Author Steve Harper Discusses Law Firm Incentive Structures and Advice for Aspiring Authors
Interview with Steve Harper, an Author and Retired BigLaw Trial Lawyer
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Here’s some highlights of my interview with Steve:
“[On Creating Incentives] “Look,” A Kirkland & Ellis senior partner said, “my compensation is capped at this level of share participation in the firm. The only way I can make more money is to make you a better lawyer.”
“But ultimately, in the long term, some of these firms are going to create really big problems for themselves because if you continue to pull up the ladder in a way that doesn’t assure that you actually have a solid generation behind you that can assume the mantle of leadership, then who takes over?”
“And Hoffa came to town, met alone with my father in a downtown Minneapolis hotel for four hours. Told my dad to knock it off. My father refused and for the next two years, they tried to kill him, sabotaged his truck and death threats to the house and all that kind of stuff.”
“There a lot of people who walk around and I encounter them all the time, and say, “You know, I have this idea for a book. I have this idea. I have this idea,” that’s fine. Great. Write it. Do it. You’ll find out pretty early on whether it’s for you or not. And it’s for you, then just keep at it.”
“And everything we do as a lawyer is critical to our clients and sometimes it’s even critical to democracy itself but at the end of the day everything becomes pretty personal and for me the center of my world has always been my family.”
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Links to subjects referred to in this episode:
Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of the War by Lynne Olson
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Hi listeners, this is Chris Batz, your host of the Law Firm Leadership podcast.
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Finally, in the show notes of your device, I’ve provided links to the subjects mentioned in this episode and a link in the transcribed audio.
As many of you know, we interview corporate defense law firm leaders, partners, general counsels and legal consultants. You’re listening to episode number fourteen of the Law Firm Leadership podcast.
Chris: Welcome to the Law Firm Leadership podcast, I’m your host, Chris Batz with The Lion Group.
Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Steve Harper, author, adjunct, law professor and former big law litigator. Steve is a retired litigator of 30 years from Kirkland & Ellis. He is an author of the award winning blog, The Belly of the Beast, and several books, including The Lawyer Bubble, the legal thriller called The Partnership, Crossing Hoffa, and others. Steven is a public speaker and contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, Thomson Reuters, NPR. He is also the fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and listed in the Chambers USA. He’s a Harvard School alum, graduating with magna cum laude and received his master’s and bachelor’s from the Northwestern University.
Welcome Steve to the Law Firm Leadership podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show.
Steve: Thanks. Thanks for having me on.
Short-term Thinking Plaguing the Legal Industry
Chris: Steve, I wanted to jump right in on a subject that’s just pertinent, has been ongoing since the crisis. Based on a book that you released in 2016, let’s talk about The Lawyer Bubble. And what seems to be the focus of the book is the kind of short-term thinking, particularly law firms have been espousing. What do you see, eventually I’d love to hear some solutions or advice for law firm partners.
Steve: Sure. It’s not new I guess is the first point.
This has been a problem that has been evolving as law firms in many ways have followed the world of business in terms of focusing on short term kinds of thinking, short term goals, short term metrics, at the expense of the long term.
Unfortunately, what you can’t measure doesn’t always get counted in that process. The problem really begins with a kind of myopic focus on the short term that leads to things like, well, okay, how are we going to maximize this year’s profits per partner.
And if you take, for example, go back to the first year that the American Lawyer published the Am Law 50 in 1985, the average partner profits were about 300,000 dollars, which is about 600,000 dollars in today’s dollars. Well, today we’ve been, by that measure, extraordinarily successful because now we’re well over a million and a half dollar. But there’s another metric that’s sort of buried in that, which is that in order to maximize profits per partner, what you have to do, at least in a relative sense or what has happened, you don’t have to do it, but what has happened in a relative sense is that you’ve pulled up the ladder on a generation of attorneys so that you’ve made it much more difficult, firms have made it much more difficult to become equity partners in firms. And leverage ratios, which is probably a term that’s well known to most of your listeners, which is the number of – the ratio of total partners to the number of equity partners, have doubled. So that’s another way of saying it’s become twice as hard to become an equity partner in a big firm as it was.
