Profits vs. Partners

When confronted with the question of what makes law firm practice attractive these days, partners start sounding like high school guidance counselors. They respond to the question with a question: Well, what are your goals?

“You have to ultimately make the decision about what you want in life,” said Morton A. Pierce, cochairman of Dewey Ballantine. “If you want to make $100 million potentially in a year, you’re not going to make that in a law firm. Certainly it’s no secret that hedge fund people make more. You have to ask yourself what your goals are.”

Fair enough. But aside from paying off their student loans, what do young lawyers aspire to? Nobody seems to know anymore. “The Gen Y people don’t really have the same desires and goals as previous generations,” said a managing partner at one prominent firm. “I think they don’t get the same fulfillment out of this.”

A partner at a rival firm is more sanguine: “What firms can and should offer people is the ability to take part in the craft, teach them how to be great lawyers, make them understand that life is about much more than money. You can contribute to society as a lawyer in ways that other people aren’t trained or licensed to do.”

“Law is an attractive, challenging profession,” said Mr. Zeughauser. “Some people enjoy the challenge, and there’s also a service aspect that some people enjoy. There are people who like being in the service profession, and the law is probably the highest-earning service profession.” (It sure beats the green aprons off Starbucks.)

For the moment, Big Law shops are still thriving, bright young people still troop off to law school and Davis Polk partners continue to buy boats. And some claim the tension between the economic and professional aspects of legal practice is being exaggerated.

“You’re going to find people who are going to tell you this is becoming a business and more cutthroat, but my view is—and I may be in the minority here—people have been focused on this as a business for as long as I can remember,” said Dewey Ballantine’s Mr. Pierce. A focus on profits has existed “as long as The American Lawyer has been around,” he added. Several industry observers assert that after the influential trade publication started ranking law firms by revenues and profits, firms become obsessed with climbing the totem pole, like college deans fixated on U.S. News & World Report rankings.

So is it all The American Lawyer’s fault? Said the publication’s current editor-in-chief, Aric Press, “I harbor deep doubts that our magazine introduced the idea of greed into a previously Edenic profession.”


—with additional reporting by Tom Denison, Oliver Haydock, Julia Heming, Alex Jacobs, Vince Levy, Andrew Mangino, Nora Marie Matson, Dotty McLeod, Edon Ophir, and Sarah Sabshon

Profits vs. Partners