Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why Are We Afraid of the Future of Law?

Below is my most recent column in the National Jurist [PDF version].  Although 100% targeted at law students, I think lawyers and law professors might find this topic interesting. [Bill Henderson]

200px-SusskindhighresRichard Susskind is a famous British lawyer and technology consultant who travels the world giving speeches on how the legal industry is on the brink of a fundamental transformation.  Because his topic is change, Susskind’s ideas are quite controversial among lawyers.  But as a futurist, he has a pretty good track record. 

Back in 1996, in his book The Future of Law, Susskind predicted that e-mail would someday become the dominant method for lawyers and clients communicate with each other.  Because the Web was still a novelty limited to universities and computer aficionados, Susskind’s comments were viewed as reckless and unprofessional—lawyers would never rely on such an insecure method to communicate with clients.  Yet, 16 years later, lawyers are daily lives are comprised of an endless stream of emails coming over their desktops, laptops and smart phones. 

Continue reading

September 6, 2012 in Current events, Innovations in legal education, Law Firms, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, August 3, 2012

Connecting the Dots on the Structural Shift in the Legal Market

Over a 3 Geeks, Toby Brown asks, "Is the legal market flat?"  Toby's analysis is especially interesting because of his day job -- he is a strategy professional at an AmLaw 50 firm who focuses on pricing and market analytics.  In that capacity, he has access to the various proprietary databases that track legal spending.  Toby writes, "Although there have been minor ups and downs on this stat (most recently a slight up-tick), the overall demand has been and continues to be predicted as … flat."

But then Toby wonders if the stats are potentially misleading because the databases define the market as BigLaw. If work is leaking out of this market and going to new entrants, flat revenues may mask a reconfiguration of the legal marketplace--one where BigLaw is less dominant.

Pangea3As evidence for this possible trend, Toby links to an article on Pangea3, which is a legal process outsourcing (LPO) owned by Thomson-Reuters (a publicly traded company).  Since its inception in 2003, Pangea3 has grown at "40% to 60%" per year and is "growing even faster" in 2012.  Pangea3 now employs 850 lawyers, mostly in India.

Now think about that: 850 lawyers growing at 50% per year for five years is 6,455 lawyers--by 2017.  And that is just one LPO.  

HuronHuron Consulting Group (NASDAQ: HURN) recently issued a press release announcing a new document review and data operations facility in Gurgeon, India (functionally a booming suburb of India--I've been there).  The press release reads, "The Company offers around-the-clock global discovery support with 1,500 seats at nine locations across the U.S., U.K., and India to address clients’ complex business needs."  MindcrestAs I noted in an earlier post, Mindcrest, with HQ offices in Chicago but facilities in India, is also growing at a breakneck pace.

Toby draws a conclusion: "The simple math of 50% market growth suggests LPOs are taking market share from firms." 

In my estimation, very few lawyers or law professors grasp what is taking place here.  We look at flat revenues in BigLaw and draw the inference that we are in a prolonged recession.  Meanwhile, the legal business is absolutely booming in India, thanks in substantial measure to its integration into the U.S. and U.K. legal supply chain.  Play these trends forward for five more years, and the prolonged recession storyline will no longer be credible. 

And remarkably, the drivers of this change are publicly traded companies or companies funded by venture capital and private equity.

Beyond Toby's observations, I would add the following to the big picture. The ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 was recently pressured to drop its recommendation for even a very most modest change to the Rule 5.4 prohibition on fee splitting with nonlawyers.  (see here.)  This effort was lead by the Illinois State Bar Association, which wanted to shut down debate on this topic during the August ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. 

I fear that the U.S. legal profession is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.  In a practical sense, fee spliting only applies to counseling and advocacy.  But the full legal supply chain includes a host of legal products and inputs that Wall Street and Sand Hill Road capitalists are anxious to supply.  This supply chain analysis is especially true when the client is a Fortune 500 corporation.  The policy that drives fee-splitting is consumer protection and a belief that the nonlawyer profit motive will compromise lawyer independence and injure the client.   Yet, organizational clients want innovation and more for less.  And they are finding non-law firm vendors who are filling that need.   The organized bar is powerless to stop these changes. 

[posted by Bill Henderson]

August 3, 2012 in Blog posts worth reading, Current events, Data on the profession, Innovations in law, Law Firms, Legal Departments, New and Noteworthy, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Encouraging Data on Law Firm Diversity

Here is some welcomed good news for the legal industry--we now have data showing diverse lawyers, within certain large and important legal markets, ascending to law firm partnership in significant numbers.  Let me be clear.  I am reporting progress here, not perfection.  But the progress provides key insights on how to further reduce the partnership diversity gap.Nalplogo

The research, which I just published in the NALP Bulletin (see "Diversity by the Numbers," July 2012), is based on the 2005-06 edition of the NALP Directory of Legal Employers. The NALP Directory is a city-by-city guide for several hundred law firms that  participate in the on-campus interview (OCI) process.  This information includes a breakdown of lawyers by firm, branch office, title, and race/gender/GLBT status.  (See full article for overview data.)

The aggregate-level statistics are not every encouraging--less than 5% of partners at these corporate firms are minority.  These are the type of bleak statistics that frame the diversity discussion.  Yet, when the data are disaggregated, we see racial subgroup making substantial partnership inroads in specific geographic markets.  For African-Americans, it is Atlanta and Washington, DC; for Asians, it is L.A., San Francisco, and Pacific Northwest/Rocky Mountain region; for Hispanics, it is Houston, Dallas, Miami and L.A.  Further, these partnerships disproportionately in AmLaw 200 firms.

