DEAR BUBBAS AND BUBBETTES,

Here are a few interesting questions to contemplate:

“What would western capitalism be like without seemingly incurable greed?”

“What other avaricious fuel could feed these insatiable fires?”

“And how can it really be that today so many ripoffsters are so profoundly indifferent to the misery they are bringing to so many of the untermenchen of the world?”

“Finally, Is there a possible cure?”

What do you think???

IS IT REALLY MORE COMPLEX THAN GREED?

By Sreven J. Harper, Esq, TheBellyoftheBeast, 10 July 2012.

Revisionism is already obfuscating the story of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s demise. If facts get lost, the profession’s leaders will learn precious little from an important tragedy.

For example, the day after Dewey & LeBoeuf filed its bankruptcy petition, Clifford Winston and Robert W. Crandall, two non-lawyer fellows at the Brookings Institution, wrote an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal offering this analysis:

“Dewey’s collapse has been attributed to the firm being highly leveraged and unable to attract investment from businesses outside the legal profession.” (see below).

Attributed by whom? They don’t say. Anyone paying attention knows that outside investors bought $150 million in Dewey bonds. But apparently for commentators whose agenda includes proving that overregulation is the cause of everyone’s problems — including the legal profession’s — there’s no reason to let facts get in the way.

Another miss

On the same day that the Winston & Crandall article appeared, a less egregious but equally mistaken assessment came from Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor William Henderson in the Am Law Daily: “More Complex than Greed.” Bill and I agree on many things. I consider him a friend and an important voice in a troubled profession. But I think his analysis of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s failure misses the mark.

Henderson suggests,

“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 become better people. That narrative is wrong.”

What’s wrong with it? In my view, not much, as “House of Cards” in the July/August issue of The American Lawyer now makes painfully clear.

What happened?

Rather than the greed that pervades “House of Cards,” Henderson suggests that Dewey & LeBoeuf reveals the failure of law firms to innovate in response to growing threats from new business models, such as Axiom and Novus Law. Innovation is an important issue and Henderson is right to push it. But as the story of Dewey’s failure unfolds, the inability to innovate in the ways that Henderson suggests — using technology and cheaper labor to achieve efficiencies and cost savings — won’t emerge as the leading culprit.

Rather, greed and the betrayal of professional ideals lie at the heart of what is destabilizing many big law firms. In that respect, most current leaders have changed the model from what it was 25 years ago. Am Law 100 firms’ average partner profits soared from $325,000 in 1987 to $1.4 million in 2011. Behind that stunning increase are leadership choices, some of which eroded partnership values. As a result, many big firms have become more fragile. If greed doesn’t explain the following pervasive trends, what does?

Short-term metrics — billings, billlable hours, leverage — drive partner compensation decisions in most big firms. Values that can’t be measured — collegiality, community, sense of shared purpose — get ignored. When a K-1 becomes the glue that holds partnerships together, disintegration comes rapidly with a financial setback.

Yawning gaps in the highest-to-lowest equity partner compensation. Twenty-five years ago at non-lockstep firms, the typical spread was 4-to-1 or 5-to-1; now it often exceeds 10-to-1 and is growing. That happens because people at the top decide that “more” is better (for them). Among other things, the concomitant loss of the equity partner “middle class” reduces the accountability of senior leaders.

Leverage has more than doubled since 1985 and the ranks of non-equity partners have swelled. That happens when people in charge pull up the ladder.

Lateral hiring and merger frenzy is rampant. One reason is that many law firm leaders have decided that bigger is better. The fact that “everybody else is doing it” reinforces errant behavior. Growth also allows managers to rationalize their bigger paychecks on the grounds that they’re presiding over larger institutions.

Throughout it all, associate satisfaction languishes at historic lows. No one surveys partners systematically, but plenty of them are unhappy, too. Unfortunately, such metrics that don’t connect directly to the short-term bottom line often get ignored.

Innovation won’t solve the problem

A few successful, stable law firms have shunned the now prevailing big law model. They innovate as needed, but far more important has been their ability to create a culture in which some short-term profit gives way to the profession’s long-term values. What is now missing from most big law firms was once pervasive: a long-run institutional vision and the willingness to implement it. Too often, greed gets in the way.

With all due respect to Messrs. Winston, Crandall and Henderson, sometimes the simplest explanation may also be the correct one.

WINSTON AND CRANDALL: THE LAW FIRM BUSINESS MODEL IS DYING

Rules that were adopted to protect the legal profession from outside competition are actually stifling it.

