The partner smack down has begun.
Here’s the most recent tally for equity partner announcements: Skadden, Arps named 8 new partners, down from 25; Debevoise & Plimpton named 2, down from 6; Weil, Gotshal promoted 3, down from 7; Cleary Gottlieb elected 4 new partners, half as many as in 2008; Ropes & Gray named one-third fewer with 8 new partners; Latham & Watkins cut promotions 25% to 23; Davis Polk & Wardwell named 4 partners compared to 6 a year earlier; Proskauer Rose named 4 to partnership, 1 less than in 2008; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher named 11 new partners, compared to 13 in 2008; and Wachtell, Lipton, the most profitable firm in the country, named 2 new partners, down from 6 last year. The grand finale is that Cravath is making no new partners this year. Zero.
And it’s not just the firms based in New York and LA that are promoting fewer associates: Mayer Brown named almost half the number of partners compared to 2008, or 14 partners, down from 27, as did Paul, Hastings, naming 6 new partners, down from 11 the prior year. Kirkland and Ellis in October promoted 51 lawyers to non-equity partner (which all partners start out as), constituting a 27% drop from last year.
Clearly part of the reason for the recoil at making new partners is that law firm net income through the third quarter of 2009 was down 6.1 percent industry-wide, according to a survey by Wachovia Legal Specialty Group, part of Wells Fargo Corp, with top-tier firms experiencing a 4.3% decrease.
In reaction, firms have cut expenses, summer and associate ranks, delayed starts, reduced salaries and bonuses and have even cut the compensation of non-equity partners, in some cases clawing back additional capital contributions.
According to The American Lawyer, the number of layoffs stands at more than 2,900 associates since the start of 2008. The average summer class size was 20% smaller this year than last, and of those summers who got offers from Am Law 100 firms, all but a handful are looking at delayed start dates. Most firms have cut back sharply on recruiting for next summer; with at least nine firms, including Morgan, Lewis, Pillsbury Winthrop and Milbank Tweed, having canceled their 2010 summer programs in all or some offices.
Many associates still working have seen their compensation frozen or cut, typically by about 10%, or from $160,000 to $145,000 for first-year associates in major cities.
For example, Pittsburgh-based Reed Smith is reducing by 20% annual salaries and hourly billing rates for first-year associates and slicing all other associate salaries by 10%. The firm also has introduced merit-based promotion and has had two rounds of layoffs of more than 200 people over the past year. Reed Smith also recently told non-equity partners that they would have to contribute 15% of their base pay to the firm as capital or relinquish their partner status — a move estimated to save the firm $18 million.
Drinker Biddle & Reath has lowered salaries and enhanced training for first-year associates, replaced lockstep promotion with a merit-based program for associates and gone through two rounds of layoffs. Chairman Alfred Putnam notes partners will have made less in 2009 than they did in 2008 and that there will be continued downward pressure on compensation.
But Putnam says firms are loathe to cut partner compensation across the board. “You might have two or three practice groups doing well, and they might say they are not going to take a cut and if the firm makes them, they will just walk across the street [to a competitor].”
So what we have now is the perfect storm for producing class (law class, that is) warfare. Having made all the other conceivable cuts and reductions and clawbacks that partnerships can think of, a number of them are staring at nonetheless reduced partner profits. And those reduced profits look so bad, partners are not willing to cut them further by sharing with additional partners.
The implications of making fewer partners are not pretty, however. Boomers are going to be hanging on longer because of their career-centered lives and their reduced portfolios. Rumbling among the troops will escalate, young turks are likely to go elsewhere because of the uncertainty, new lawyers will have to carefully assess partnership portential before joining a firm and ever-younger clients will find themselves with aging service partners.
Of course, not all firms are cutting the number of partners they are making. Sullivan & Cromwell in October elected 5 new partners, the same as a year earlier. "We’re obviously not going to stop making partners because of the financial conditions," said H. Rodgin Cohen, chairman of the firm. Obviously.
And a few brave firms are actually making more partners. Milbank, Tweed recently elected 5 attorneys to partner, up from 4 in 2008. "We certainly pay attention to the economy in making new partner decisions, but we also pay attention to the fact that we’re strong enough that we should mostly be focusing on long-term investments," said Mel Immergut, Milbank’s chairman.
Fried, Frank named 7 new partners, up from 5 a year earlier. The promotions followed a year where Fried Frank shrank firmwide more than any other law firm, according to data collected by The National Law Journal, with the number of lawyers falling 26.4% to 468 attorneys.
Partners may be tempted to wait out this “downturn” thinking it is a recession and not a reset, but eventually the prospect of lower profitability and therefore lower compensation for partners will have to be confronted and firms are at hazard if they do not deal with the implications.