Big Law Lessons from Golf and Bobby Jones

Bobby Jones is widely considered one of the greatest golfers of all time. He is right there in the conversation with Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, and Byron Nelson, among others. In many ways though, Jones was in a league of his own. He is the only golfer ever to win the “Grand Slam”, which he did in 1930 winning all 4 major golf events in the same calendar year. He also helped design the Augusta National in 1933 and co-founded The Masters in 1934.

But what is not as well-known about Jones, is that he was also a lawyer. He was a highly educated man, earning a BSME from Georgia Tech in 1922, an AB from Harvard in 1924, and a JD from Emory in 1926, whereafter he joined his father’s law firm Jones, Evins, Moore & Powell in Atlanta. Impressed yet? Perhaps even more impressive than that was the fact that Jones chose to remain an amateur throughout his golf career, simultaneously pursuing law and golf until age 28 when he retired from golf during the prime of his career. Jones’ reason: to focus on his family and his growing legal practice.

Jones was also famous for the quote: “Golf is a game that is played on a 5-inch course—the distance between your ears.” Isn’t the same true of law? In a January 17 article for The Recorder by Michele Corvi, a partner with McManis Faulkner, Corvi points out 10 “tips” and lessons which lawyers can take from golf:

  1. Keep your head down: Get in early, work hard, and stay late
  2. Follow through and do not hesitate: Take it 1 project at a time, and follow through
  3. Appearance matters: Like you how look, “a confident lawyer is a successful lawyer”
  4. Practice, practice, practice: Practice/preparation leads to consistency/confidence
  5. Be a good sport: Learn from the bad days and bogeys. Treat everyone with respect
  6. Set yourself up to succeed: Set realistic expectations, and push yourself by goals
  7. Play with people better than you: Learn from your peers, and invest in others
  8. Do not talk when someone else is swinging: Listen first and be respectful always
  9. Do not walk across anyone’s line on the green: Don’t let drive or focus blind you
  10. Keep your eye on the ball: Remember what you’re working towards and take aim

The similarities between golf and law are many. Golf is a beautiful, intricate sport which requires hard work, patience, and practice. Some days it is incredibly rewarding, others it is taxing and frustrating. The same is true of law. The playing fields are different—fairways and greens are more appealing than courtrooms, closings, and conference calls—but both possess many of the same lessons and fundamental approaches. Bobby Jones knew this better than anyone, and to everyone’s amazement, he chose a career in the law above golf.

Big Law Lessons from ‘Suits’ and ‘The Good Wife’

While overall hiring and demand for legal work may be down, the number of hit television shows about lawyers is certainly up. Two recent launches featuring top-tier lawyers as leads have captivated viewers—The Good Wife (CBS, 2009-Present), and Suits (USA, 2011-Present). Of course, both shows are fictional representations of what the world of big law is like. Yet a closer look at some of the recent developments on both, namely a partner leaving her firm to start her own shop, and another firm caught up in a merger gone bad still hold applicable lessons for the industry based on the recent trends we are seeing.

Good Wife

CBS’s The Good Wife follows the story of Alicia Florrick (Julianna Marguiles), a lawyer who returns to the courtroom after more than 10 years as a stay-at-home mom. Florrick’s return also follows the arrest of her husband Peter (a political figure and former attorney), who was jailed after a sex and corruption scandal. Florrick seeks refuge in her children and work, quickly becoming an equity partner at the mid-sized firm of Lockhart & Gardner. Recently in the show, Florrick decides to leave Lockhart and start her own shop, taking with her a large client and a number of the firm’s associates. The move leaves Florrick’s friend and former colleague Will Gardner (Josh Charles), a named partner at Lockhart, feeling deeply betrayed and in the difficult position of defining Lockhart’s future without Florrick and the client that she took with her.

USA’s Suits, on the other hand, follows the story of junior associate Mike Ross (Patrick Adams) and senior partner Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) at the firm of Pearson Specter in New York. Pearson is known as one of the top firms in the world, and they have a reputation for strictly hiring Harvard law grads. However, they make an exception when Specter (widely known as the best lawyer in New York) decides to hire Ross as his associate. Ross has a unique background—he is not a lawyer, but a sharp twenty-something with a photographic memory. He was on his way to enrolling at Harvard Law School before getting caught up in a marijuana deal gone wrong. Nonetheless, Ross is able to convince Specter to bring him on by proving he will be the best lawyer he has ever seen. The show tracks Ross’s and Specter’s relationship, the cases they try, and their efforts to keep Ross’s secret from getting out.

What can we learn about the world of big law from these two shows?