The map and table below expresses these geographic variations using a location quotient methodology.

Nalp2012julyfigures

(Note: CSA means "Consolidated Statistical Area", a geographic area defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.  Among other things, CSAs are very large metropolitan area labor markets.)

In the map above, the emphasis on large metropolitan areas is deliberate.  Among the 600+ law firm in the 2005-06 Directory, 64.2% of their attorneys worked in the top 10 metropolitan markets; these same markets also accounted for 74.8% of hiring at the NALP firms.

A Location Quotient (LQ) is a tool for identifying relative surpluses or shortages of an economic activity within specific locations.  If, for example, the percentage of female partners in New York City is the same as the entire US market, the location quotient for female partners would be 1.00.  In fact, the LQ for female partners in New York City is .87.  This means that are 13% fewer female parters in New York City relative to the total base of New York City partners.  Likewise, the LQ for African American partners in Atlanta is 2.67.  This means that there are 167% more African American partners in Atlanta relative to the total Atlanta partnership base. Cells in Yellow are underrepresented by more than 10%; cells in blue are overrepresented by more than 10%.

The implication of this analysis is that significant diversity tends to exist in pockets that follow distinctive demographic patterns.  These significant pockets rebut the pessimistic view, held by some, that minority partners lack the skills and ability to be successful in large corporate law firms.  Quite the opposite is true -- minority lawyers' willingness to enter a market and persist at a firm is likely influenced by number of people from the same minority group who have ascended to the partner level.  If you are a African American lawyer, the wind is at your back in DC or Altanta, but in many branch offices in Dallas, Phoenix or Boston you will be breaking barriers.

This brings up the issue of pipeline, which is a precursor to any hoped for progress on partner diversity. 

To look at pipeline-to-partner issues, I created separate regression models to predict the % minority associates within a law office (not the firm as whole).  I ran the model separate for African American, Asians, Hispanics, GLBT and females. Each factor below makes an independent contribution to a larger pipeline of diverse associates.

  • Geography matters.  Diverse associates are disproportionally going to the same market where their same subgroup has been successful becoming partner.  African Americans to Atlanta and DC; Asians to the west coast; Hispanics to the major markets in the Southeast and Southwest.
  • Large Firms.  Large firms are more successful recruiting diverse associates. This could be salary, prestige, recruitng resources.
  • Large Offices.  Bigger branch offices are more successful.  This could be recruiting resources or a more appealing variety of practice areas.
  • % of Diverse Partners.  This is the critical factor -- for every category, % of partners is associates with higher % of associates.  This is independent of size and geography!  Further, there is zero crossover effect. 

Quoting from the full article, "The takeaway from the above analysis is both simple and frustrating.  We would have more African American (or Hispanic or Asian or Female or GLBT) associates if only we had more African-American (or Hispanic or Asian or Female or GLBT) partners.  But getting more diverse partners will be slow going until we become better at retaining, rather than just recruiting, diverse associates.  The first generation of diverse lawyers will, by definition, not have the benefit of diverse mentors.  And in many firms, or at least branch offices, the first generation has not yet arrived."

I am really grateful to NALP for giving me access to this unique dataset.  It caused me to think much more deeply on how lawyer development can be used to create greater diversity in the huge number of branch offices where there is no critical mass of diverse partners.  It short, it is all about creating a competency model and evaluation system--i.e., a roadmap--that makes the path to partnership more explicit.  Why am I bullish on our ability to make progress on partnership diversity?  Because these systems simultaneously advance profitability and diversity.  The article recounts one such example.

[posted by Bill Henderson]

July 27, 2012 in Data on the profession, Important research, Innovations in law, Law Firms, New and Noteworthy, Scholarship on the legal profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Picture of the Melting Right Mode

I created the graphic below to depict the shrinking right mode of the bi-modal distribution since its 2007 high water mark (measured in February 2008). 

Nalp07_11comparisons

[Note: The difference between the mean and adjusted mean in the 2011 distribution is due to the fact that law grads who fail to report their salaries tend to have have less lucrative employment; so NALP makes a prudent statistical correction --basically a weighted average based on practice settings.]

From a labor market perspective, the class of 2007 entry level salary distribution was extraordinary and anomalous.  Why?  Because we can safely assume that legal ability, however it might be defined, is normally distributed, not bi-modal.  So when such a distribution appears in a real labor market, something is significantly out of kilter. 

Why did the entry level market become bi-modal? As the legal economy boomed from the mid-90s through the mid-00s, many large law firms (NLJ 250, AmLaw 200) were trying to make the jump from regional dominant brands to national law firms.  For decades, going back to the early to mid-20th century, these firms followed a simple formula: hire the best and brightest from the nation's elite law schools. As they continued to enjoy growth, they reflexively followed that same formula.  Yet, by 2000s, the demand for elite law graduates finally outstripped supply. 

This micro-level logic ("let's not tinker with our business model") produced a macro-level bidding war.  This is how the right mode came to be.  Yet, because it was a macro-level phenomenon, clients, led by industry groups such as the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), reacted by saying, "Don't put any junior level lawyers on my matters --they are overpriced."  Outsourcing and e-discovery vendors have also eaten into the work that used to go to entry level lawyers.  So the volume of BigLaw hiring has collapsed, hence the melting of the right mode. For a more detailed overview, see NALP, Salary Distribution Curve.

