drink in her former boss's face? "I don't know," I told her. "Just make sure you look TOTALLY HOT." "We're not talking about my ex-boyfriend," Cindy reminded me with an exasperated sigh. Then she asked me to consider the following conversation starters, points, and comments, all of which she hoped to make part of the encounter.

1. "Oh, Hi! I Didn't Recognize You Without Your Axe!"

In case you didn't catch her drift, Cindy is referring to the axe used by her FB to remove associate bios (such as Cindy's) from the firm Web site. My advice: Take the high road. Being canned — even as a result of the worst economic downturn in 50 years — can be a demoralizing experience. Why compound matters by wearing your humiliation on your sleeve? Practice the following mantra: "I left to pursue other opportunities. I left to pursue other opportunities. I left to pursue …"

Interestingly, the laws of nature provide that Cindy's FB is due some humiliation of her own. While it would be immature and unprofessional for Cindy to cause such humiliation (no pig's blood dumped on FB's head from a rafter in the conference center's meeting space), Cindy is under no affirmative obligation to prevent mild embarrassment. Thus, if FB happens to walk out of the ladies' room with her pantyhose tucked into the back of her skirt (as she was wont to do when Cindy worked for her), Cindy need not feel bound to point out the, um, "inadvertent disclosure."

2. "The Biggest Challenge of My New Job Is Figuring Out What to Do With All the Extra Money!"

I know that Cindy has taken a massive pay cut. You know that Cindy has taken a massive pay cut. But does FB need to know? While traditional notions of fair play and justice might have required Cindy the Associate to be forthcoming with FB, no such standard applies to the person who issues your walking papers. So what's the harm in a little white lie?

Thus, when it comes to money, my advice: Take the low road. While Cindy might want to tone her wording down a bit (since talking about one's salary is, after all, in poor taste), it couldn't hurt to work in an innocuous comment that communicates the same sentiment. Perhaps something along the lines of, "My new job is great! Oh, excuse me — I think that's my personal shopper calling." A quick eye-roll, and a muttered "she wants me to send my driver to pick her up on Tuesday — can you believe it?" should hammer the point home.

3. "So, What Are You Doing With All That Empty Office Space?"

As I mentioned, Cindy wasn't the only one who got the axe. A number of her colleagues suffered the same fate, plus the firm has continued laying off lawyers this year. Cindy and her former comrades suspect that the firm is a sinking ship, and often picture FB picking up the phone, prepared to order an associate to rewrite a deposition summary at 11:00 at night, only to find that she has dialed (yet another) disconnected extension.

Cindy now wonders whether it is permissible to rub FB's face in the indignity of her changed circumstances. My advice: the situation calls for a mixed route, traversing both the high and low roads. Specifically, while it would be unseemly to say something like, "Wow, you seem pretty shorthanded these days — are you doing your own copying?" it probably wouldn't hurt to land a minor jab. Perhaps she could mention the fact that she and a few former colleagues are planning an "alumnae gathering" to celebrate the fabulous good fortune they have experienced since leaving the firm.

No matter that, when Cindy and her old firm pals get together, it'll be for questionable half-price sushi or a gourmet cheeseburger. Cindy should feel free to substitute "Shake Shack" with the name of the swanky restaurant where they would meet if they had more than $82 left over from their unemployment checks at the end of the month. Cindy might also want to mention a complex litigation matter that she's working on, and say something like, "Do you handle those types of cases anymore? They call for a lot of manpower, so you're probably focusing on matters that are, um, a little more conducive to lean staffing."

We wish Cindy the best of luck with her encounter, and hope that you'll weigh in with your own stories or suggestions for Cindy on how to handle the dreaded FB rendezvous. And, if you're also facing an FB rendezvous, remember this piece of advice: check your skirt before you leave the ladies room.

How to Receive BigLaw
Many large firms have good reputations for their work and bad reputations as places to work. Why? Answering this question requires digging up some dirt, but we do with the best of intentions. Published first via email newsletter and later here on our blog, BigLaw analyzes the business practices, marketing strategies, and technologies used by the country's biggest law firms in an effort to unearth best and worst practices. The BigLaw newsletter is free so don't miss the next issue. Please subscribe now.

Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management

BigLaw: Escape From the AmLaw 100: A Commercial Real Estate Lawyer Goes Solo

By Liz Kurtz | Monday, November 1, 2010

Originally published on October 18, 2010 in our free BigLaw newsletter. Instead of reading BigLaw here after the fact, sign up now to receive future issues in realtime.

Picture, if you will — a struggling economy (like, oh, the one we've confronted for the past two years), a practice area that has been battered by the economic tides (let's call it "commercial real estate"), and the kind of national mega-firm where top partner billing rates hover somewhere between $750 and $1,000 an hour (say, for example, Latham & Watkins, the third largest law firm by revenue according to the 2010 AmLaw 100).

Now picture a partner at such a firm, whose commercial real estate practice has continued and survived despite a volatile market and epic downturn. If you could flip ahead in this story, you would find this partner battening down the hatches, snuggling into the warm embrace of the large firm where he practices, and waiting for the tough times to pass, safe in the knowledge that he is largely insulated from the day-to-day struggle faced by his counterparts in the cold, hard world of solo practice. Right? Wrong.

Why Jump From BigLaw Success to Solo Practice?

If that practitioner were Joshua Stein — who happens to be the hero of this particular tale and one of the leading commercial real estate lawyers in the United States — you would find him in a newly appointed office suite in midtown Manhattan — alone. Or virtually alone. In August 2010, Stein left Latham & Watkins to form Joshua Stein PLLC, a one-man practice that he manages singlehandedly, in what he calls "efficient solitude."


Specifically, unlike the mega-firm he left behind (which employs thousands), Stein has chosen the more traditional superhero route, with a modern twist: he has taken on one trusty administrative sidekick, but she is not an on-site secretary, or even a constant presence. Instead, he hired an hourly virtual assistant who works from Redmond, Washington, and with whom he communicates almost exclusively by email and file sharing. "I think we've spoken four times," he says.

So, why leave the security of an established practice at a venerable firm now, and strike out in an unpredictable economy and a wretched commercial real estate market? Perhaps more importantly, if you're bold enough to strike out on your own in such inhospitable conditions, how do you make it work? Well, as a preliminary matter, Stein is clearly not a bitter ex-partner, and has no unkind words for Latham & Watkins. Rather, his departure and his strategy for life as a solo practitioner start from a few basics — freedom, flexibility, and simplicity.

One issue, he explains, is that billing rates at many large law firms have escalated to a level that clients find problematic, though not necessarily because of the high cost of partners' time. The larger point of resistance, says Stein, seems to be associate time, which — at large firms — clients often regard as both overly expensive and inefficient.

As a solo practitioner, Stein enjoys the freedom to bill his clients for completed projects or on any other basis that makes sense, rather than just quantity of hours. Although his billing rate still reflects his years of experience and expertise, he has flexibility thanks to dramatically lower overhead and the autonomy of making (and living with) his own financial decisions, with no need to obtain any approval from any committee. We refer to lawyers like Stein as "BigSolos".

So far, his formula is working. "From a client's perspective," he explains, "it's often a good deal to pay more for someone who has lots of experience and really knows what they're doing," rather than inexperienced associates.

Stein also enjoys the freedom to work on any matters that suit him, including some that are not necessarily a good fit at big firms. For example, he says, expert witness work and certain kinds of transactions can be difficult to take on as a biglaw partner, whether because of the potential conflicts or economic realities they present. At his new practice, Stein can focus on the work he enjoys, unburdened by the fear that a small but very interesting matter will present a conflict for the next mega-deal to come down the pike, or that his views on a particular issue (as an expert or a commenter in the press) will come back to haunt him, his clients, or his partners.

New Technology Powers Stein's New Law Firm

When it came to setting up his new practice, Stein truly appreciated the "freedom and simplicity" of the solo life. He says that he toyed with the idea of not renting office space at all, but ultimately decided that clients are "very interested" in knowing that their attorney has a physical office, and less thrilled about "using someone who works out of their bedroom."

