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November 23, 2011 9:54 AM

A Modern Tragedy in Five Acts

Posted by Steven Harper

The American Lawyer's November cover story tells the sad tale of Jonathan Bristol. One of Bristol's clients, Ken Starr, was a high-profile financial adviser to celebrities. (Starr is no relation to his namesake, the former Whitewater special prosecutor and current president of Baylor University.) In 2009, one of Starr's clients, Uma Thurman, began asking tough questions for which Starr had no answers. Last year, he pleaded guilty to investment adviser fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering.

Star's scheme doesn't interest me; his lawyer does. Bristol's saga reflects the 30-year evolution of an attorney and his profession. Indeed, because many of Bristol's experiences look so familiar, some lawyers will find his story unsettling. At least, they should.

ACT ONE

Bristol's path into the law was typical—Amherst College (magna cum laude), followed by the University of Virginia Law School. Undergraduates throughout the country still identify with ambitions that Bristol probably held when he was their age: Do well at a top college; get into a first-rate law school; enjoy a rewarding career. What could go wrong?

ACT TWO

After graduating in 1981, Bristol joined a boutique firm in Manhattan, Dreyer & Traub, where he practiced real estate finance law. Many would say that, today, such a job looks even more appealing as a big-law alternative than it did then: smaller, more collegial, better sense of community.

ALM senior reporter Ross Todd writes, "as a junior partner in Dreyer & Traub's waning days, Bristol needed to find clients and bill hours." As true as that was in the mid-1990s, it's worse today. Most big-firm senior partners say they want aggressive attorney-entrepreneurs, but they ignore the perilous downside. Bristol found clients all right, but eventually he, they, and his firm became defendants themselves. I don't know why Dreyer & Traub collapsed, but along with a lot of other small firms, it'’s gone. So are some bigger ones.

ACT THREE

After leaving Dreyer & Taub in the spring of 1995, Bristol went through a succession of firms before landing at Brown, Raysman, Millstein, Felder & Steiner. In December 2006, Brown Raysman joined Thelen, Reid & Priest in the largest merger of that year. Some blame that transaction for Thelen's dissolution less than two years later. Since then, lots of mergers have failed; more will follow.

ACT FOUR

In November 2008, Winston & Strawn picked up Bristol and 18 other former Thelen lawyers. Although his annual compensation for 2009 and 2010 was set at $1.35 million, in mid-2009 he agreed to reduce his guaranteed amount to $500,000. His metrics—billables, billable hours, and leverage ratio—must have been in deep trouble. That's how most big firms measure value.

Bristol's world continued to collapse as his biggest client, Starr, fell behind on his legal bills. The amount —$750,000—may not seem large for a firm with gross revenues of more than $700 million in 2010. But for a partner already wilting under the heat of the short-term metrics spotlight, it provided tipping-point pressure. Bristol allowed Starr to transfer stolen funds through his personal attorney escrow accounts.

ACT FIVE

In a request to delay sentencing, Bristol's lawyer wrote that his client's childhood left considerable emotional scarring: "For much of his adult life, Mr. Bristol has been in therapy to treat depression and anxiety." If he suffered from those afflictions in college, he couldn't have chosen a less suitable career.

From all of this, endless lessons emerge: know yourself; know your partners; scrutinize lateral hires; don't assume anything about an attorney just because he or she comes from a great school or well-respected firm; being entrepreneurial is a two-edged sword; think beyond short-term metrics; character counts; and so forth.

But maybe the most important message is a universal one that few will heed. Perhaps inadvertently, one of Bristol's former partners at Dreyer & Traub, Edward Harris, Jr., summarized it in The American Lawyer article:

"If you've got your eyes on the prize, sometimes you might ignore caution signs or something along the way."

While enjoying the holiday season with family and friends, consider this addendum: Think about whether the prize you eye is the right one.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at www.thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

 

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