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Big Law – Hey, Associates, Get It That Firm Doesn’t Care What You Think About Controversial Client


An associate parachutes into Subreddit Big Law with this issue: Antipathy about the firm's representing such-and-such a client. The associate considers quitting.

As the thread indicates, essentially the response is don't let the door hit you in the rear when you leave that well-paying job. And how about staying but voicing a negative opinion about the account to the brass? At best the higher-ups will roll their eyes. At worse the way the firm perceives the associate could turn negative.

The bottom line on this is that for the account to be accepted partners had to agree on that. Given the power structure in Big Law those partners don't care about associates' opinion on that selection. This, as Roy Strom hammers in Bloomberg Law, is a big money game. Partners' lifestyles are at stake. Basically, don't get between an equity partner and Profits Per Equity Partner. Here are the numbers from 2021:

FirmPEP1. Wachtell$8.4M2. Kirkland$7.388M3. Davis Polk$7.01M4. Sullivan & Cromwell$6.366M5. Paul Weiss$6.162M6. Simpson Thacher$5.980M7. Cravath$5.803M8. Quinn Emanuel$5.746M9. Latham$5.705M10. Cahill$5.533M

Opposition, if any, for a law firm's representation of a certain client would have to come from the outside. That used to be how it had been universally. That was why employees would become anonymous whistle-blowers regarding corporate or government conduct. Classic was how Deep Throat transmitted his concern about the goings-on of the Nixon Administration.

That is still how it is in the tradition-bound world of law firms. Sure, currently at some corporations activist employees might balk about dealing with a certain customer or client or law or even CEO behavior. They get heard, sometimes. (At Tesla, they got fired). Power hasn't become distributed in the law firm sector. 

The position of strength which associates might have gained during the high demand of pandemic times could be imploding. Steptoe is giving haircuts to associates who don't make the numbers. In Allen & Overy there is a freezing of associate pay in the UK office.

Meanwhile, law firms, out of necessity, have become quite skilled at managing the public relations challenges embedded in taking on controversial representation. In this article published in O'Dwyer's Public Relations I explained how both Kirkland & Ellis (firearms) and Paul Weiss (NFL) leveraged strong branding to navigate the bad publicity. Obviously, the role of the head of a law firm has come to include Chief Communications Officer. 

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