And then there’s one other factor in all of this as well, which is the enormous spread that has opened up between those who, even if you make equity partner in a big firm, who are at the entry level, the bottom rung or the lowest levels of equity partnership in terms of compensation are compared to those who are at the very top of the compensation spread.
To give you an illustration, a personal illustration, when I started at Kirkland & Ellis and was a, became an equity partner, the entry, a first-year equity partner, if you will, the highest compensated equity partner in the firm made about four times as much as I did. Now, people would laugh at that because the ratios are up to 10, 12, in some cases, in the case of the failed firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, it was 20 times the spread.
Steve: That’s sort of the phenomenon and it’s taking its toll, both in terms of the long term at these firms and it’s taking its toll internally in terms of what the morale of these places has become for many of the workers working in them.
Chris: Steve, have you seen firms resist the urge to pump the numbers, if you may, or to adjust things for the Am Law 100/200 rankings?
Steve: Yes, and I never name law firms really; although, I do site a couple of very positive examples in the book. And there’s nothing necessary about deciding that a guy at the top of the firm or woman at the top of the firm, well, frankly, that’s another problem with the profession. The percentage of women in equity partnerships in big firms throughout the country has been relatively stagnant at about 15 percent for the last 15 years. There’s nothing that says inherently the person at the top has to make 10 or 20 times more than his or her lowest paid equity partner in the firm. We’re not even talking about other lawyers in the firm; we’re talking about other equity partners. The firms that have resisted that I think have found themselves to be generally more collegial places.
Some of this is a function of an eat-what-you-kill approach, which it emphasizes billings and billable hours to the exclusion of everything else. And once you have lawyers fighting with each other over who’s going to get credit for billings because that’s going to translate immediately into compensation decisions, you have a pretty destructive, if not toxic, culture.
Lock-step vs. Eat What You Kill
Chris: Is there an ideal philosophy culture management style that might counterbalance eat-what-you-kill?
Steve: There is. It’s called lockstep and for years it was the way New York firms, virtually all top New York firms, functioned. And many of them, some of them I should say, not many of them, some of them still do. The places like Cravath, which I think for many lawyers, including me, is really a gold standard of what a great firm is, has had lockstep forever. It’s a tough place, but at the same time you don’t, I don’t think have a world where you have partners – there have been stories about partners in big firms, and, again, I’m not going to name any of them, but there’s some examples in the book. I don’t want to name them on the podcast, but there are examples of firms where partners within the same firm have actually pitched the same client for business from another partner.
Steve: That’s absurd. Institutionally, it’s absurd.
Chris: Yeah, so such inter-firm competition.
Chris: For the listener’s sake, can you describe a little bit of what lockstep is and why that would be a benefit to a client?
Steve: Yeah, lockstep essentially says, the most important prerequisite to lockstep, lest you think what I’m suggesting is that all firms ought to make everybody they ever hire equity partners who have an automatic path to the top of their firms, I’m not suggesting that at all. The first important prerequisite of lockstep is to maintain a very high quality standard of the lawyers you would promote into the equity partnerships. So you’d have a, you do have to maintain a high threshold and that’s going to mean that not everybody you hire is going to make it into equity partnership.
But you want, if you satisfy that essential prerequisite, lockstep says that as you essentially age, moving though the firm, you have a set pattern, set compensation that you’re going to receive. And typically you sort of, you lockstep with everybody in your class, you move through the equity partnership up to a maximum income or compensation level and then as you get older, and everyone has a different definition of what older means these days, but in a well-functioning lockstep system, somewhere as somebody probably entered their mid-50s, I would say, certainly by 60, you would certainly be stepping down so that you’re continuing to make room for the next generation to move in and take over and become leaders in their own right.