Long Term Structural Change in Big Law

That said, it is not just the entry level market that is under stress -- the fundamental economics of Big Law are also changing.  Consider the chart below (from Henderson, Rise and Fall, Am Law June 2012), which shows that revenues per lawyer at AmLaw 100 firms has gone flat and moved sideways since 2007, breaking a pattern of steady growth that dates back to the pre-Am Law 100 days.

Amlaw25 years

Stagnant revenue is a source of enormous worry for law firm managers.  Without higher profits to distribute--and growing the top line is the usual profitability fomula--their biggest producers might leave, causing a run on the bank ala Dewey, Howrey, Wolf Block, etc.  So the dominant strategy now has nothing to do with entry level hiring.  Rather, the goal is to keep and acquire lateral partners with portable books of business.  After all, clients aren't protesting the value of most senior level lawyers. And seniors lawyers are plentiful, thanks to the excellent health of baby boom lawyers and the poor health of their retirement accounts. 

This strategy may work fine for this fiscal year, but over the middle to long term, BigLaw is going to get older and dumber.  Further, this dynamic produces substantial ripple effects on legal education -- albeit ripple effects that feel like tremors.

Endgame

The long term solution -- for both law firms and law schools -- is for the price of entry level talent to come down to the point where young lawyers are more cost-effective to train.  And that price point is not $160,000.  This inflated pay scale (which has supported ever higher tuitions at law schools) only persists because large firms are deathly afraid of adjusting their salary scales and being labeled second rate.  So the solution is keep the entry pay high but hire very few law school graduates.  This is not a farsighted or innovative business strategy.

It's been 100 years since law firms engaged in sophisticated business thinking. And that last great idea was the Cravath System, which was method of workplace organization that performed expert client work while simultaneously developing more and better human capital.  See Henderson, Three Generations of Lawyers: Generalista, Specialists, Project Managers.   According to the Cravath Swaine & Moore firm history, published in 1948, the whole point of the Cravath System was to make "a better lawyer faster." 

I think the next great model for a legal service organization (law firm may not be the right term) likewise will be based on the idea that there is a large return to be had by investing in young lawyers. As my friend Paul Lippe likes to say, "When it appears, it will look obvious."

[posted by Bill Henderson]

July 15, 2012 in Current events, Data on legal education, Data on the profession, Innovations in law, Law Firms, New and Noteworthy, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

More Job Market Data Showing a Structural Shift

The U.S. Census Bureau just released its 2010 data for the County Business Patterns (CBP) dataset.  CBP compiles payroll and employee headcount data by sector for all employers operating within the U.S.  CBP is what is know as universe data.  It is not a sample; it's a census.

The news for the legal sector is not good.  Law Offices (NAICS 54111), which comprise 93.1% of the U.S. legal services industry, shrank by 21,600 jobs between 2009 and 2010.  Total payroll also sank by $113 million.  As shown on the chart below, the high water mark for U.S. law office employment was in 2004 (1,122,723 jobs). That was eight years ago, four+ years before the recession hit.

Slide1

There is another sector, called "All Other Legal Services," that is relatively small yet worth paying attention to because it continues to grow.  Using 1998 as a base (the first year of the NAICS coding system) the chart below compares Law Offices to All Other Legal Services (NAICS 541199):

Slide2

"All Other Legal Services" seems to be doing pretty well, adding jobs while the number law office jobs declines.  What is in "All Other Legal Services"?  Almost certainly registry services for contract lawyers (doing e-discovery on a temp basis) and the domestic operations of legal process outsourcers.  See here.  The average job in this sector pays less than $46,000 per year compared to $79,900 in the law office sector.

What does all this mean?  For law firms, it means a brutal competition over marketshare.  Survival will require innovation. Yet, many lawyers are in denial.  For law schools, it means the same thing -- there are too many law graduates chasing after a shrinking number of opportunities.  

We legal educators have a really hard time getting our head around this changing market -- naively, we think the solution is a grand idea that will surface during an academic conference.   That's not going to happen. Instead, to survive, each law school is going to have to get more than its proportionate share of high quality jobs for its graduates -- you don't have to outrun the bear, just the other law schools. 

The key drivers here are: (a) what we teach, (b) how we teach it, (c) relationships with employers, and (d) relationships with alumni -- our best, friendliest windows on the real world.  To turn this corner, a school needs great leadership that can move recalitrant faculty toward a difficult and complex new reality.  Good luck!  Time to get back to the work of Indiana Law.  For additional analysis, see The Hard Business Problems Facing U.S. Law Faculty.

[posted by Bill Henderson]

June 27, 2012 in Data on the profession, Law Firms, New and Noteworthy, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

More Complex Than Greed

Amlawdaily_mastheadThat is the title of an essay I just published at The Am Law Daily.  It is on the demise of Dewey & LeBoeuf, which officially filed for bankruptcy yesterday.  I wrote the essay because I think the lessons drawn from the Dewey collapse are all-too-likely to follow the "lawyers are greedy" storyline.  This problem is bigger than our collective flaws as lawyers and as people.  Below are the first two graphs:

Dewey & LeBoeuf, an amalgam of two storied New York City law firms that merged in 2007, has died.  Understandably, this has prompted a lot of soul-searching among lawyers.  One storyline that will attract many followers is that large law firm lawyers, long viewed as the profession's elite class, have lost their way, betraying their professional ideals in the pursuit of money and glory. This narrative reinforces that lawyer-joke mentality that lawyers just need to be become better people.