Florrick’s departure is one that has become the natural response for many law firm managers given the lingering recession and stagnant demand for legal work. Soon after Florrick leaves, Gardner’s first moves are to target high-dollar, high-profile laterals, to inject momentum and increase profitability. He also chooses to open a New York office, and unveils a new logo/moniker for the firm: “LG”. His stated objective is to “destroy the competition”. Whether the strategy works for Gardner and the firm remains to be seen, but it is clear that he is set on growth for growth’s sake, and as Steven Harper of The American Lawyer said in a recent article, the strategic plans of many big law firms identify “no institutional mission beyond getting bigger.”

Similarly, the main characters in Suits are dealing with struggles over firm stability and cash flow in the face of looming financial woes. Pearson Specter managing partner Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres) sees a merger as the best and only option, agreeing to a merger with London-based Darby International. This was against the wishes of her second-in-command, Specter. The merger eventually goes through but is later dissolved after Specter and Ross are able to help right the firm financially. In the process they also find out that Darby is not what he seems, and they are able to convince Pearson that the firm is better off as they were before—without Darby, his money, or a London office.

SuitsBoth shows portray firms considering very real dilemmas. One thing that is clear—there is no magic formula or single best course of action. And often we will not know for some time if the decisions we make will pay off.

But here is what we do know. For one thing, record numbers of firms are merging—in fact, 78 mergers had been announced as of November 2013, eclipsing the previous record of 70 in 2008. However, this begs the question: is bigger necessarily better in today’s legal climate? For more on that, check out this Wall Street Journal article written by Jennifer Smith on November 10. We also know others are aggressively targeting key “rainmaker” partners and up-and-coming lateral associates. For some, the strategy appears to be working. For others, there is a growing sense that a reliance on lateral hiring could be destabilizing firms. A recent American Lawyer article by William Henderson and Christopher Zorn speaks to that perspective.

One thing is certain—there will always a place for mergers and for bringing on experienced lateral talent. But along with such decisions come much needed conversations about firm culture, compatibility, control, and the long-term effects that such decisions can have. While both the Good Wife and Suits growth strategies provide short term stability, resources, and perhaps positive press, the real questions law firm managers should be asking are whether their decisions stem from the correct motives, and what the longer-term implications may be for them and their firms.

2013 in Review: Two Trends in Law Schools

Two major trends have emerged over the past year in law schools around the country: (1) schools are piloting programs for students and grads to gain experience in-house, and (2) the ABA is now reconsidering implementing a practical skills requirement.

First, according to a December 2 National Law Journal article by Karen Sloan, schools like schools like Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, University of Colorado Law School, and Northeastern University School of Law are teaming up with companies like Diamonds International, Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, Bank of New York Mellon, and Consolidated Edison where companies hire alums and recent grads on a one year, temporary basis at an affordable salary (i.e. around $40,000). As Sloan points out, this goes against “a prevalent notion that new lawyers don’t belong in-house”, as “legal departments have traditionally shied away from hiring green lawyers and training law students, preferring instead to hire laterally from law firms”. However, working with tighter budgets and an increased hesitancy due to the lingering recession, the appeal for companies is growing stronger. The appeal for students and alums is even more obvious. Such programs afford young lawyers the opportunity to build their skillsets and resumes at a younger age and experience level than has long been the norm. Moreover, there is great potential for companies and candidates alike to discern whether the match could be a long-term fit.

Second, law schools are also closely following developments with the American Bar Association. The ABA is currently considering whether to require that students complete up to 15 hours of “practical skills” credit hours. The general idea, like that of the pilot programs for gaining in-house experience, is to better equip and prepare students for whatever legal environment or area of law they choose to enter upon graduation. The State Bar of California approved such a mandate in October, and it is slated to go into effect in 2015. According to Karen Sloan in a December 9 NLJ article, such a policy would revise a plan which the ABA tentatively endorsed in back in August. That plan brought up for consideration 6 credits of “real-world experience”. However, Sloan goes on to say that since that time “the council has backtracked somewhat, agreeing to seek public comment on an alternative proposal to bump the requirement of 15 credits of clinics, simulation courses or externships.”

These trends, together with the overall decline in law school applications, make it clear that the landscape is shifting for law schools, students, and potential applicants as they face the new realities of the legal industry.

2013 in Review: Three Trends for the AmLaw 200

According to the 2013 LegalView Legal Market Index, and a corresponding article by Aric Press for AmLaw Daily, three major trends emerged in 2013 among the AmLaw 200: (1) the overall corporate spend on legal work declined by 5%, (2) firms in the second hundred gained market share from the first hundred, and (3) firms were able to slightly increase their billing rates after an extended period of little to no rate growth.

LegalView’s survey is based on a legal spend and trends seen among 70 of the AmLaw 200’s major clients, 33 of which are Fortune 1000. The survey is somewhat unique however in that, according to Press, “it is based on actual dollars paid by clients, not on surveys of law firm billings”.