That strikes me as a pretty healthy system. But you need a unique culture to pull it off. It’s very hard, firms that don’t have that system now, can find it impossible to try to transition to something like that, particularly in an era where what you’ve really done throughout many sectors of the profession is put an increasing emphasis on lateral hiring, hiring lawyers with big books of business because there’s flat demand essentially for big firms, so you’re trying to grow revenue that way. So you create these additional cultural obstacles I think to a lockstep system in firms, but, you know.
Open Compensation vs. Closed Compensation
Chris: Steve, would say that, and I’m going to use terms that if I need to explain, I can, but like an open comp versus a close comp system, do you see the benefits of an open comp or the benefits of a close comp system and how that might complement what we’re talking about here too?
Steve: You mean open comp and close comp in the context of, in a sense of people knowing what everyone’s making?
Steve: That’s an interesting question. And I’m not sure I know the answer to it.
Steve: I can kind of see both sides of that argument. I think certainly within equity partnerships, there has to be a level of transparency. Dewey and LeBoeuf is probably the most recent dramatic, certainly the most recent and most dramatic example of a firm where the absence of transparency was stunning and took a tremendous toll on the firm itself. But the – you know, it’s a tricky proposition. When you drop down into the level of associates and so forth, what’s the right balance there in terms of making sure people understand where they are relative to their classmates, but at the same time not fueling really what I would call destructive competition.
I wrestled with that one actually for a number of years I was chairman of the associate review committee at Kirkland and at the end of the day what you really need to be doing at that stage in a lawyer’s life is really giving them accurate, good and bad, information about how they’re doing, rather than simply playing the game of well, you know, you’re a body. You’re billing hours. We’re going to make money off you and then we’re going to tell you at the end of six, seven, eight or however many years it is, “Well, guess what? You’re not going to make partner.” So in order to encourage that kind of transparency, ideally what you would want, at least among younger lawyers, is after two or three years, you can’t tell much after a single year, but after two or three or four years, you want them to know, look, here’s the range in your class. Here’s where you are and here are your prospects. That’s just a matter, it seems to me, of fundamental fairness and human decency.
Incentive Structures and Long-term Thinking
Chris: Inside of your Lawyer Bubble, I know that short term thinking rewards people different ways versus we’re helping – basically it seems like that you’re rewarding lawyers for personal gain. In long term thinking, what are the reward mechanisms you would want to have for long-term thinking ?
Steve: Yeah, that’s a great question. Some of it you would think, oh, yeah, of course that should happen, right? But I’ll give you an example. In many systems, in fact I would argue that in the prevailing model for big law firms today, what counts in your compensation decision are your billings, your billable hours, your leverage. In other words, the profitability of your practice and that then becomes your source of power in the firm.
Well, that’s fine, except tell me how I measure the time I’m going to spend, which time that someone spent with me, mentoring me so that I could become a partner, a well-regarded partner, capable, competent. I tried cases all over the country. Well, I couldn’t have done any of that if I hadn’t had mentors who were willing to say, “Look, I don’t get paid – I’m not getting any credit in terms of billable time or billable hours or revenues, but I think it’s important and valuable to the firm for you to become a better lawyer. And if you become a better lawyer, then clients are going to gravitate to you, the whole pie grows, and we all become better off.”
That’s a mindset that you can’t create in someone. They either have it or they don’t. But institutionally you can create incentives.
And one way you can create incentives is by saying, and this is what happened for many years at Kirkland and Ellis, we have a cap and the cap is that within an equity partnership, you can only get to this number. And as I said, in the case when I became an equity partner, it was somewhere in the range of four times whatever it was the lowest equity partner made.
So the only way – and I had a very senior partner who was an extraordinary trial lawyer, still is I think, say to me, “Look,” this is when he was recruiting me as a summer associate at Kirkland and he said to me, “Look,” he said, “my compensation is capped at this level of share participation in the firm. The only way I can make more money is to make you a better lawyer.”