And that narrative is wrong. Yes, we all need to become better people, but that still won't begin to cure the larger structural problem affecting large U.S. law firms. At its core, Dewey's collapse has less to do with individual moral failings than with aging organizational structures that worked remarkably well for over a century yet, but for a variety of reasons, now inhibit law firms' ability to adapt to a changing legal marketplace. 

Full story here ...

[Posted by Bill Henderson]

May 29, 2012 in Current events, Law Firms, New and Noteworthy, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Lots of Jobs for Law Graduates -- just not Grads in the U.S.

This story is fresh off the newswire: "Law firms are no more the preferred destination for fresh law graduates looking for jobs.  With outsourcing catching up even in this industry, legal process outsourcing (LPO) companies are now bagging a large number of graduates."  A law professor opines, “There is a rising trend of students opting for LPOs. The nature of work is changing and these places offer good packages and work culture. ... [P]romotions also come faster in LPOs.”

Wonderful news.  But the story was written for the Hindu Business Line.  The law graduates went to school in India.  Why are the LPOs become more attractive jobs for Indian law grads?  Probably because (a) LPOs are increasingly focusing on process and technology, engineering out the drudgery work, and (b) process and technology are creating a sustainable competitive advantage within a global industry -- and that can support higher salaries.

MindcrestIn the same story, Rohan Dalal, the Managing Director of Mindcrest, a U.S.-based LPO with headquarters in Chicago, pegged the annual growth at 30% per year [remember that number]. 

Dalal explains his hiring philosophy: "There are very few lawyers available in India who are experts in the laws of the US or the UK, which constitute a bulk of our clients. In general, therefore, we prefer to hire younger legal talent, whether fresh or a few years out of Indian law schools." (Historical note: Paul Cravath explicitly focused on new law school graduates in building his firm.  Why?  He did not want to undo the bad habits and fixed ideas of other (inferior) employers -- he too had a process.)

The president of Mindcrest is a former partner at McGuireWoods, an AmLaw 200 law firm.  According to its website, Mindcrest now has 600 employees.  How many are in the U.S.?  We have no idea -- but we can triangulate data from other sources in order grasp the magnitude of changes occurring as a result of companies like Mindcrest..

So consider the following, which I believe signals a true structural shift.

Chart 1 below is generated from County Business Patterns data.  It summarizes U.S. Law Firm employment according to the North America Industry Classification System (NAICS), which is how the U.S. Census Bureau groups and categorizes economic activity.  The NAICS went into effect in 1998, replacing the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) system, which reflected an industrial economy rather than one driven by information and services.  The advantage of County Business Patterns (CBP) is that it is not a sample -- it is "universe" data.  CBP covers everyone working in the U.S. who received a W-2.  Law firms, as shown below, comprise a 1.1 million employee sector.  [click on to enlarge]

Slide1
The key takeway?  Law office jobs peaked in 2004 -- four years before the collapse of Lehman Brothers.  Total employment in law offices (NAICS 54111) totaled 1,123,000 jobs, which was 92.2% of the larger legal services sector (NAICS 5411).  Since the high water mark in 2004, the sector shrank by 26,100 jobs (at least through 2009).

County Business Patterns, however, has another catch-all category called "all other legal services" (NAICS 541199).  Mindcrest's employment (just the domestic) is almost certainly included in this catch-all.  Chart 2 below compares change in total employment from base year 1998 for "Law offices" and  "All other legal services." [click on to enlarge]

Slide2
The takeaway from Chart 2 is that "All other legal services" is growing very quickly, albeit from a much smaller base.  When Law offices were shedding 26,100 jobs after the 2004 high water mark, the "All other legal services" category added 5,800 new employees.  It is worth noting that the average 2009 salary in All other legal services are 40% lower than in law firms ($46,800 versus $78,500).  [more after fold]

Continue reading

May 12, 2012 in Current events, Data on the profession, Important research, Innovations in law, Law Firms, Legal Departments, New and Noteworthy, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What Do Dewey & LeBoeuf Partners Owe Their Staff?

A story in the Am Law Daily has a chilling quote from a soon-to-be ex-Dewey & LeBoeuf employee. "I've been here 14 years," she said. "They never apologized. They never explained what was going on to us. It's very disrespectful to the staff. It's always about the lawyers. It's never about the staff."

DeweytombstoneWhat do Dewey & LeBoeuf partners (and recent ex-partners) owe their staff?  I’m not talking about technical calculations based on the federal WARN law.  I am talking basic principles of human decency that have to be followed in order to look one's self in the mirror each morning—what our non-professional parents or grandparents would tell us to do. 

I suspect that 95% of people (and lawyers, who are people too) would sign on to this list:

  • Guarantee the timely distribution of all paychecks and corresponding 401K contributions
  • Guarantee the eventual payment of unused vacation and personal time
  • Explain the status of health insurance and prevent any interruption in coverage
  • Say “I am sorry this is happening to you.  We wish we could rewind the clock and do things differently so we could have avoided these problems for you and your families."

The reality, however, is near the opposite.  No apology. No explanations.  And an eventual bankruptcy filing that will convert hundreds of longtime Dewey & LeBoeuf staffers into unsecured bankruptcy creditors who will likely have to hire a lawyer to get a percentage of what they are actually owed. 

