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The last days of big law: What happens when the money dries up

This is an amazing read in the New Republic at what happens when a recession hits the legal profession. This is a fascinating glimpse inside the inner workings of global law firms.

There was frustration with other aspects of the new compensation system, too. Previously, partners were reluctant to ask colleagues to help on their pitches, because credit was a zero-sum game: If a partner landed the business, she would have to award some of the credit to the colleague, leaving less for herself. Under the new rules, the firm allowed the partner to claim up to 100 percent of the credit herself, then dole out up to 100 percent more among any partners who had helped.

This encouraged collaboration at times, according to several former partners. The downside was that many began to view the additional 100 percent worth of credit as a slush fund, ladling it out to friends with little role in their cases or transactions. “It led to sleazy deals,” recalls one former partner. “It took about thirty seconds for people to figure it out.” Says a former finance lawyer of two senior partners in his group: “I saw the billing going around. One was getting credit on stuff the second opened, and the second was getting credit for stuff the first one opened.” There seemed to be no way around it: The more Mayer Brown set out to fix its problems, the more deviously its partners behaved.

Then there is this.

As demeaning as life can be for a partner these days, it’s altogether soul-crushing for an associate. One of Mayer Brown’s young attorneys recalled scaling back her hours around the time her first child was born. The new schedule meant getting to the office by 6:30 a.m. so she could leave by 6 p.m., in time to put her daughter to bed. The problem arose when she had to work late, a not infrequent occurrence. “Then you’re in the office from 6:30 a.m. till 1 a.m. It sucks even more,” she says. Periodically, some of the women partners would lead seminars on striking a work-life balance, but she found them of limited use. “The primary talk we would get was: ‘Outsource your life. Your husband can stay at home. Or you can hire a cook, a cleaning staff, and you can [spend time with your kids] on vacations.’ Thanks.”

The legal profession has, of course, struggled with these challenges for decades. The problem is that the rewards today are less certain than ever before. There is, for one thing, the ever-lengthening partnership track. In 2004, the firm introduced something called an “income partnership,” a probationary period in which promising lawyers have to prove their worth before earning an equity stake. To the outside world, it looked like the income partner had arrived. Her business card said she was a partner, as did the press release the company issued. But, in reality, making income partner typically means three-to-five more years of hustling, after which the lawyer may come up for the true promotion. (It wasn’t lost on associates that, when a lawyer becomes an equity partner, she receives a budget to order plush new furniture, while income partners keep “the same stuff I had,” as one put it.) Becoming a bona fide partner at Mayer Brown, like many of its competitors, is now a ten-to-twelve-year proposition.

This epically drawn-out process has exacerbated other problems. While it never hurt to have a well-connected mentor within a law firm, today such a rabbi is essential for making partner. Unfortunately, it can be agonizingly difficult to figure out who will have influence years down the line, since partners constantly come and go or lose status within the firm. “You have to pick a horse in the race,” says a former associate. “Your horse may win. It might get taken out back and shot. But if you don’t pick a horse, you have no chance.” In the early to mid-2000s, Mayer Brown’s New York office was dominated by two prominent litigators who didn’t get along and who eyed each other’s associates warily. “Your first year, you figure, ‘I’ll be nice to everybody,’” says the associate. “Three years down the road, being nice to everybody is not doing anything for me.”

As for their own protégés, the partners seem less invested than ever before. One former income partner told me the way he learned he had no future at the firm was through a two-line e-mail from the head of his practice group: “The partners have determined that you will not be an equity partner. If you have any questions, please contact me.” He promptly called the senior partners he had been closest to during his decade at the firm, two of whom had attended his wedding. Neither ever responded.

Even lawyers with a dedicated mentor have trouble making equity partner unless they meet a second criterion: demonstrating a potential for attracting clients. There is an irony that flows from this. Lawyers at an elite firm like Mayer Brown have typically spent their lives amassing intellectual credentials. They are high-school valedictorians and graduates of elite universities, with mantles full of Latin honors. They have made law review at top law schools and clerked for federal judges. When, somewhere between the second and fifth year of their legal careers, they discover that brainpower is only incidental to their professional advancement—that the real key is an aptitude for schmoozing—it can be a rude awakening.

One Comment

  1. Tom Jones says:

    The New Republic purports to be an “unbiased” political and cultural magazine. If you’re naive enough to believe that – then you’ll believe any drivel by this reporter.

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