Among the many findings of the survey, which looked at totals from Q1-Q3, the following stood out:

  • Total legal spend dropped 2% from $1.89B to $1.85B
  • Total hours billed dropped 5% from 6.1M to 5.8M
  • Among the top hundred, hours were down 6.4% and fees down 3.5%
  • For the second hundred, hours were up 6.2% and fees up 3.3%
  • Outside the AmLaw 200, hours were down 5.7% and fees down 2.5%
  • Average billable rates increased by 3%
  • AmLaw 100 billing rates increased from $466-$480
  • AmLaw second hundred billing rates increased from $338-$348
  • Outside the AmLaw 200, billing rates increased from $233-$241

To put this in perspective, take a look at the following 2 charts. Here we can clearly see that the AmLaw second 100 gained in market share, while rates across all firm categories increased by 3%.

It would also be interesting to see what the numbers look like in terms of market share once New York firms are factored out of the Top 100. By many accounts, New York firms did quite well in 2013, so the percentages for hours lost and fees collected are likely skewed by being significantly lower among various non-New York AmLaw 200 firms. Even so, the overall percentage of market share is still strongly in favor of the Top 100. Says Press: “The AmLaw 100 accounted for 40.9% of the total spending, a decrease of 0.7%,” while the “AmLaw second hundred increased their share by a full percentage point, taking 11.5% of the $1.8B clients paid.” However, if the demand for legal work and where it is going continues to shift in favor of the AmLaw second hundred, it will be interesting to see how the top 100 and firms outside the 200 respond.

Fewer LSAT Takers and the Effect on Law Schools

To the dismay of many law school deans and admissions counselors, the numbers continue to show that fewer students are taking the LSAT. This year, 33,673 sat for the law school entrance exam, representing an 11% decline from the 37,780 who took the test last year. While this is slightly less than the 16% decline experienced in 2012, this contributes to an overall decline of 45% from 2009 when a record 60,746 sat for the exam.

This marks the fourth straight year of decline, which in a recent article Karen Sloan of the National Law Journal suggests has “intensified worries that a turnaround in the demand for legal education remains out of sight”. Whether that proves to be true remains to be seen. However, what is clear is that law schools are now being met with the reality of smaller student applicant pools. This in turn requires law school deans and other academic leaders to make difficult decisions regarding enrollment and the school’s overall profile.

Imagine the pressure and complex considerations facing law school leadership. To name a few:

  • Should we lower our overall admissions standards? Or reduce our class sizes?
  • If we lower our standards, how will it affect our rank and our students’ job prospects?
  • What are students’ job prospects given the current climate and how can we adapt?
  • If we reduce class sizes, how will we make up for the losses in tuition revenue?
  • As the landscape shifts, how can we keep our: professors? resources? reputation?

LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs are both key components of the all-important law school rankings. Thus, schools that elect to weaken admissions standards risk compromising their school’s overall profile and ranking, while schools that reduce class sizes will face difficult budget constraints. According to Sloan, “plenty of schools have done a bit of both.” It will be interesting to see which ways certain law schools lean as the legal landscape continues to shift. In the midst of all the uncertainty, one thing is clear: prospective students are increasingly wary of long-term job prospects in the legal industry.

Which Firms Do GCs Use?

Ever wonder which firms GCs think of and use most often? To follow up on our recent article “Corporate America: Who Represents Who?“, a corresponding NLJ report sheds some additional light by providing an overall ranking of firms among Fortune 100 GCs when surveyed about the firms they use most often. The rankings are certainly not perfect nor are they exhaustive. For example, they do not include metrics such as the number of cases handled, amount of legal spend, length of relationship, etc. However, they do provide a good idea of which firms have strong brand recognition among GCs and corporate execs at some of the world’s strongest companies.

The chart below lists the top 10 firms as ranked in the report, and the rankings were compiled based on how often firms were mentioned by GCs in the areas of contracts, torts, labor, IP, and patents. Not surprisingly, L&E shops did very well, accounting for the top 3 in the overall rankings:

RANK   FIRM                           MENTIONS        PPP                 AMLAW RANK
1          Ogletree Deakins           170                   $535,000           97
2          Littler Mendelson           162                   $500,000           64
3          Jackson Lewis              118                   $605,000           82
4          Morgan Lewis                110                   $1,550,000        12
5          Seyfarth Shaw               86                     $910,000           60
6          Baker Donelson             64                     $490,000           114
7          Morris Nichols               61                     —                      —
T-8        Bryan Cave                   53                     $745,000           55
T-8        McGuireWoods             53                     $945,000           51
T-8        Greenberg Traurig          53                     $1,360,000        11

The only non-AmLaw 200 firm making the top 10 is Delaware-based Morris Nichols, an 83 lawyer shop mentioned in 50 of its 61 instances in the area of patents.