If (rich) Dewey & LeBoeuf partners seem to be falling short, it is all-too-easy to chock up this behavior to greed and moral failure--and I am sure this behavior will be amply recounted in the final Dewey & LeBoeuf post-mortem.  Yet, moral fortitude is no match the sheer size and geographic dispersion of the Dewey & LeBoeuf partnership.  As a simple matter of logistics, it is near impossible for the firm's most well-meaning partners to coordinate an effective plan for treating all the staff fairly.

A story in the New York Times (here) reports on an ex-partner who is starting a fund to assist staffers, apparently seeding it with $10,000.  His moral impulse is spot on.  But the task of fully delivering on the impulse is pretty staggering. Some questions:

  1. Are all the partners kicking in, or some?  Many Dewey & LeBoeuf partners have probably never met each other—what a task!  
  2. If I am a partner, how much is this going to cost me?  Well, it depends upon who steps up and on what terms. 
  3. Are the partner contributions pro rata or proportional to income and status in the firm?  Apparently, the true incomes of Dewey & LeBoeuf partners was a deep mystery, though the differential reportedly approached 20 to 1.  What is fair is at odds with what is workable.
  4. Every Dewey & LeBoeuf staffer, not just the ones who worked with me?  Dewey & LeBoeuf had 1,000 non-lawyer employees. The needs, obligations and liabilities could run into the tens of millions.
  5. Who has all the information on employee benefits, and who is going to pay that person to calculate all the payouts and communicate with staffers?

Somewhere between question 1 and question 4, most of us would conclude that were embarking on a fool’s errand—we, and our families, would drown in the task of helping others.  So we would put our heads down and focus our own situation.  And despite a pounding conscience, the less advantaged are left holding the bag on a mess that, objectively, the lawyers created.

Spring99hirschmanIronically, this disgraceful state is a byproduct of several decades of prosperity and growth. And its unraveling perfectly parallels the voice, exit and loyalty framework articulated by the famed economist Albert O. Hirschman in his 1970 book, Voice, Exit and Loyalty.  The framework runs  roughly as follows.

In relatively small organizations or communities, problems and disagreements can be resolved through voicing one’s concerns to fellow stakeholders.  Further, if exit is expensive or impracticable, voice is the only option. Ideally, dialogue and cooperation ensue, thus benefiting all parties and producing a reservoir of loyalty. 

In larger organizations, however, a governance structure based on voice can be too messy and time consuming, so decisions are delegated to smaller group.  Unwise or imprudent decisions are curtailed by the exit or the threat of exit by key stakeholders.  So exit can produce quite stable and healthy organizations.  Yet, when leadership fails to take corrective action in response to exit, the organization can slowly, or quickly, self-destruct.

Today, virtually every firm in the Am Law 200 operates on exit principles as expressed in the market for lateral partners. In the case of Dewey & LeBoeuf, the most significant shock to the system was the realization within the partnership that the firm’s leadership had failed to level with them regarding the financial health of the organization.  The firm was long past the point where an out-of-use voice could serve as a corrective (26 offices, 10 countries!).  Further, the reservoir of loyalty had run dry.  So the partners rushed for the exits.

Ironically, many Dewey & LeBoeuf staffers probably took solace in working for an old-line prestigious law firm with international offices; they inferred they were safe.  Now they are collateral damage, treated with less respect than the staff of Big Box store closing in an aging suburb.

What happened at Dewey & LeBoeuf could happen at any Am Law 200 law firm, albeit some have deeper reservoirs of loyalty than others. I worry that the so-called “elite bar” has given up on voice, or is woefully out-of-practice in speaking openly and frankly to those with power.  Further, I worry that too many Am Law managers only listen to the views of rainmakers. That is especially pernicious if the rainmakers are overpaid, as they appeared to be at Dewey & LeBoeuf, because the exit of the rank-and-file lawyers can also destroy a firm.  

Regardless, all of us lawyers need to take note of the deplorable treatment of the nonlawyers in the building--hundreds of people who kept the enterprise running and contributed to the professional treatment of clients.  The treatment of the Dewey & LeBoeuf staff (or Howrey a year earlier, or Brobeck or Heller) is utterly incompatible with self-image of an elite, prestigious law firm.  Increasingly, we are confusing profitability with estimable conduct.  The evidence is indisputable that this error in judgment destroys firms and destroys lives.

[posted by Bill Henderson]

May 10, 2012 in Current events, Law Firms, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, April 20, 2012

"The Death Spiral of America's Big Law Firms"

That is the title of an essay posted on blog of the The Atlantic magazine.  Jordan Weissman, a journalist who formerly worked in the business operations side of a major law firm, reviews the profitability of the most elite law firms pre-crash (2001-2007) and post-crash (2007-2010). [See charts below]  The slide into lower profitability is what is causing the run-on-the-bank at Dewey LeBoeuf, a storied firm on the brink of collapse. 

Citi

Dewey LeBoeuf, like the Howrey firm which failed slightly over a year ago, are almost certainly on the lefthand side of the 2007 to 2010 profitability chart.    Weissman's conclusion is pretty simple: the industry is running out of gas.  More failures are likely.  Unfortunately, I agreed.

For the record, legal education's problems are no less severe.  There are not enough qualified students to fill the number of 1L seats, so as an industry, our revenues (akin to law firm profits) are going to go down.   The entire legal services and legal education industry is undergoing a major disruption.  All of this talk of structural change is going to move from the abstract, where we contest it the premise, to the concrete, which induces panic among the unprepared.  It is going to be very tough.  Our character is going to be tested. 