After securing office space, his first priority was "pushing the use of computers as far as I could." Always an early adopter, Stein has made technology an integral part of his practice since the early 1980s. Earlier this year, he published an article in TechnoLawyer in which he shared his favorite software and Web sites

In his new practice, he not only embraces technology, but says that he "really enjoys being my own technology department." He has outfitted his office with 6 or 7 computers ("so far," he adds, like any good tech-junkie), and moved his document management to the cloud with NetDocuments, about which he offers high praise. "It has much the same functionality as Interwoven," he says, "but without the need for care and feeding that comes along with a software-based system." Moreover, it suits the flexibility of Stein's new, nimble way of practicing, which calls for the occasional use of additional staff, and makes it "incredibly easy for me — and anyone I work with — to access my documents online, while also keeping everything totally private and secure."

Hourly Billing Without the Usual Accoutrements

As for billing, Stein says that, while he is "open" to alternative practices, such as flat fees, volume discounts, or monthly retainers for certain clients (for work within a carefully defined scope), he often returns to the "logic of the billable hour." At the end of the day, he reflects, the unequal incentives inherent in both flat fees and hourly billing make them imperfect systems, "parts of which always create concerns for one of the parties." But, he adds, "there is a lot of power in hourly billing at a rate that reflects high quality partner time," which is what he delivers — in streamlined form — to his clients. He does not charge for expense disbursements such as copies, telephone calls, and secretarial time; uses contract attorneys only when a need arises; and does not employ a paralegal.

This minimal approach to staffing has given Stein the opportunity to handle a wide range of projects, with a level of autonomy that he finds refreshing after years as part of a large institution. The change, apparently, suits him. From planning a recent open house at his new office to interacting with the press, he speaks with palpable relish about the freedom of being his own boss.

Indeed, Stein even had a hand in designing his own logo — a Warhol-esque burst of colored skyscrapers, which looks more like the stylized graphic you'd expect from a high-end architectural firm, and less like the tired images of pillars, scales, and serious-looking attorneys carrying briefcases that adorn many law firm marketing materials. It may be a small touch, but it is, perhaps, another symbol of the fresh approach to practicing law that Stein, and others like him can adopt after years in biglaw.

"This is not for everyone," Stein says, "but for the most part, it's allowing me to focus on what I really like. I was worried that I might be lonely without other people around, but truthfully … I find that I'm usually too lost in my work to notice."

How to Receive BigLaw
Many large firms have good reputations for their work and bad reputations as places to work. Why? Answering this question requires digging up some dirt, but we do with the best of intentions. Published first via email newsletter and later here on our blog, BigLaw analyzes the business practices, marketing strategies, and technologies used by the country's biggest law firms in an effort to unearth best and worst practices. The BigLaw newsletter is free so don't miss the next issue. Please subscribe now.

Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management

BigLaw: Female Lawyers Just Want to Have Fun But a Good Man Is Hard to Find

By Liz Kurtz | Monday, September 13, 2010

Originally published on September 13, 2010 in our free BigLaw newsletter.

Last week, the legal tabloid site Above the Law reprinted a column that originated on Sweet Hot Justice entitled Does This Law Degree Make My Ass Look Fat? The column made the rounds in various online coffee klatches populated by female lawyers, prefaced by explanatory notes such as, "This author vocalizes something that I and many of my female contemporaries have experienced," and "OMG, this is SO true," and "Duh."

A Romantic Hobson's Choice?

The premise of the Sweet Hot Justice column is as follows (and here I paraphrase):

You're a single guy in your late twenties or early thirties, and you can choose to date one of two female candidates:

The first is Woman A, an attractive 28-year-old with a modest employment history (translation: series of lackluster receptionist jobs), little (or no) career ambition, and an, um, "understated" intellect.

The second, Woman B, is an attractive, financially secure biglaw associate who is also smart, funny, and runs a successful cupcake cartel in her free time.

