The Talent

January 7, 2011 1:04 PM

Measuring Values

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Steven Harper

In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks wrote about the future of our nation. One of his observations applies to big law:

"In a world of relative equals, the U.S. will have to learn to define itself not by its rank, but by its values. It will be important to have the right story to tell, the right purpose and the right aura. It will be more important to know who you are."

Brooks argues that the rise of other nations means that America can retain its long-term influence only if it thinks beyond traditional short-term notions of what it means to be best. It's equally true for large law firms. Too many managers rely on this year's billable hours, billings, and leverage as measures of a firm's (and a lawyer's) worth, rather than forming independent judgments based on values that are less easily quantified.

Here's the long-term danger in that for law firms. High-paying clients assume that only the best and the brightest lawyers will work on their matters. But to attract and retain those attorneys, even the self-described top firms will have to offer more than money. In that contest, values will separate the biggest winners from everyone else.

Although debt-laden graduates face the urgency of school loan repayment schedules, eventually the superstars will yearn for something beyond a regular paycheck. They'll understand that a firm's  make-more-money mantra limits its vision, as well as its prospects for long-term career satisfaction. The most ambitious and talented new graduates are already beginning to understand the game. As greater knowledge of what lies ahead empowers students to make better decisions, firms viewing their own missions merely as maximizing this year's equity partner profits to achieve high rankings will lose the values contest for the next generation's talent. It won t happen this year or next, but it will happen.

What are the winning values? Here are some suggestions--all of which are aimed at creating a reality that matches more closely students' prelaw expectations of being a lawyer would mean:

Consider The Current Business Model's Behavioral Darkside

Lucrative rewards for those at the top reinforce the allure of short-term metrics that dominate a troubled business model. An eat-what-you-kill culture doesn't encourage mentoring, training, or opportunities. It doesn't punish bullies, either.

Offer Hope

Most of today's graduates seek only what earlier generations found, even in large firms: Realistic prospects for long-term careers. No one can or should expect automatic promotion to partnership. Merit should always matter. But without tolerating mediocre performers, firms can implement decision-making processes that minimize the impact of internal politics and clashing personalities in determining the fate of human beings. They can also provide meaningful and candid reviews while also jettisoning arbitrary barriers that the leveraged pyramid model imposes on equity partnership entry. There's never a good reason for failing to advance all who truly deserve promotion.

Kill The Billable Hour

The best of tomorrow's firms will conquer the billable hour and its death-grip on associate compensation. They'll find a way to measure attorney productivity that rewards those who complete a task efficiently   and penalizes those whose long hours produce big client billings based on diminishing (or negative) returns.

Invest In The Future

To secure their firms' futures, thoughtful partners will accept modest reductions from the staggering personal incomes that they've enjoyed in recent years. Those willing to make the investment will reap great dividends. Large firms depend uniquely on the wisdom, judgment, and intelligence of their attorneys. The best new graduates will flock to firms cherishing values consistent with a satisfying career, even if it means less money (although in the long-run, it probably won't).

What about the rest?  Much of big law will continue pursuing the highest short-term dollar wherever it is, and whatever its cost to others, their institutions, or the profession. Such is the power of greed. But those who measure everything they value risk creating an unpleasant world in which they value only what they measure.


Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. 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 A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

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At last! Someone is talking about the need to measure metrics that matter, not those that are linked to personal reward. It is not that hard to set up subjective and objective measurements which, when coupled with access to high quality professional development programmes, will deliver better outcomes for the stakeholder who matters most - THE CLIENT.

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