It is also interesting to note the somewhat wide distribution of firms in terms of profits per partner and AmLaw rankings. In fact, 8 of the top 10 boast a PPP below $1,000,000 and an average AmLaw rank of 65. This seems to suggest something almost counterintuitive, though it makes sense considered in light of the post-recession economy—just because a firm is ranked highly or is highly profitable, that does not necessarily translate into recognition or use among Fortune 500 GCs. Accordingly, what it does confirm is the importance of perception in today’s economy—not necessarily in terms of profits or ranking, but in having a reputation of strength in certain areas.

Fortune 500: Who Represents Who?

In a recent National Law Journal survey of Fortune 500 GCs, “Who Represents Corporate America”, we get a decent (though imperfect) snapshot of some of the law firms which GCs themselves rank and view as their top providers. Below is an abbreviated look at 9 companies and their preferred firms:

Wal-Mart: Fortune 500 Rank: #1, 2012 Revenues: $469.16B, Employees: 2,200,000; Contracts: Bryan Cave, Foley, Reed Smith; Labor: Littler Mendelson; Torts: Bradley Arant, Greenberg Traurig, Lewis Brisbois, Marshall Dennehey, Nelson Mullins, Shook Hardy; IP: Buchalter, Davis Wright, Gibson Dunn

ExxonMobil: Fortune 500 Rank: #2, 2012 Revenues: $449.89B, Employees: 88,000; Contracts: Hill Rivkins; Labor: Jackson Lewis, Ogletree Deakins; Torts: McGuireWoods; IP: Kirkland & Ellis

JPMorgan Chase: Fortune 500 Rank: #18, 2012 Revenues: $108.18B, Employees: 258,965; Contracts: Duane Morris, Dykema, McGlinchey Stafford, Morgan Lewis, Ogletree Deakins; Labor: Morgan Lewis, Ogletree Deakins; Torts: Bryan Cave, Carlton Fields, Stites & Harbison; Patents: Covington

Google: Fortune 500 Rank: #55, 2012 Revenues: $52.2B, Employees: 53,861; Torts: Perkins Coie; IP: Mayer Brown, Perkins Coie, Quinn Emanuel; Patent: Bracewell & Giuliani, Fish & Richardson, Greenberg Traurig, K&L Gates, Kilpatrick, Morris Nichols, Potter Anderson, Potter Minton, Richards Layton, Wilson Sonsini

Nike: Fortune 500 Rank: #126, 2012 Revenues: $24.13B, Employees: 44,000; Contracts: Gibson Dunn, King & Spalding; IP: Banner & Witcoff, DLA Piper, Lewis & Roca; Patents: Banner & Witcoff, DLA Piper, Lewis & Roca

Apple: Fortune 500 Rank: #6, 2012 Revenues: $156.51B, Employees: 76,100; Labor: Littler Mendelson, Morgan Lewis, Walraven and Westerfeld; Torts: Thompson Coburn; IP: Gibson Dunn, Greenberg Traurig, Mayer Brown; Patent: Fish & Richardson, Gibson Dunn, Greenberg Traurig, Jones Day, Kirkland & Eillis, Lewis & Roca, Potter Anderson, Potter Minton, Ropes & Gray, Weil, Wilmer

Wells Fargo: Fortune 500 Rank: #25, 2012 Revenues: $91.25B, Employees: 269,200; Contracts: Akerman Senterfitt, Baker & Hostetler, Baker Donelson, Bryan Cave, Burr & Forman, Dinsmore & Shohl, Dykema, Faegre, Greenberg Traurig, Holland & Hart, Lane Powell, McGlinchey Stafford, Nelson Mullins, Ogletree Deakins, Plunkett Cooney, Reed Smith, Seyfarth Shaw, Wilson Elser, Womble Carlyle; Labor: Jackson Lewis, Littler Mendelson, Morgan Lewis, Ropers Majeski, Seyfarth Shaw, Walraven and Westerfeld; Torts: Baker Donelson, Bradley Arant, Bryan Cave, Carlton Fields, Kirkland & Ellis, McGlinchey Stafford, McGuireWoods, Nelson Mullins, Reed Smith, Snell & Wilmer; Patent: Kilpatrick

Amazon: Fortune 500 Rank: #49, 2012 Revenues: $61.09B, Employees: 88,400; IP: Davis Wright, Fenwick & West, Greenberg Traurig, Mayer Brown, Perkins Coie; Patent: Alston & Bird, Duane Morris, Fish & Richardson, Fulbright & Jaworski, K&L Gates, Kilpatrick, Lewis & Roca, Morris Nichols, Potter Anderson

Starbucks: Fortune 500 Rank: #208, 2012 Revenues: $13.3B, Employees: 160,000; Contracts: Dinsmore & Shohl; Labor: Epstein Becker; Torts: Perkins Coie, Wilson Elser; IP: Fish & Richardson; Patent: Bracewell & Guiliani, Kilpatrick, Kirkland & Ellis