Faced with these options, posits the column's author, Legal Tease, the average guy will go with Choice A. "Why?" "Because, if the status quo in my firm … and in my life … and in my friends' lives … and in any bar from New York to L.A. is any indication, a law degree confers about as much romantic value to a single woman as a meth habit and a hidden penis."

Has Sweet Hot Justice Laid Down the Law on This Issue?

Have years — even generations — of struggling for gender equality in the workplace led us here — to a romantically barren wasteland? Is it possible that Woman B's cupcake-making is indicative not of her entrepreneurial spirit, but of the free time she has because she can't get a date? If the anecdotal evidence is to be believed, the answer is a simple "Yes."

Sadly, report a number of female associates, the trailblazers to whom we owe our professional opportunities may have set the bar too high — at least for most men to sidle up to and buy us a drink. "Let's face it," says Dawn, a senior associate at a New York law firm, "everyone knows that you can't survive in the law firm world without being fairly aggressive, or at least tough enough to handle the brutal hours, the unpredictable schedule, and the daily battles with adversaries. I think men assume that women who are comfortable in that world are not dating material."

But why? Why aren't fortitude, ambition, and guile more appealing traits than, say, a penchant for shopping, scrapbooking, Farmville, or spending a precious (and potentially billable) hour blow-drying your hair to get prettied up for a suitor? Because, explains Suzanne (also a biglaw associate), men seem to equate these qualities with a tendency to be combative. "Strike that," she adds (with admirable attention to protecting the record). "They hear "litigator" and think "bitch." That's why, when I meet men, I initially tell them that I "work at a law firm." Sooner or later, the truth must prevail, but I don't want to scare them off right away."

Some women noted that (what one litigator referred to as) the "Dating Kryptonite" issue has caused a schism to develop within the ranks of female lawyers within the firm. "Women in law firms have been fighting to balance work and family life, and many firms — including my own — are finally starting to take the needs of working mothers seriously," reports one associate.

"But cast aside in the whole debate are the needs of single women — without the perceived legitimacy of a husband or children, our non-work needs, and lives, are viewed as non-existent, or inconsequential. Everyone assumes that I am available any time, be it a weekend, late night, or holiday, because I'm not married and I don't have kids. Sometimes that's true, and given how many hours I bill, it will probably continue to be true. I don't know whether to be happy for the women who are sitting at home with their kids, or resentful that they leave early while I eat wilted salad at my desk at 9 PM."

The Rise of the Litigatrix

A number of the women I heard from were saddened by the dichotomy between increasing parity in the workplace, on one hand, and a simultaneous plunge in their dating stock. "I place a lot of blame on the way female lawyers are depicted in pop culture," says Kim, a smart, attractive, and inexplicably single associate. "Ally McBeal was an appealing character, but things have gone downhill from there," she wrote in an email. "She was non-threatening — she wore inappropriately short skirts and was totally insecure. I'm sure a lot of guys would have loved to review her briefs."

In recent years, however, the female lawyers portrayed in movies and on TV have grown increasingly bitchy, morphing into what Above the Law's Managing Editor David Lat has described as, "the Litigatrix."

"On the plus side," writes Lat, the Litigatrix is supremely confident and competent. The Litigatrix is very good at her job, and she knows it. Above all, she's strong-willed and tough — a woman making her way in a man's world." But, he warns, "[l]et's not mince words: the Litigatrix is a bitch. She didn't excel in litigation's testosterone-soaked precincts by playing nice."

But wait: there's more. In addition to the pervasive image problem, says associate Dawn, the average female lawyer "lives like a nun, with one critical difference." That difference? "You know how nuns are the brides of Christ?" she explains. "Well, I am the bride of the billable hour. I've been on the verge of going to trial for five months now," she continues. "It keeps getting adjourned, but I have no free time. I meet men, we hit it off, and things are great until they get wind of the fact that I have a very, very heavy workload. The limitations on my time are one issue, but the other issue is control: they have to defer to my schedule, and I think that's a problem in terms of gender dynamics."

Just Desserts?

