A Lawyer’s Regret

© 2012 Keith McWalter

As the law firm now known as Dewey & LeBoeuf circles the financial storm drain that has swallowed other respected New York firms, those of us who passed through its halls as young lawyers are feeling that strange mixture of sadness and Schadenfreude that accompanies what is not only the demise of a once-great, always flawed institution, but the extinction of our professional alma mater.  In a generation, we have lived through one of the most extraordinary transformations in modern American business: the conversion of elite law firms from patrician men’s clubs into loose confederations of opportunistic gunslingers.   The Dewey that I knew had to change, but what it became insured its demise.

I graduated from Columbia Law School in the 1970s, and ignorant though I was of the ways of the legal jungle, I knew enough to be grateful to have landed a job, first as a “summer lawyer” and a year later as an associate, at what was then Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer & Wood.  I knew that the firm’s history stretched back to the days of the robber barons (some of whom it had gladly served), that Thomas Dewey had assumed the helm of the firm after famously losing the presidency to Truman, and that John E.F. Wood, one of the living “name” partners, was a still-active giant of the courtroom.  I knew that Dewey Ballantine was always mentioned in the same breath as other powerhouses of the New York bar: Cravath, Sullivan & Cromwell, Davis Polk.  Being hired by any of them was like getting accepted at an Ivy League college, only better because they were even more selective, and you were paid to go there.  I’d be making $17,000 as a first year associate, then an eye-popping sum that would go a long way toward paying off my sizeable student loans.

What I hadn’t realized when I entered law school was how little I would learn there about actually practicing law.  That would happen later, at Dewey Ballantine.  Every year the new lawyers were hired as a “class.”  We socialized together (I met my daughter’s mother there), we complained about the firm together, and we learned together in what amounted to a post-graduate education.  I sat night after night literally at the elbow of one or another partner or senior associate, being shown in the most personal way how to craft documents, how to write legal prose in a memo or letter, how to talk on the phone to a client, how to dress and how to act as a Wall Street lawyer.  I thought I’d had a pretty good education, but never had so much individual time and effort been paid to it by such experienced, dedicated people with better things to do, and every right to do them, as at Dewey Ballantine.

Why did they do it?  Why spend countless hours teaching me and a couple dozen other recent law school graduates per year which end was up in the complex, inbred worlds of taxation, litigation, corporate law?  Because that was how they had been taught as young lawyers, that was how they had learned, that was how it was done.  And to be sure, that was how we would be turned into autonomous billing machines that would leverage their own time and effort, and perpetuate the pecuniary DNA of the firm.

The partners I worked for were a diverse bunch, from Brahmins of old New York society to Jewish intellectuals to scrappy Irish upstarts from New Jersey.  Some were gentlemen, some were arrogant jerks, some were wildly gifted, and all were very smart. Their only common denominator, apart from race and gender (there was only one woman partner at the time), was their allegiance to what was called “the Firm” –always initial caps, and without any of the ominous irony that John Grisham would later lend the phrase.

Perhaps the most objective measure of this allegiance was the way in which the partners (and for that matter, all of us) were paid: strictly according to year of graduation from law school.  That was all.   As you grew older and more experienced, your pay would increase in lock-step with the other partners of your graduating year.  There was no feathering the nests of the rainmakers, no bonuses for workaholics, and for that matter no punishing of those who chose to work on their golf game or alcohol problem.  But most important, there was no debate about it, at least not openly.  Occasionally you’d hear grumblings from some hotshot young partner that he wasn’t appreciated enough, but the lock-step compensation system was generally accepted as a way to minimize the envy and backbiting and internal politicking that could tear a partnership apart.

It was, after all, a partnership, in more than a merely commercial sense.  These were men (and that one woman) at the top of their profession who had chosen to throw in their lot together in a hugely competitive arena, who recognized that success depended on their collective effort and the reputation of the Firm far more than on any individual or specialty.  There was strength in numbers and diversity of talent (if not of gender or race), and the only way to maintain those attributes was to make sure that the greasy grinder who executed the client’s business was treated equally with the showboat finder who brought in the work.

Over the next few decades, all of this was swept away.  So-called lateral hires of partners and associates from other firms – once unheard of – began to erode the binding, insular culture of firms like Dewey.  The compensation of elite law firms and their partners became the public fodder of the annual “AmLaw 100” lists. Lock-step compensation systems gave way to the ruthless meritocracy of the billable hour.  Partners’ draws and associates’ salaries inflated wildly in the heat of comparison to the investment banking world. Clients rightly began to question one-line, seven-figure bills. Law students rightly began to question the hiring and promotional ethics of firms run exclusively by white males. The formerly institutional relationships between corporate clients and law firms dissolved in firm mergers and headhunter-driven trades of “books of business” supposedly controlled by individual lawyers.

The Dewey Ballantine of my postgraduate years was hardly a lawyer’s utopia – far from it.  It was an absurdly sexist, exploitative, frequently inept manager of the young talent in its thrall, often out of touch with the broader commercial and cultural realities that were bearing down on it.  With its monthly dinner-cum-card parties at the Yale Club and its annual black-tie soirees at the Plaza, it was Augusta National in a world rapidly going Google. But it was also one of the last havens in American life where smart, hard-working people could make a living that was at least ostensibly based on collegiality rather than competition, where the client’s interests were paramount, and where those in charge worked hard to instill an aspiration to professional excellence in those who followed them.

I left Dewey before coming up for partner, but the cachet of the firm’s name has followed me at every step of my career.  Few days go by when I don’t remember a lesson learned from a partner there, or simply act as a lawyer out of what I was taught in its offices and conference rooms.  I was never treated badly there, and was often treated with a respect that I hadn’t yet earned.  I made life-long friendships there. I was allowed a window onto a privileged way of life that I had known nothing about, and I was given both the opportunity to join it and the means to leave it behind if I wished. There are worse things to say about a place of work, and I for one will be sorry to see its last remnants disappear.

I feel sorry for the young lawyers and staff now at Dewey who will lose their jobs, but I am most sorry for the men and women who helped build the place, and worked there for their entire careers, and taught those young lawyers and me and countless others what we know about law and lawyering.  Watching the current fiasco must be particularly wrenching for them, and I want to say to them that some of us remember what you accomplished and the firm we all shared, no matter the sorry fate of Dewey & LeBoeuf.

3 thoughts on “A Lawyer’s Regret

  1. Keith: While your perspective is micro, the lessons apply to all law firms, and beyond to the whole economy. When business organizations focus solely on profit, excluding considerations of the people who are part of the organization and the planet as a whole (Triple Bottom Line) they do worse. In the end, it is possible that Dewey is a bellweather for the whole economy. If we don’t take care of each other, we will all go down together.

    I was not a Dewey lifer. Rather, I came in laterally, as counsel, and for only a little over a year. I knew from the start that I was not a fit with the Robber Baron capitalist tradition of the firm. However, Dewey was and is an important part of my career. They paid for my first trip to NYC (from the University of Iowa College of Law). I did probably a hundred or so deals with Chris DiAngelo, who was a Dewey lifer, until he wasn’t. I joined Chris’ group for my short stint with Dewey.

    It is a shame that they hit the rocks this way. But it was, as you note, perhaps inevitable.

  2. A very sound analysis and one that resonates with my own experiences. I thought that the legal press was off base in attributing Dewey’s demise to fat guaranteed contracts. If the partnership had been populated by people who had deep loyalty to and affection for the firm, they all would have tightened their belts and worked through the problem, contracts or not. But it was populated by people who were there for the money and when the money ran out so did they.

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