I think that’s the sort of mindset that if you can create it in terms of incentive structures within the institution, you have a better chance of pulling it off, but as long you keep stretching it out, as long as you keep stretching the gap between the highest and the lowest and stretching out the time that it takes to make equity partner in a firm, all of the incentive structures are moving in the wrong direction.
Chris: Yeah, I can see that. Let’s transition to another book that you wrote in 2010, which we would call a legal thriller, called The Partnership. What was your process behind writing that book, your thinking, why did you write it, what led you to write it?
Steve: I guess what led me to write it is one of my friends, one of my good friends is Scott Turow. Believe me, as a more famous person said to Dan Quayle, Lloyd Bentsen said to Dan Quayle in the presidential debates, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” I don’t fancy myself any – vice presidential debates it was many years ago. I don’t fancy myself a Scott Turow, but Scott was very encouraging of me in basically writing the first book, which we may talk about as well, which was Crossing Hoffa.
And I just sort of thought, you know, there’s a way to tell a story about what goes on inside big firms that might become interesting to the audience at that point that I was interested in reaching and frankly the audience I was interested in reaching were undergraduates in an advanced course I was teaching at Northwestern in a legal studies department called American Lawyers: Demystifying the Profession. And I couldn’t really find anything that gave me a treatment. You know, John Grisham had written The Firm and I thought that was, you know, that was too harsh. There you have literally the law firm as a criminal enterprise.
I wrote it in large part because I wanted to have something that I thought would be sufficiently engaging while retaining a sufficient level of realism that I could ask the students in my class to read it and get their reactions to it because all of them, virtually all of them, were tracking themselves to law school with no idea what lay ahead and assuming that if they managed to get into a big firm, that was going to be the be all and end all, as many students still think. And I wanted to at least present a different slice that might have them rethink some of the assumptions they were making about what they wanted to do if they went to law school.
Of course, all of them still went to law school and most of them were still striving to get the best paying jobs, which are at big firms, because they need them in order to pay enormous debt that they’re coming out of law school, which is an entirely different subject, terrible subject, frankly, and so that’s how that came about.
Chris: Yeah, and I’d just like to speak to the novel itself, it is riveting. It’s fast-paced for readers to consider, especially, and I’ll just reiterate, considering law school, considering going into the private law practice, it’s a must-read. It definitely doesn’t describe every law firm situation, but it definitely describes what’s happening in the eat-what-you-kill law firm models these days.
Steve: That’s very kind of you, Chris. I will say I did get a lot of response from attorneys in big firms who said, “Boy, thanks for writing this. This is exactly right.” And it led me, actually the same kind of process is what led me to publish, to write and publish The Lawyer Bubble, which first came out in hardcover in 2013 and as you mentioned it’s been updated for 2016 publication. Same idea. There I couldn’t find, again, for my class, I couldn’t find really anything other than a sort of collection of different things that I tried to mix and match together, but nothing that what I thought was a sufficiently balanced and factual as opposed to screamers. You can find lots of disgruntled lawyers who left big firms and then write scrieves about how terrible it is. And that’s not really right.
I have to say, and I always preface all of my presentations, and I’ve done a lot of them, whether they’re law firms or other places, by saying I love the practice of law. There’s nothing that I could have done with my life in terms of my career that would have been more satisfying or more gratifying than the career I took, and the only reason I continue to write about some of the topics that still concern me about the profession is I think we’ve moved in the direction that we haven’t necessarily had to move to and it hasn’t been, it hasn’t made the profession better and I’m sort of hoping that at some point the pendulum will swing back the other way and I think it might. It think it might. There was an article in the recent New York Times that talked about former federal prosecutors who were opting out of big law firm opportunities and instead deciding to open their own smaller boutique firms for a better sense of culture and autonomy. That all resonates with the next generation.
My Dad vs. Jimmy Hoffa
Chris: Yeah, it really does. Let’s talk about the book that you first started writing and I personally am intrigued. I haven’t read it myself and I’m very intrigued to read it, Crossing Hoffa. There’s some personal history here. Can you share about that?