So, what might help ease the dating drought of the biglaw female lawyer? Where are the men who will welcome a woman who brings home the bacon, but eats it at 11:00 at night with a side of ice cream? Comedian Tiny Fey has one great idea — the Brownie Husband. I'll have time to think of a few more later, when I get home. Not surprisingly, I don't have a date tonight.

How to Receive BigLaw
Many large firms have good reputations for their work and bad reputations as places to work. Why? Answering this question requires digging up some dirt, but we do with the best of intentions. Published first via email newsletter and later here on our blog, BigLaw analyzes the business practices, marketing strategies, and technologies used by the country's biggest law firms in an effort to unearth best and worst practices. The BigLaw newsletter is free so don't miss the next issue. Please subscribe now.

Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management

BigLaw: Readers Weigh in on Large Firm Gender Issues

By Liz Kurtz | Monday, June 7, 2010


Originally published on June 7, 2010 in our free BigLaw newsletter.

My previous column, Large Firms Are From Mars, Female Lawyers Are From Venus, discussed several recently-released studies that highlighted the perceived gender inequities of life in the large firm world — with respect to origination credit, compensation, rainmaking, and general workplace parity. BigLaw readers shared some interesting thoughts on the topic, which I've collected here.

The results of these studies came as no surprise to many female large firm lawyers, some of whom acknowledged the difficulty of balancing work and motherhood, and, on a more basic level, the unique challenge that law firm life presents for women.

However, some readers scoffed at the notion of law firm discontent as a gender-specific phenomenon. "In point of fact," posited one, "all but a handful of male partners at large law firms would have the same complaints. In every large firm, there are a few significant rainmakers who carry more clout than other parties and thus influence the inner circle of managers who make compensation decisions. Partners outside that inner circle — whether male or female — often feel they have not gotten a fair shake in compensation decisions but are discouraged from appealing those decisions either because of intimidation or recognition of the sheer futility of an appeal."

Another reader pointed out that men and women may differ fundamentally with respect to what makes them feel engaged, appreciated, and successful — even when the ultimate reward is the same. Compensation and origination credit are examples of this circuit split between the sexes: a system of shared origination credit, notes one reader, encourages collaboration and may result in a more equitable distribution of the compensation pie.

But, she reported, the women at her firm seemed much more willing to share credit and compensation in ways that "made the pie bigger for everyone." The men at the firm, however, were "more territorial," and tended to focus more on "making their slice of the pie bigger." Asked what, if anything, might make female partners happier and more successful in the law firm environment, she responded with a chuckle. "I think you'd have to redefine 'happiness' or redefine 'success,'" she said. "Either way, something has to give."

One respondent, who weighed in on why women-dominated firms are not more prevalent, suggested that "it's probably not a question of 'if,' just 'when.'" Despite the sense (and the research-based indicia) that women have not managed to gain equal footing at law firms, she noted, "we're a lot farther along then we were twenty years ago."

"I think we need to be patient," she continued. "Many of the younger women in practice now didn't experience the absolute barriers to entry that their predecessors encountered. For better or worse, we grew up in an environment in which we could expect the same access to professional opportunities that our male peers were afforded. Trying to make those opportunities work for us is the next challenge, and it may take another generation for that to happen. There are still too many older men in the partnership ranks who simply don't appreciate the challenges presented by working motherhood."

Several women pointed out that, as a general matter, women tend to take a larger role in childcare and handling parenting duties. "The expectations of many of the men I work with simply don't factor that in," said one. "I'm expected to be a full-time lawyer, and it doesn't occur to them that I'm also a full-time mother."

As a result, noted another reader, "we — as women — may have to spend a few more years gaining confidence about our ability to practice alongside male lawyers as equals. Hopefully, at some point, women will ask themselves why they feel the need to achieve in that environment. Why not be a superstar in the context of a firm where work truly is flexible enough to accommodate your needs as a mother? I can't help but think that, sooner or later, women will conclude that sometimes it takes a village to raise a child because Mommy has to make her hours for the month, but also has to pick her kid up from daycare. I suspect that if I worked in a female-dominated firm, the other villagers would help me figure out how to make it work."

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Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management
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