By Clifford Winston and Robert W. Crandall, WSJ, 29 May 2012.

Mr. Winston is a senior fellow and Mr. Crandall is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. They are co-authors, with Vikram Mahesri, of "First Thing We Do, Let's Deregulate All The Lawyers" (Brookings, 2011).

On Monday night the century-old law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf filed for bankruptcy—following in the footsteps of other venerable firms such as Howrey & Simon, Heller Ehrman, Coudert Brothers, and Brobeck, Phelger and Harrison. It is easy to think that greedy lawyers are getting their just deserts. But this should not blind us from seeing that there is a better way for America's law firms to do business.

The problems these firms face today are twofold: Large clients are increasingly using in-house counsel to reduce costs, and the public is increasingly taking the do-it-yourself route given the growing access to a variety of legal services and documents on the Internet. The rational response would be for new, low-cost legal firms to start up, and for incumbents to reduce costs and attract new clients by providing innovative services.

But that is happening only to a limited extent because of state licensing requirements and American Bar Association (ABA) rules. Deregulation could open the market and transform the legal industry for the better.

Regulatory barriers have hamstrung other sectors of the economy in the past until the arrival of deregulation. For example, Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) regulations raised railroad rates for decades after its inception in 1887. But with the proliferation of motor vehicles, trucks began to capture a large share of rail freight traffic.

Then trucks were included under the ICC's regulatory umbrella in 1935, to prevent railroads' freight market share from continuing to erode. But by raising trucking rates, the ICC induced some shippers to buy and operate their own trucks, exacerbating rail's woes. Similarly, Civil Aeronautics Board regulations elevated airline fares, and by the late 1950s—when interstate highway travel was possible—the high fares limited the percentage of seats filled with paying passengers.

The deregulation of transportation that began during the late 1970s enabled motor, air and rail carriers to reduce costs and, particularly in the case of railroads and airlines, to regain market share by offering consumers lower prices and better service.

How have regulations caused the demise of long-established "white-shoe" law firms? Much legal work is performed by associates, who in most states must graduate from a law school accredited by the ABA and pass a state bar examination. This form of licensing significantly limits the flow of new legal practitioners. It also means would-be lawyers must make a substantial upfront educational investment in money and time that must be recouped in high salaries later.

Such salaries can be and are paid because licensing limits competition in the legal profession, and because partners derive much of their own inflated earnings from associates' work.

But when law firms are under pressure to reduce costs, it is difficult for the partners to significantly reduce their reliance on associates without severely affecting their ability to serve clients. Efforts to outsource some tasks have met with only limited success.

While law firms can and do get bank loans, ABA regulations prohibit banks, private-equity firms or other corporations from owning or having an ownership stake in a law firm. This limits a law firm's financing options and raises its capital costs. Dewey's collapse has been attributed to the firm being highly leveraged and unable to attract investment from businesses outside the legal profession.

Law firms are aware of the value that professional business managers can add to their operations. But regulations that prohibit the ownership of law firms by nonlawyers prevent those firms from fully realizing the value of managerial skills and oversight that professional management could bring.

Finally, because regulations prevent corporations from providing legal services other than their own legal counsel, a law firm today cannot realize efficiencies or make more money by merging with a firm outside the legal profession to provide financial and accounting services, for example, along with legal services.

Eliminating regulations on who may provide legal services and who may own and operate a law firm could result in substantial efficiencies. Deregulated firms and new legal entities could reduce costs by hiring a variety of people to provide legal services—some who have completed three years of law school and some who have not.

Such firms would be better positioned to explore the substitution of capital for labor—for example, by accelerating the use of sophisticated Web searches as a substitute for manual document searches, and by using other information technology to ensure that corporate clients comply with government regulations.

New firms not necessarily owned by lawyers would bring new ideas, new technologies, new talents, and new operating procedures into the practice of law. This process has certainly happened elsewhere, the way Freddie Laker and Southwest Airlines brought new operating efficiencies to the airline industry, or the way satellite and cable brought a multitude of new programming to a once-stagnant television industry controlled by three broadcast networks.

As legal fees fell and services improved and expanded, many corporate clients would begin to downsize their internal legal departments. They would go back to relying principally on outside legal help, much as shippers have returned to deregulated for-hire trucking companies and less-regulated railroads. American businesses would reap the economies of specialization and technical progress that a rejuvenated legal-services industry could provide.

 


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