Paul Lippe at the AmLawDaily opines that corporate spending on BigLaw will go down over the next few years, imperiling the "leverage" model whereby equity partners "leverage" their own time by delegating much of their work to associates, whom they bill out at a substantial premium. BigLaw leverage runs from one associate for each partner up to eight(!) associates per partner. Here’s two of Lippe’s reasons why:
First, associate time is a pricing mechanism, not an indicator of value. Like so much in the modern law firm model, the explosion in associate hours, rates, and leverage began with the Cravath IBM antitrust defense in the 1970s and 1980s, when the firm discovered that in the quintessential "bet the company" case IBM would willingly pay full freight for associate time on massive and pretty routine document review, and that in turn would drive up Cravath’s profits dramatically. Since this wasn’t particularly compelling work for the associates, the firm had to raise salaries to hold onto folks, triggering the great associate salary escalation.
Second, clients have always recognized that associate time is overpriced. Every client I know views associate time as the price for getting access to partner time and to the firm "brand." In truth, there are two billable hours: the partner’s, which should reflect deep expertise and judgment about the client, the law, and best practices, and the associate’s, which is generally spent on some form of information processing, which clients recognize as relatively poorly managed compared to other arenas of information processing. As Susan Hackett, general counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel, recently put it, "I don’t have a problem with the $1,000-an-hour lawyer, but the $350-an-hour junior associate isn’t worth it."
I agree with Lippe’s final conclusion that firm revenues will go down, forcing firms to look for profit elsewhere through alternative fee arrangements (contingent fee, fixed fee, blended fee, etc), as I’ve discussed before.
But the two reasons given above are fundamentally inconsistent with one another. If IBM will "willingly pay full freight for associate time on massive and pretty routine document review," then they obviously find it "worth it" to pay a junior associate $350-an-hour to comb through documents. It’s not like these arrangements developed by accident; leverage has been a long, slow dance between BigLaw and Corporate America.
But why are companies willing to pay such outsized attorneys’ fees? Because if you’re the type of in-house counsel or executive who demands a "$1,000-an-hour lawyer" at the century-old firm in a famous building in Manhattan, then you’re almost certainly the type of person who would throw a fit if you learned that some loser from Fordham or Vanderbilt or — the horror! — a state-supported law school was doing document review in a third-rate hillbilly village like Cincinnati or Albuquerque.
But the bigger issue is: big companies that hire big firms aren’t looking for "value," they’re looking to show to their opponents, competitors and themselves that they hired "the best."
Sure, there’s internal pressure for executives and general counsel to keep legal costs in line, but there’s far more pressure to "spare no expense." Even moreso, if things go wrong — as they often do in corporate transactions or corporate litigation — then who takes the blame?
An executive or vice president who put down six, seven or eight figures to get "the best" firm "to go all out" will rarely shoulder the blame when the bigshot firm adds 179 contracts to the billion-dollar Lehman / Barclay deal or reveals the $65 million-dollar confidential Facebook settlement.
What if that had happened after a VP or general counsel had smartly set up a monthly flat fee with a non-Manhattan boutique? The fear alone keeps many big companies firmly in BigLaw’s grasp.
And that’s just basic errors — what about "bet the company" or big ticket litigation? No one ever got sacked for hiring Cravath, Wachtell or Sullivan & Cromwell and losing miserably. The same cannot be said for executives or VPs who were "cheap" and hired some "lesser" firm.
Finally, there’s the psychological "leverage" that clients think they have when name-dropping a big firm with hundreds of lawyers, as if the whole firm is prepared to storm the bastille. Given the way people talk about some of these firms, I sometimes wonder if companies believe that judges decide cases on numerical superiority alone.
Overall, the internal dynamics in big corporations are far more important in determining the biglaw market than objective evaluations of "value." When all is said and done, complaints about leverage are largely that — complaints. If they wanted to do something about it, there’s an ample market of boutique firms ready and waiting, firms which, like mine, have no trouble picking up corporate clients where the leadership is focused protecting the company, not their own backside.