Paradoxically, making decisions based on our professional values rather than self-interest will be the key to survivial.  More on that later.  I have to prepare for the Lawyer of the Future Conference at Pepperdine University School of Law.

[posted by Bill Henderson]

April 20, 2012 in Blog posts worth reading, Cross industry comparisons, Current events, Data on the profession, Law Firms, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Three Blog Posts that Explain Structural Change

StructuralchangeThree recent posts from nonacademics do a good job of explaining how and why the legal services industry is undergoing a massive structural change:

Jordan Furlong, Law 21, in a post entitled "Losing the Confidence Game":  "Here are six observations about the legal marketplace for you to consider, each supported by a news report filed just in the last few days ... ."  Furlong is a Canadian-trained lawyer, journalist, and consultant.  He is one of the most networked observers of the legal services industry I know.

Ron Friedmann, Strategic Legal Technology, in a post entitled "Does BigLaw have a Future?"  The answer is yes, but in way that is hugely disruptive to our settled views of how things work.  Ron, who has worked at the intersection of law and technology for 30 years, writes: 

Some firms may fade, some may implode, but others will thrive. Thriving, however, requires thinking and innovating. Some are doing so as these examples and data illustrate:

  • I count 10 firms that operate low cost, centralized service centers, some of which provide lawyer support as well as business services. ... 
  • About a dozen firms, perhaps more, have industrialized their approach to e-discovery and document review.
  • Several firms now take project management seriously. ... 
  • Three firms now offer alternative staffing models, arguably competing with staffing agencies. ...
  • About one-half dozen firms have publicly announced partnerships with legal process outsourcing (LPO) companies.
  • I understand about a dozen firms now have pricing specialists to deal with alternative fee arrangements.

Patrick Lamb, The New Normal, in a post entitled "A 'Valorem Dozen': The Ingredients of One New Normal Law Firm."  Lamb, a talented trial lawyer and former large law firm partner, lays out the how-to kit for alternative fee boutiques.  At a minimum, running an alternative fee shop requires slaying inefficiencies, embracing market forces, and developing a broader set of skills.  Here are some of Lamb's bullet points:

1) Sell what is valuable to your clients. No client has ever gone to a law firm looking simply to buy time. They go to lawyers to solve business problems that involve some legal issue. ...

3) Embrace the $60-per-hour-lawyer. ... [Y]ou can get great lawyers at a much lower price[ ]. You don't need to have these lawyers as employees, you just need to have access to them when you need them, for as long as you need them. ...

9) Collaboration is key. Most large firms, indeed most firms of any size, are a collection of silos ... We believed that if our senior people brainstormed and collaborated together, great things would happen and we would produce work and results better than any of us would do alone. ...  Hindsight shows that we were right on the money on this issue.

Folks, structural change in the legal profession is happening very quickly.  We legal educators need to spend a substantial portion of our time talking to people working in the legal services industry.  Every conversation should expand the list of who to talk to next.  And we need to put our pet theories and ideas on the shelf and just listen to what these lawyers and legal service vendors have to say.  Otherwise, in five years, traditional legal education is going to look like General Motors circa 2008. 

[Posted by Bill Henderson]

April 13, 2012 in Blog posts worth reading, Current events, Innovations in law, Law Firms, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Reply to the Empiricists at NWU Law

My blog post from last week, "Too Good for BigLaw: The Statistician Edition" has resulted in a minor kerfuffle with some of the distinguished empiricists at Northwestern Law.  See Dan Rodriguez, Law School Sorting and the Partnership Track:  Northwestern Empiricists Weigh In, Word on the Streeterville [The Blog of NWU Law Dean].  NWU Law folks were not impressed with my analysis.  Dan Rodriguez was gracious enough to send me the link at the same time his post, quoting the views of his colleagues, went live.  He has also encouraged me to reply publicly. 

I am happy to do that.  Let me start with big picture issues.  Then, for those folks with the curiousity and stamina to wade through arcane details--and experience tells me this is a small group--I will directly address, point by point, the the issues raised by Kate Litvak and Max Schanzenbach.  But at the outset, I will say that I am not conceding any ground.

Big Picture

First off, it is important to understand why this topic generated so much traffic.  See Above the Law, ABA Daily Journal, TaxProf, InstapunditAdam Smith

It all started with a provocative blog post by Vivia Chen, the columnist for The Careerist.  Vivia reviewed hiring and promotion data from the NLJ 250 Law School Hiring Survey and noted that elite law school graduates were becoming partner in very low numbers when compared to the hiring pipeline. Vivia editorialized on the numbers in a way that played into readers' fragile egos and insecurities.  Of course, that is her job, which she does very well.

In a nutshell, here is why people care -- or more precisely, get anxious -- about this topic:  it is conventional wisdom that graduation from elite law schools produces better career outcomes.  When that expectation is countered by actual marketplace data, people are surprised.  See, e.g., Bruce MacEwen,  "The Best & The Brightest" at  Adam Smith Esq. (leading blog on law firm economics).  Surprise is the first reason this issue got so much play.  Emotion is the second.

Emotion matters because very few lawyers and law professors are dispassionate on this topic.  When it comes to conventional wisdom on law school pedigree, we all have horses in the race.  Because we are human beings, we lawyers and law professors don't wait for balanced market data to develop our own entrenched worldviews.  When the conventional wisdom favors us, we go with it -- albeit we aren't really conscious this is happening. So when data upset the apple cart and potentially make us look complacent, our passions get aroused. 