Steve: Oh yeah, that’s the first time I became an accidental author. After my father died in early I guess it was 2001, I came across some of the materials he had kept all of his life it turned out and dating back to his young adulthood. And I had known growing up when I was a kid that he had always had what we called in the family as his Hoffa fight. At the time my dad was a truck driver, a teamster, a member of the teamsters union in Minneapolis actually, and Jimmy Hoffa, this was in the late 50s and early 60s, was the most powerful labor leader in the world.
And what I wound up doing was I decided, you know, there might be an interesting kind of piece of personal history here in terms of our family and if I don’t pull this together, no one is ever going to be able to figure it out because at least I lived through enough it even though I was a small child to be able to piece through it and do the research that frankly, a litigator would do in trying to get the rest of the story put together.
The long and the short of it is the book, the essence of the book, the elevator speech, if you will, the two cents description of the book is that my dad was a truck driver. He launched an insurgency in Minneapolis local because the business agent there was skimming union dues and he, my dad at this point believed what he was hearing about Hoffa as a crusader because this was all back before all the organized crime ties and all that sort of stuff came out about Jimmy Hoffa. So he believed the rhetoric about my dad or about Hoffa being crusader, so he launched this insurgency expecting he would get Hoffa’s full support. Turned out what my dad did not know, even until the moment of his death 40 years later, 50 years later, was that Hoffa had put the guy, put the crooked guy in charge. And Hoffa came to town, met alone with my father in a downtown Minneapolis hotel for four hours. Told my dad to knock it off. My father refused and for the next two years, they tried to kill him, sabotaged his truck and death threats to the house and all that kind of stuff.
Steve: My father, who had his own checkered history because he had spent more than a year in what was then America’s worst prison in Angola, Louisiana as a young man in his early 20s, he didn’t trust law enforcement because he had been beaten at the hands of cops before, so he just sort of off he goes with a wife and his wife, four kids and a dog on this improbable journey that ultimately – I don’t have to tell you in a battle between Jimmy Hoffa and a truck driver who’s going to win, but he did escape with his life and we wound up surviving the ordeal and Hoffa wound up in jail and ultimately, of course, disappeared.
Anyway, it became a book only because I was writing this, now we’re back to Scott Turow again, I was writing this sort of chronology of family history and I was having breakfast with Scott one morning and he said, “So what are you working on these days besides your legal cases?” And I told him and he said, “Well, it sounds kind of interesting.” He said, “How far into it are you?” And I said, “Ah, about 200 pages.” He said, “I’ve got to tell you,” he said, “You’ve crossed the Rubicon. You’ve got a book.” I said, “Well, maybe,” I said, “Tell me what I should do with it.” He said, “Well send me the first – send me the first 20 pages and I’ll take a look at it.” He took a look at it. He loved it. He said, and then he sort of guided me in a direction of a publisher that might take a look at it and sure enough they did and away we go.
Chris: So fascinating.
That’s how you retire, by the way.
Steve: That’s how you retire, by the way. That’s how lawyers retire. You wander into it. You wander into something.
Because I still had a full time practice of the law. I wrote this book. I tried to do – the chapters are pretty short. I tried to do a five- to ten-page chapter each weekend, typically on Sundays. And when I could I would squeeze out time to do research and so forth, but this thing kind of got going and I said, gee, this is fun.
Then I got to a point, the crossover point, here’s the crossover point when you’re a lawyer, if there’s something else you want to be doing and the phone rings and it’s a client or something else involving a case and you’re irritated because you’d really rather be doing this something else, which in my case was researching Jimmy Hoffa in 1959 and 1960, then you know it’s time to think about what you should be doing if maybe lawyering is not enough. Try to be ahead of that curve, not wait for people to cut you off a digit a time.
Chris: Yeah, and Steve, just to clarify, were you aware of your father’s history or was this-?
