Playing the Odds of Making Partner

In a recent column for The Am Law Daily, Northwestern University law professor and retired Kirkland & Ellis partner Steven Harper compares the odds of today’s law students making partner at a big law firm to that of playing the lottery. Harper bases his comparison off of a recent New York Times Magazine article written by Adam Douglas, which maintains today’s graduates seeking work in many professions are facing an employment lottery, one where the prospects of achieving a dream is much more glamorous than the lifestyle and odds it takes to get there.

Douglas targets the entertainment and legal industries as two such fields, where young employees and associates with big dreams of reaching the top often find themselves left wanting. Or as Douglas puts it, working in mailrooms and back offices. Harper keenly compares this thinking to that described in Stephen Dubner’s and Steven Levitt’s well-known book, Freakonomics, where they take a closer look at the “otherwise irrational behavior” of drug-dealing gangs where “legions of foot soldiers work the streets as they seek to one day become kingpins”.

What is interesting is that these odds have not deterred thousands from trying their luck. Though numbers of law school applicants and LSAT test takers have declined slightly over the past year, the number of today’s law graduates still far outpaces the number of jobs available.

As Harper explains, “The National Law Journal just released its annual list of the NLJ 250’s ‘Go-to law schools’ from which the nation’s biggest firms draw the most new associates. In 2007, the top 20 law schools sent 55% of graduates to big firms; in 2011, only 36%. As the job market for new attorneys languishes, most of last year’s 50,000 law school graduates would count those new associates as already having won a lottery. But the real story is that they have actually acquired a ticket to one or two more lotteries.”

The one or two more lotteries Harper refers to are the one or two more decisions made on whether or not that associate makes income partner, and then equity partner. As Harper notes, “the big law lottery has become a two-step ordeal. Merit still matters, but attaining even the highest skill level is only a minimum requirement and not sufficient for advancement. “

The statistics tell the story. As Harper illustrates, “In 2011, 47 Harvard Law graduates went from associate to big firm partner. That sounds like a lot, except that five years earlier (2006) Harvard sent 338 graduates into large firms. Although that 15 percent rate isn’t as bad as the lottery’s odds, winnowing the number down to only those who will become equity partners comes pretty close. (A time lag of five years isn’t quite long enough for the groups of new and promoted associates to match exactly, especially given that partner tracks have become longer. But it’s adequate to illustrate the point.)

Other top schools’ graduates face even worse odds. Columbia Law sent 313 graduates to big firms in 2006; just 31 of its grads went from associate to partner in 2011. In 2006, 143 Northwestern Law grads got big firm jobs; in 2011, 14 NU graduates advanced from associate to partners. The University of Pennsylvania’s 2006 class sent 187 into big firms; those firms promoted 15 Penn associates to partner last year.”

Thus, today’s law grads are playing the odds, hoping their lottery ball is picked. Much like the legions of foot soldiers on the streets, hoping to become kingpin. Economically, this behavior is irrational and hard to explain. Is it the kingpins’ resistance that is to blame, who themselves were once were foot soldiers? Or is the cultural allure of getting to the top and achieving the glamorous life? Perhaps it’s both.

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General Counsel – Critical Issues

General counsel are required to know something about every business in their corporation and mitigate risks. As a result, they are in many ways at the center of the company. In Nigel Holloway’s January article “General Counsel on Their Issues for 2012”, Holloway discusses the critical issues facing GCs for the coming year. In a joint research effort between Corporate Counsel and ALM Legal Intelligence, Holloway examined the responses of 107 GCs and their deputies at U.S. corporations in a recent survey.

The responses were intriguing. One question asked about their fears and the biggest corporate risks they envision in 2012. Of 8 possible responses, 51% chose an event or a change in business conditions that specifically affects their firm or industry. 11% and 4%, respectively, chose risks such as a collapse of the U.S. dollar or a breakup of the Eurozone, even though the survey was administered in the midst of Greece’s economic plight late last year.

Holloway goes on to note that follow-up interviews revealed fear of the unknown as a central theme. Said one GC of a Myrtle Beach-based electronics manufacturer: “One of those things that you worry about is: What don’t I know? I worry less about things that I know.” Yet surprisingly given the apparent anxiety, Holloway pointed out that 47% reported they had not updated their crisis-management plan for the year, compared with only 36% who had. 17% percent said they were unsure if they had a crisis management plan.

Some of this, Holloway maintains, is due to the fact that GCs and executives are often overly optimistic about their own business prospects, and also because many feel their crisis-management plans need not change if management stays the same. But with the growing threat social media outlets pose to a company’s reputation, GCs and their execs should be advised to update them regularly.

The survey also asked questions about data security and the global supply chain. Overall, it seems these were not significant concerns for many GCs. Of those that had foreign operations, 61% said their antibribery program was relatively strong. When looking at data security, 49% said they were “reasonably certain” their company’s procedures would prevent “hacking and other data leaks”. 19% either indicated concern over hacking or didn’t know what preventative procedures were currently in place.

Another problem cited by GCs is that they are often perceived by business leaders as reactive. 53% felt they were brought in too late to deal with matters effectively, and 28% admitted they felt perceived by company execs as roadblocks rather than facilitators. To combat this, a majority of the respondents said they would hold more frequent meetings next year with the heads of business units, and almost a quarter said the relationships that most need improving in 2012 are with the CFO, CEO and the board. Holloway concluded by saying the biggest problem reported by GCs (61%) relates to regulatory and the increasing number and complexity of regulations. Closely behind at 53%, GCs cited the pressure to do more with fewer resources.