The folks at Above the Law have built a entire business model around such predictable lawyer foibles.  The more chum thrown in the water, the higher the ad revenues.  It's just that simple.

Vivia's primary point, stated through metaphor, is that regional schools (such as Chicago Loyola) seem to be making partner at higher rates than the elite schools (such as Chicago).  This is a reasonable inference because the ratio of associates hired to partners promoted appears to be consistently high for elite law schools and very low for a large number of regional law schools.  This very point was made independently by Bruce MacEwen, who is a very sophisticated guy who advises law firms on strategy.

That said, there was ample opportunity for readers to draw spurious inferences from Vivia's metaphor-driven blog post.  Thus, to avoid any school-specific claims (a 1-year crossectional sample is not suitable for such a purpose), I pooled the schools by U.S. News ranking, drawing a line between elite and non-elite at the T14 mark.  Why T14?  Because these schools have played a closed loop of musical chairs for 20 years in the U.S. News rankings.  These schools would be viewed by most employers as "national" law schools.  

Here is what the data showed:

  • Pipeline in:  53.7% T14, 46.3% non-T14
  • Partners Promoted: 29.4% T14. 70.6% non-T14.

That is, well, an enormous skew. In 2011, for every 5.43 elite grads hired, a senior associate from an elite school makes partner.  For non-elite schools, that corresponding statistic is 1.95.  Vivia found these numbers surprising and somewhat counter-intuitive.  So did Bruce MacEwen, Above the Law, ABA Journal, etc.

There are ways to break down these numbers to gain additional insights, but the key point here is one of magnitude.  Elite law graduates are supposed to be smarter and more capable -- no one expects these folks to be on short side of any race, tournament or desired outcome.  The magnitude of hiring/promotion gap is the surprising fact that needs to be explained.

I had observed roughly the same skew several years ago (pooled 2007 and 2008 data) and alluded to it in this article, "Why is the Job Market Changing," Nat'l Jurist (Nov. 2010).  I also follow other relevant studies, such as The After the JD, which have noted differences between elite and non-elite graduates.   So I had a head start in thinking through possible explanations. I thus offered five theories, all of which could work in concert, to explain the large skew in the data:

  1. Selection effects
  2. Differences in first jobs
  3. Intergeneraional privilege
  4. Influence of admission criteria on the associate pipeline
  5. "A Better Plan B" for elite grads

So, to be very clear, I am not using the NLJ 250 data to support the above theories.  It is the reverse: I am offering the above theories as a likely explanation for the very large skew between elite and nonelite grads.  Framed as a open-ended research question, it might be written, "why are elite grads not becoming BigLaw partners in numbers commensurate with hiring patterns and general presumptions of their higher ability?"  That is a mystery and a puzzle.

Statistics Minutiae  [After the jump ...]

Continue reading

March 17, 2012 in Blog posts worth reading, Data on legal education, Data on the profession, Law Firms, New and Noteworthy, Scholarship on legal education, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, March 9, 2012

"Too Good for BigLaw": The Statistician Edition

ViviaMy good friend and provocateur Vivia Chen has posted a stir-the-pot column on the recent NLJ 250 Law School Hiring Survey.  The title of the column, "Too Good for BigLaw," is classic Vivia, speaking to our fragile egos as people and lawyers.  Reviewing the data on associates hired and partners promoted by law school, Vivia notes a significant shortfall in the number of elite law schools who become BigLaw partners.  One theory, suggested by Vivia, is that elite law school grads must have better options.  Regardless, the hierarchical nature of the legal profession may not be so neatly ordered after all.

I am confident that Vivia's column will create a wellspring of indignation among several thousand people who want to believe that getting into a fancy law school makes them permanently special.  And if they aren't special, the ruler must be broken.  I am the original source of the numbers, so I feel an obligation--albeit not a very big one--to reduce the anxiety level.  So below I wrote out a more dispassionate explanation of the numbers.  This is the Statistician Edition of "Too Good for BigLaw."

Vivia's Interpretation. 

The first point of clarification is that "Too Good for BigLaw" is one interpretation of the data -- one that is plausible, but others are plausible and perhaps more likely.  The virtue of Vivia's spin is that is gets your attention so she can make a simple, accurate point:  elite law school admission does not translate into Big Law partnership.  But one line is pure metaphor:  "If you want to make a safe bet ... put your money on the hardworking stiffs from ... Chicago—Loyola [rather than the 'wunderkids' from U of Chicago]."  If you are fixated on the literal, let me assure you that lots of other factors tend to intervene on the journey from law school to partner.  Hang on.  Don't panic. 

Limitations of the Data

The NLJ 250 Law School Hiring Survey is what is called a "cross-sectional" sample.  Think of a cross-sectional sample as a photo snapshot.  And, as life teaches us, snapshots can be misleading.  For example, if I said I was handsome in my 20s, ten photographs (one per year randomly drawn) would be more persuasive than a single phone.  (Given my druthers, I would prefer you look at the photo from my sister's wedding, where I was wearing a tuxedo and had a nice summer tan.)  Because snapshots are subject to random variability, the inferences to be drawn have to be properly cabined and qualified. 

In the case 2012 NLJ 250 data, we lack a reasonable basis for making strong school-specific claims. So, to be crystal clear, we cannot draw the inference that Chicago-Loyola is a better partnership bet that University of Chicago.  To draw stronger, more reliable inferences, we would need to average across multiple years. That said, if you doubt the accuracy of Vivia's regional-versus-elite law school metaphor, see Ted Seto, Where Do Partners Come From? (2011).

