Think like an owner

by Sandy Lechtick
Daily Journal

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, my father often drove us through the City and pointed out old, historic buildings that were once the most elegant, stately and expensive in the 20’s and 30’s. Now, as we could see, the buildings were shabby eyesores in run down neighborhoods. It was kind of sad.

Fast-forward 50-plus years later. With new landlords, cash infusions and progressive civic thinkers, the pendulum has swung back. Many of these buildings are once again stately, elegant and beautiful and have regained much of their past glory. It is an extraordinary feat.

It occurred to me that it’s not just real estate or the hemline of women’s skirts where things go up and down, but the business and legal sectors too. History does indeed repeat itself and things often come full circle.

When my firm transitioned from the executive and corporate search industry to the legal search sector in the late 1980s, the market was a lot different. In fact, the whole lateral phenomenon in attorney placement was fairly new lawyers seldom changed law firms and to do so got you the label of “job-hopper.” The “free-agent” phenomenon was in its infancy.

While O’Melveny & Myers, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Latham & Watkins dominated the Los Angeles landscape and Pillsbury Madison & Sutro; Petit & Martin; Heller, Ehrman White & McAuliffe; Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison; Morrison & Foerster and Thelen Marrin sat at the top of the San Francisco heap, and Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps and Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich sat a top the San Diego heap, there were many smaller prominent firms. In Los Angeles, for example, Munger, Tolles & Olson and a young upstart called Quinn, Emanuel Urquhart, Oliver & Hedges (now Sullivan) rose to the top of the ranks. Most of the rest imploded, fragmented or got gobbled up. For example, Overton Lyman & Prince; Tuttle & Taylor; Kindel & Anderson; Ball Hunt; Gendel Raskoff; Kadison Phaelzer; Quinn Kully are all gone. Gray Cary is now part of DLA and Luce Forward just merged with McKenna, Long & Aldridge.

In the 1970s and 80s came the New York invasion and then they came from the Midwest and from Washington, D.C. Finley Kumble was the first big house of cards that fell and 40 years later it was Brobeck; Heller Ehrman; Thelen Reid and now Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Law firms were founded by hustlers and go-getters, highly regarded partners who were entrepreneurs and builders. Most were well known in the business community and hung out at places like Jonathan Club, the California Club, Athletic Club, or Hillcrest. Many were active in charities and cultural events helping grow and build the city.

Today, the “new” lawyer especially partners must think (like years past) more like owners. Yet, as large law firms get larger and the decision-making more centralized, many feel like employees. While partners promote their firm, today partners must promote themselves as well. The smart ones find a way to distinguish themselves from the hundreds of other partners who do the same things they do.

Today more then ever, the relationship between compensation, billable hours and collections is quite clear. Yet 25+ years ago, lawyers pretty much worked at the same firm their whole life. The womb-to-tomb mindset has changed considerably. Today’s lawyers now realize that their greatest form of security and financial well being is their reputation, their work ethic and the relationships they’ve formed internally and externally.

Today’s lawyers especially partners have a free-market value and recognize they are profit centers. Revenue they generate, business they control, their billing, realization rates and originations dictate their fortunes inside the firm and in the marketplace. Success enhances their compensation and status at their existing firm or provides options should they wish to move.

Lawyers today are much more technology savvy, more wired and much more sophisticated on tapping the power of computers, the Internet and social media. While it’s true that it’s tough teaching an old dog new tricks, most attorneys, even older ones, have come up to speed. More have enhanced their profile on the Internet, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. Many have “blogs.

I can recall in my early executive search days in the mid 1970s how excited I was when my boss demonstrated this new machine called the fax where I could magically send a resume over the phone line rather than have to wait several days for a postal system response.

Today, email may take 2 or 3 seconds, and feedback may be just as fast. Soon the fax machine will be extinct and where the Blackberry has been the attorney’s second office, with the smart phone revolution, more have switched to the Apple iPhone and the Google Droid. With thousands of apps, some are finding their way into the attorney’s ability to organize, facilitate and speed up important functions and staying wired.

More attorneys are spending more time out of their office and trekking all over the U.S. or to different parts of the world. Being wired is hugely important and a major change from several years ago, especially in the 24/7 news cycle.

Since there is so much more information readily available via computers and the Internet, lawyers especially partners can much more quickly size up their competitors or do market research. As legal recruiters we propose law firm A or B, the candidate will look at the firm’s website, examine partner bios, evaluate clients, the number of lawyers in key practice areas, location of offices, etc. Law firms and lawyers recognize their website and individual bios will receive a great deal more eyeball attention and close scrutiny. Lawyers have become more sophisticated as to information they require, the questions they ask. I have found that while there is always discussion of compensation, more of the questions center on the firm’s platform, growth opportunities, specific clients, low-hanging fruit, billing rates, how and where they would fit, expectations and the firm’s vision for the future.

In every firm, there are always the finders, minders and grinders. Today, because of necessity, more lawyers are thinking and acting more like finders and less like minders. Today, more lawyers incorporate a combination of all. However, many of our law firm clients do not just want a partner who is simply a finder who generates business and farms it out, but someone who also does a chunk of it himself as in the 1,800 to 2000- plus billable hour range. On the other hand, law firms want more than just minders or grinders and the distinction is blurring. In addition, more law firms today are focusing resources and mentoring to mid-level to senior associates generating business, originating new relationships and social media enhancement.

Lawyers today are much more computer savvy, more wired and increasingly jumping on the social media bandwagon. And there is no question that we are living in a multi-tasking world. However, as effective time management becomes more important, the trends I see today are that the new lawyer is not so new after all, but doing many of the things that business getters and hustlers did yesteryear albeit in a much more wired world!

Sandy Lechtick specializes in partner placement. He is president and founder of Esquire Inc. and heads the firm’s law firm mergers and practice group acquisition division. He has been retained as an expert witness by several major firms in employment matters and litigation.

He can be reached at sandy@esquiresearch.com, www.esquiresearch.com or (818) 712-9700