Tuesday, July 24, 2007

If I'm not a partner, what am I? Principal? Owner? Shareholder? Or Fungible Billing Unit?

I know, I know, I know: law, especially BigLaw, is becoming a business more and more each day than a profession. Tom Collins at morepartnerincome had a very interesting post on law firm partnerships today.

Citing a post from the from the always-interesting Carolyn Elefant and an article by Janet Ellen Raasch, Tom contends, "The truth is law firms have traditionally not recognized “ownership” shares in a law firm the same way ownership shares have been viewed in the commercial world. Even given that tradition, something new is going on. Things are changing. A transition is underway."

On the other hand, you have people like Thomas Grella, a MidLaw managing partner and chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section. Cited in Janet's articled, Grella, "Some see these changes as positive and leading to a stronger business model for law firms. Others see them as negative and driving away valuable talent. "Many of my current partners previously worked at big firms in big cities," says Grella. "They made the move to our firm not for money, but for values."

Tom Collins might well be right, but that does not mean I have to love the idea. I'll take Tom Grella's business model any day, regardless of the income drop. I became a lawyer because I like helping and advising people and being collegial with others in a so-called "learned profession". I did not become a lawyer for the purpose of being a fungible billing unit. While that might be somewhat naive -- especially at the associate level -- I think it is or should be a realistic goal at the partner level. Work-life balance, mentioned by both Carolyn and Janet, is as important to me as it is to younger attorneys -- nor is it gender-exclusive. And that's why I have the time to write today; otherwise, I'd be billing already.

My take? If you are at a firm that has or plans to adopt a model of fungible partners, de-equitization, lengthier partnership tracks and the like, then please consider dropping the title of partner. Shareholder is probably a more appropriate term. Leave the word "partner" to those of us who actually intend to be partners in the true sense of the word.

7/25/07 UPDATE: Bruce MacEwen made an impassioned please today at Adam Smith, Esq.
that I had to share. According to Bruce, "This is equal parts an economic question and one of simple humanity. Our firms will not be competitively robust, and places of intellectually creative ferment for clients, if they are shackled to interminable payment streams for services already rendered. At the same time, senior partners are the embodiment of how we achieved our status today. "