But What We Can Say?

Although it is improper to make (literal) school-specific claims from the 2012 data, it is possible to make stronger, more reliable inferences by pooling these data on observable school-level attributes, such as elite versus non-elite status based on U.S. News ranking.  This is appropriate because the school-level variability is, for the most part, random (good and bad years cancel each other out); and what is non-random (e.g., a economic recession) tends to apply to all law schools. 

Consider the following statistics on 2011 hiring and promotions of graduates of Top 14 versus non-Top 14 law schools (why T14? because these schools have played musical chairs in the U.S. News since the dawn of the rankings):

  • Associates hired: 1,769 (T14), 1,525 (non-T14), or 53.7% to 46.3%
  • Promotions:  326 (T14), 781 (non-T14), or 29.4% to 70.6%

Using the Associate hired/Partner Promoted ratio statistics referred to by Vivia, the ratio of associates hired to partners promoted is 5.43 for T14 versus 1.95 for the non-T14.  The ratio for all schools is 2.98.  So, there is a very large skew working against the elite law school grads.  The takeaway from these numbers is very straightforward.  There is a very big pipeline between T14 and BigLaw, but at some point before partnership, T14 associates tend to get off the train in disproportionately high numbers.

(A few readers may cling to the idea that one year's worth of data is not enough to draw the above inferences.  Maybe 2011 was a Black Swan, but please don't place any bets on it. I analyzed this same data four years ago and got essentially the same results.)

So Why Aren't the T14 Grads Dominating the BigLaw Partnership Ranks?

Good question.  Based on admissions criteria, these folks tend to have significantly higher test scores. And God knows, they enjoy a huge presumption of ability during law school recruiting--law firm hiring partners are incredibly brand-conscious. If partnership were the NCAA tournament, the T14 crowd would consistently be the number 1 and 2 seeds.

I have been thinking about this topic for several years.  Here are a few plausible theories, all of which can work in concert with one another.  Some are statistical, others are sociological:

1. Selection effects.  There are enormous selections effects at work.  In effect, we are pitting the #1 to 20 persons at Chicago-Loyola against anyone at U of Chicago.  It is unlikely that factors such as personality and motivation are identical in these two populations.  Another enormous selection effect is intrinsic interest in corporate law -- does anyone really believe that the 75% of Stanford, Penn or Harvard grads who start their careers in BigLaw have a burning passion to do technical, often times repetitive legal work for the Fortune 500? 

2. First jobs.  Elite graduates, whenever given the choice, tend to start at the most elite firms possible.  And, no surprise, these shops are the most highly leveraged and have the highest wash-out rates.  See Zaring & Henderson, Young Associates in Trouble (2008). But here is the big surprise: the next stop on the train is not somewhere else in the NLJ 250. These folks are not moving down; they are moving out.

3. Inter-generational privilege.  The After the JD study has documented that elite law school graduates tend to hail from more affluent families.  They also evince less interest in corporate law.  See Dinovitzer & Garth, Not that Into You, Am. Law. (Sept 2009).  When mom and dad are both lawyers, and grandpa owned a factory, maybe it's time to focus on art and travel.   In effect, one's inheritance becomes one's safety net.

4. Influence of admissions criteria.  Over the last 20 years, admissions committees have focused more and more on LSAT and UGPA; conversely, personal statements, letters of reference, and career histories hold very little sway.  This has fundamentally altered the BigLaw pipeline with students who are (excessively?) academic and lack significant brushes with real world adversity--not ideal grooming for a high stress professional service job.  I think these "supply chain" dynamics are uniformly overlooked by employers--big mistake.  Michigan Law circa 1982 is not Michigan Law circa 2012.

5. "A Better Plan B."  I know a lot of people in the law world will cling to the notion that elite law school graduates are running government agencies, leaving the law for Wall Street, and generally living very charmed lives.   I am sure there is something to this theory.  But I doubt it is carrying the load on the BigLaw associate/partner attrition puzzle.  My own class at U of Chicago (Class of 2001) has a broad assortment of legal careers -- but nothing too markedly different than many of the alumni of Indiana Law, where I teach.  Ten years out, lawyers from decent law schools tend to be having interesting careers -- with "interesting" being the core commonality.

Perhaps it is time we focused on the skills and attributes of successful law graduates rather than the name of the law school on their diplomas.  Law professors as a group are more alike than different.  Does anyone really believe that classes at an elite law school are much different -- let alone better -- than the instruction received at 100 regional law schools taught by professors from elite law schools? 

I think law schools can have a huge impact on the lives of students, but that is a strategy that  remains largely untapped.  And a topic for a future post.

[Posted by Bill Henderson]

March 9, 2012 in Blog posts worth reading, Data on legal education, Data on the profession, Law Firms | Permalink | Comments (18)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Feedback and Presentation Skills

Here is a interesting video on how large firm lawyers (specifically lawyers at Duane Morris) are getting training on the basic of good presentations skills.  The touchstones are stories and humor.  The method for acquiring these skills is practice and feedback.   Some folks might think this is obvious and thus too simplistic or basic to invest in.  The result:  a knowing-doing gap.  I see is over and over again.  

The short case study overview of the training (albeit written by the trainers) is online here.

February 24, 2012 in Data on the profession, Fun and Learning in the classroom, Law Firms | Permalink | Comments (0)