Steve: No. Well, I knew that he had what he called the Hoffa fight. I knew that he for a time carried a small pistol that he strapped to sometimes his ankle and sometimes he wore a shoulder holster. I knew that he got – I knew that we had a German Shepherd that he bought for protection for when he was on the road. At the time this was all unwinding, I was pretty young. I was six, seven, eight, but I had very vivid recollections of a lot of it because we were close, very close, from a very young age. I used to go for rides with him in the truck and that sort of stuff. But I had no clue of the depth of this story.
Just to give you one, and he didn’t either. To give you one example, one of the things that was happening because while this insurgency was going on it was front page news in Minneapolis, in the Minneapolis newspapers, and the reporter who he was feeding information to about what was happening, he didn’t know this, but I discovered in the course of writing this book after my dad was gone, that the reporter had actually been a Hoffa mole. The reporter was in the process of writing his own book about the teamsters union that reads like a press release for Hoffa and the teamsters. It was – just my jaw dropped when I came across those papers in the Minnesota Historical Society archives.
Chris: And you found these documents that your dad had in a safety deposit box after he passed?
Steve: It wasn’t safety deposit. It was a just a small metal box that he kept next to him that he called his treasure chest. I opened the thing up and inside were his union dues card, his union ID card, a couple of letters that he had received from Hoffa personally after he had sent the stuff, sent in his complaints to Hoffa about the crooked business agent and some personal things relating to me and my siblings that he kept just from when we were kids. His number one priority in his life ultimately became his children and so – but it was just a fascinating exercise for me.
Chris: It sounds like a fascinating story. I definitely encourage the listeners to find that book. And everything that Steve is sharing on the podcast episode I’m going to put as links in the notes of it and on the website, so if you guys are curious, you definitely can find them or you can easily find them on Amazon or just type in Google, Steven Harper.
Steve: Oh, thanks. It just came out in paperback too, ironically enough, years later. They had to sell all the hardcovers first. But it was a Chicago Tribune best book of the year, which is just testament to beginner’s luck I think more than anything else.
Advice for Aspiring Authors
Chris: Yeah, definitely an honor. Steve, let’s jump in to a question. So I imagine, and I’ve met many attorneys who have become authors, what advice would you give aspiring authors?
Steve: If you have something to say and you want to write it, then write it. There a lot of people who walk around and I encounter them all the time, and say, “You know, I have this idea for a book. I have this idea. I have this idea,” that’s fine. Great. Write it. Do it. You’ll find out pretty early on whether it’s for you or not. And it’s for you, then just keep at it.
In many ways it’s become easier now in the world of self-publishing than it was 10 or 15 years ago. You’re not going to write a bestseller. I’ve never written a bestseller. I’ve written books that have done well. They’ve been critically reviewed favorably and all that sort of stuff, but if you really enjoy writing and you really want to be an author, the only way that you can find that out is by actually making the time to do it. That’s easier said than done because one of the casualties of the current business model for law firms generally and I don’t think it’s limited to big firms, I think it’s lawyers almost everywhere across the spectrum, will tell you where do I get time for that. You’re 24/7 now with iPhones and internet access and text messages. You can’t really go away on vacation anymore without risking some client getting mad at you over something if you’re not available 24/7, so it’s a challenge. It’s an extraordinary challenge. But my advice is first of all just write the thing and then as you write it or when you write it, see what you have when you’re done.
The other thing you could do too is start smaller. So if you have an idea about something and you want to write about it, well, try writing a column or an op ed or something along those lines, short story, whatever, whatever your deal is, just try it.
Chris: And if they were to write a column or op ed, they have to approach the publication to see if they would take it.
Steve: Right. That’s right. Yeah and you can – there are sorts of – they’ll all have submission guidelines anywhere you go and there are a lot of online vehicles too, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction depending what you’re doing. My daughter’s been writing a lot and she’s found pretty good success as a – in various – she does short stories, but there’s stuff out there that I just, I don’t even know it. I don’t even have a clue about all the different things that are out there now, but there are vehicles and avenues that you can express yourself if you want to do it.
