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    September 29, 2008  

Big shout-out to new Bisnow sponsor LECG.  The firm provides expert testimony, authoritative studies, and strategic advisory services to clients worldwide.  LECG is the sponsor of the 2008 Bisnow 30 Under 30: Rising Legal Stars and the special event being held this Thursday evening.  Welcome!


Did the almighty billable hour just die? People have cried wolf on this before, but something felt different at the Reagan Building on Friday, where the Association of Corporate Counsel launched its “Value Challenge,” an ambitious project to re-think the way law firms charge corporate clients. Friday’s inaugural event drew the participation of 26 luminary panelists, including GCs of Accenture, DuPont, Intel, and Managing Partners of Greenberg Traurig, McKenna Long, and WilmerHale, all of whom seemed to agree on one thing: The system is broken.


We sat among 60 attendees while the three-hour session was webcast live and recorded for re-packaging by the 24,000-member ACC. Laura Stein, GC of Clorox and Chair of the ACC’s Board started things off by noting that the Value Challenge—born of in-house frustration with $400/hr associate work and runaway profits-per-partner—isn’t offering a “silver bullet” billing alternative. (Her implicit analogy of bills to werewolves was hardly the worst comment about them.) While there wasn’t a one-size-fits-all solution on offer, provocative big thoughts emerged in the wide-ranging discussion.


The practice of managing a law firm with the purpose of boosting its profits-per-partner ranking came in for scorn, foremost by Mike Roster, former Managing Partner with Morrison & Foerster and Chief Legal Officer at Stanford University. He called it “insanity” as well as the “single most destructive” management method, noting that “you’re getting rid of the people we want”—the “servicing partners” for day-to-day questions. Panelist Robin Sparkman, The American Lawyer’s Exec. Editor, joked that she felt black and blue from all the shots her profits-per-partner list took, but parried back: We’ll be happy to publish retention rates and other metrics, she said, if only you’ll supply them.


Asked how he would structure a law firm, Wal-Mart Assoc. GC Miguel Rivera (front) said he would “roll back prices”—okay, he didn’t use that precise term—by selling off the fancy wall art and skyboxes and forgoing an impressive building for cheap office rent. He’s also a fan of getting rid of national billing rates and going to regional pricing.


In-house counsel weren’t the only ones indicting today’s law-firm model. WilmerHale’s co-managing partner Bill Perlstein said that his peers agree that the model handed down from Cravath and based on the guild system is better suited to small organizations than large-scale firms. WilmerHale’s structure “will be different in five years,” he said. What it will be is an open question—he was thinking along the lines of a Goldman Sachs model, but, um, recent events give some pause.


After the session we tracked down McKenna Long’s Atlanta-based Chairman Jeff Haidet, left, with Sun Edison GC Kevin Lapidus, to hear about the firm’s testing program. Last year the firm began having recruits take a 45-minute online assessment test, which Jeff tells us has an intelligence component but is more about discovering whether prospective hires have the attributes (attitudes towards teamwork, etc.) that McKenna has identified in its best associates. Jeff says recruits aren’t blinking an eye at taking the test, and McKenna’s attrition is running seven or eight points below the 19% average.

The Eyes Are the Groin of the Head

If you recognize the headline as a quote from Dwight Schrute on NBC’s The Office, then you know the dark-spectacled man next to Akin Gump’s Steve Schulman is Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight. Rainn served as emcee Saturday night at Tahirih Justice Center’s annual fundraiser at the Crystal Gateway Marriott. Akin Gump was named Law Firm of the Year for representing 24 Tahirih clients in 2007 and donating over $450,000 in professional services. Steve’s team is currently repping nine Bolivian families in a case against the former Bolivian President and Defense Minister, who have called in Williams & Connolly. Hopefully Steve isn’t thinking about putting Dwight on the case.

John Ford is Bisnow’s Legal Editor. Send your story ideas to

Andrews Kurth
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