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October 13, 2010 6:05 PM

Greed vs. Partnership

Posted by Michael Stern

Partnership The opening line of Steven Harper's new novel The Partnership is "A fish rots from the head." This mournful reflection by the novel's protagonist, Albert Knight, a member of the executive committee of the not-so-fictional megafirm Michelman & Samson, is a good summary of the book's plot and of Harper's moral stance toward our troubled profession. At M&S, the partners' behavior is the root of all evil. They "didn't like each other, but that was irrelevant. Money was the glue that bound them inseparably, at least until a better offer came along." Do you believe that big law firms are like professional sports teams rather than teams of professionals? Meaning that they give lip service to collegiality, culture, and teamwork but actually operate like roving bands of pirates temporarily allied with one another because they can currently make more money under the same roof rather than somewhere else? Then this is the book for you.

Harper, a retired Kirkland & Ellis partner and adjunct professor at Northwestern's law school, is a vigorous blogger (on this site as well as his own The Belly of the Beast) and a vocal, cogent critic of what he calls the "misguided metrics" of billable hours and net income per partner that he believes have corrupted the practice of law. Ironically, given his frequent posts here, Harper blames The American Lawyer for inaugurating the industry's myopic and destructive focus on short-term economics and partner compensation. Indeed, the halo of M&S's saintly former managing partner, Sam Wilson (Harper's thinly veiled alter ego in the novel), is burnished by his resistance to cooperating with Am Law's requests for the firm's numbers in the 1980s. Wilson sagely understands that doing so would "open a Pandora's box of behavioral consequences.") The Partnership is an account of just how bad those behavioral changes turned out to be.

Harper does too much telling and not enough showing about the gradual moral impoverishment of Knight and his colleagues as the greedy quest for "more" (money, perks, power) engulfs them as they move up the ranks at M&S. The Partnership is overly preachy, and melodramatic to the point of parody. But there are enough zingers on the degraded fabric of our daily lives in the law to make reading this novel worthwhile. (One of my favorite examples: The advent of anywhere, anytime communication means that "the concept of a working vacation took on new meaning, which is to say that the vacation part disappeared.")

Harper's central set piece, an executive committee meeting in which upstart corporate partners stage a compensation coup, is a telling Socratic dialog about the follies of the "eat-what-you-kill" approach. What gets killed, for Harper, is collegiality. A purportedly objective focus on billing credit and leverage numbers creates a star system of mobile book-of-business owners that precludes real partnership. The boardroom scene nicely dramatizes the centrifugal pressures created by the upstarts’ insistence on a compensation process that "will increase acrimony within the partnership, undermine incentives for partner-like behavior, and exacerbate the infectious politics of our compensation and promotion decisions," per Wilson.

Wilson gets all the good lines but loses the argument, and ultimately the soul of the firm as well. His protégé, Knight, ultimately has no shining armor. Knight goes over to the dark side and joins the never-ending pursuit of "more," but is outmaneuvered in his quest for the executive committee chairmanship, the goal he thought would cap his career and life. At the end of the novel, Knight is "resigned to his own fate" as a soon-to-retire lame duck, looking forward only to his weekly trysts with the wife of one of his erstwhile rivals and feeling "very, very tired" after 30 years of what now seems a pointless treadmill of striving.

Knight's terminal enervation is the usual death-in-life awaiting the disillusioned hero of a novel about the loss of innocence. How close to the heart it strikes you depends on whether you agree with Harper's indictment of Big Law's leaders as aging baby boomers who have betrayed their calling by focusing almost exclusively on milking their firms of every dollar they can every year, instead of acting as stewards of their institutions and the profession for the next generation. That's the rap—failure of stewardship, of the country and the planet—on my generation in general these days, as we face the ongoing Great Recession, global warming, the end of oil, the decline of public education, eroding infrastructure, etc. If you're into more specific jeremiads, I recommend this one.

 

THE PARTNERSHIP: A NOVEL
By Steven J. Harper
Published by Steven Harper;  available on Amazon.com

 

Michael Stern, a former reporter and English professor, is a partner in Cooley LLP’s  technology transactions group.

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