Steve’s Current Reading List
Chris: Steve, what books should be written that are not written yet? I know you’re probably constantly thinking of writing ideas, whether you write them or someone else, but what books haven’t been written yet that need to be written?
Steve: Well, there’s a book that I’m thinking, and this is really off the topic of lawyers.
Chris: Go for it.
Steve: There’s a book that I’m thinking about putting together and writing based upon what’s been happening in the ongoing saga of the Trump-Russia stuff. And it’s – there will be a zillion book deals out there by a lot of different people, journalists, there will be presidential historians. There will be a lot of different approaches that people are going to take to however all this comes out in terms of the Trump presidency.
But I have a kind of a, I have a focus that to me is important relating to the whole question of what actually went on in terms of Trump and Russia and so forth. Not in any kind of vitriolic or bi-partisan or, not bi-partisan, not in any partisan sense but just in a question, in a lawyerly kind of question, what happened and how did it happen and what are the facts, just piece through all of it and then – because it becomes so complex and there’s so many distractions in the world. And I don’t know if I’ll ever, it will happen, but that’s one thought I have.
There’s another book that I, that’s going to be coming out that I read recently. Anne Brafford, who was a partner in a big law firm and she’s also got a degree in psychology, is writing a book called Positive Professionals. She let me read the manuscript recently. I think the ABA is publishing that. I’m not sure when, but probably within the next several months I assume. And that’s an interesting one because it’s a book that really is directed to help inform law firm leaders about the kinds of things they can do. If you’re not willing to just sort of scrap the entire structure, are there things that you can do at the margin or maybe even a little bit further in from the margin, penetrate a little bit more deeply, that will actually make your law firm more efficient, more effective. She assembles a lot of a growing body of research relating to how important worker engagement and morale is to the effectiveness and efficiency and even the profitability of your organization and that’s true in spades in law firms.
Chris: For sure.
Steve: So that’s one that could be, I think people will find interesting.
Chris: That’s excellent, Steve. What are some of your favorite authors or books?
Steve: I like Philip Roth. I read, re-read again recently, The Plot Against America, which was fascinating in a different context. Brave New World I went back and revisited.
Chris: Did you?
Steve: I’m not sure why. I just – actually I do know why. One of my sons gave it to me for Christmas and I thought I need to read this or read it again. I probably read it, but I’m old enough now that I can’t remember when I read it the first time.
Let’s see, right now I’m reading Turow’s latest book and I’m also reading Last Hope Island, which is a fascinating story of how the various refugee governments during World War II went sort of in total from the various European countries to London and essentially set up shop. It became a formidable base of operations for various resistance efforts led literally by the kings and queens of the countries who had fled – from which they had fled, in London. It’s an interesting historical account. I’m sort of drawn to – I tend to be drawn more toward non-fiction than fiction. But, that’s just the lawyer in me I think probably.
Chris: Yeah. Let’s talk about that lawyer in you as comes to teaching. What kind of classes are you teaching as an adjunct professor at Northwestern right now?
Steve: Right now the one I’m involved in is the Professional Responsibility course, which is a sort of a related course to the Trial Advocacy class. I’ve been doing the Trial Advocacy class going back, gosh, I guess it’s been 20 years now. And about five or six years ago, maybe a little longer, I guess I got promoted to the Professional Responsibility slice of it. I was teaching this undergraduate course that I described earlier, although, for health reasons I had to stop that one a couple of years ago, and I may return to that again.
And that’s about it. I’m kind of a, I’m a one-hit-wonder I guess when it comes to teaching some of this stuff. But it’s engaging and it’s interesting. And to me it’s been interesting to watch the, I guess you would call it the trend, of students in terms of their attitudes about lawyers and law firms and the world as you encounter them because I have a long enough time dynamic sense of what’s been going on with the different generations.
