full-time vs. part-time law firm management

One difference in Dewey and Orrick, and perhaps the biggest one, that may lie behind their inability to get in bed together is their management structures. Adhering to the old school, white-shoe model, Dewey management is accomplished by a rotating "good lawyer" who is engaged primarily in what (s)he wants to do and, one might argue, does best—lawyering. According to a January 22, 2007 Wall Street Journal article, Dewey Managing Partner Morton Pierce spent 3,300 hours last year on billable client work, or an average of 12.6 hours every weekday, raising the obvious question of how much time, if any, he spent on management. "Management is not my passion," Pierce admitted. 

Orrick, on the other hand, is managed by Ralph Baxter, Jr., who hasn’t practiced law since 1992, and who spends his annual 3,300 hours-plus on firm-wide town-hall meetings, informational web casts, and on-site and in-person office and partner meetings, exhibiting what David Wilkins, director of Harvard Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession, calls "the epitome of 21st century law-firm leadership." 

While those in academia may have easily come to that conclusion, in the industry trenches what constitutes the best firm leadership is still very much open to debate. There are plenty of issues raised by the 3-5 year rotating model vs. the long-term model, including the impact on long-term vision and strategy and succession planning, that we won’t go into here. But the even narrower discussion about whether firms should have full-time or part-time managers, regardless of their length of tenure, can start to sound positively moral, with both sides claiming rectitude. 

The word that crops up is "professional." One of the Dewey partners supports the part-time manager concept because someone "who practices is more tuned into the professional philosophy." And if that’s not clear, Cravath’s managing partner, Evan Chesler, also a part-timer, points out that "the law is a profession—not merely a business." (Note the "merely.") 

Of course, managing partners who enjoy only short terms would be foolish to give up their clients and cutting edge expertise for what might be a short round in management hell. Their “professionalism” is another word for survival. On the other hand, they are right that lawyers respect no one as much as another lawyer: what managers lack in management skills they may be able to make up for with sheer lawyer-to-lawyer hubris: my book beats your book.


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