And there’s a piece of it that’s a little bit sad. And I’ll tell you, and that’s why we’re kind of back to where we started in a way, the piece of me that’s a little sad is that the evolution or maybe the devolution of the big law practice in particular, but I think it’s pervasive and not limited to big law, into what I call the short-term business model of maximizing revenues and profits.
Steve: Is I think it’s taking a toll in a funny way. And I think what happens – and the funny way that it’s taking it to me is sad is that I think a lot of students have sort of systematically ratcheted down their expectations of what they wanted or expected in a law degree. If you look at surveys now, you see it in the surveys of young associates, American lawyer surveys and others, where they say, “Where do you expect to be five years from now?” And you know the vast majority of them say probably not where I am.
Steve: And there’s something – I don’t know. Maybe it’s okay. Maybe it’s just a reflection of the increased mobility of society, but I think it’s a reflection of looking down the road and saying, “Well, look, this firm hired 100 new associates and maybe five of us someday will make equity partner.” Where’s the enthusiasm, where’s the energy to get yourself motivated to be part of that. Pretty tough. Pretty tough.
Chris: It definitely is tough and what’s interesting is it creates a void for, like the book you talked about with Anne Brafford and what she’s doing with Positive Professionals, who has a hopeful perspective on the legal industry and where is that hope coming from. There’s definitely a lot of opportunity, but I guess it requires a different mindset, maybe more entrepreneur based.
Steve: Yeah, I think so.
But ultimately, in the long term, some of these firms are going to create really big problems for themselves because if you continue to pull up the ladder in a way that doesn’t assure that you actually have a solid generation behind you that can assume the mantle of leadership, then who takes over?
And if you look at some of the recent studies that have come out of Altman Weil, there’s a great deal of fear and concern coming from leaders of big firms who don’t know or are concerned about where the next generation of leadership will come from. Well, how do you suppose that happened? It’s well over, I think the last number I saw on it was 60% or something said they were fearful of leadership. But at the same time, they’re all going to crank up, they’re all determined to crank up and make tighter and more difficult the prospects for moving up through the equity partnership. Well, psychologists have a term for that, it’s called cognitive dissonance and eventually those things do come home to roost.
Chris: They do and I think maybe your and I’s hope is that the partners that see the writing on the wall might either make internal change or spin off and create a firm that does have lasting legacy and the systems to be able to continue growing and sustaining good client service.
Steve: Well, the other thing that will happen is they’ll die off literally and so the next generation, ultimately it will come to the next generation to save the profession really in that sense.
Chris: Yeah. I mean in – I just interviewed Dean Daniel Rodriguez over at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and I mean he said our whole posture in educating law students is to help them be disruptors of the profession.
Steve: Mm-hm. Good for him.
Chris: Yeah. I think it’s refreshing. It’s good to hear. Okay. So you brought it up briefly around a book topic, but I wanted to talk to you about how’s retirement and what are you working on right now?
Steve: Sure. Well, it turns out retirement isn’t really retirement, at least for me it’s not and it’s not for a lot of lawyers I know. Some attorneys after they’ve spent 30 or 40 or more years practicing law are perfectly happy to say, “You know what? Leave me alone. I’m going to do leisure reading. I’m going to hit the golf course two or three times a week. And I’m just going to – leave me alone. Enough is enough.” That’s fine. I don’t begrudge them that at all. That’s not something that I’m capable of doing, so the writing of my first book sort of me gently into sort of away from the practice, as I said. Once I realized there was something that was more interesting to me to do and I could actually afford financially to do it, then I just moved on to the next thing and that became these series of books that I wrote.
Steve’s Next Book Project
My latest venture if you want to call it that, is also, it’s an offshoot of the blog that you mentioned earlier, which was I’d been writing early, starting in the middle of 2016 about concerns that I had about the rule of law as it related to a potential Trump presidency. A lot of people were concerned and a lot of lawyers spoke out when he attacked the judge who was presiding over his Trump University case and decried his so-called Mexican heritage, even though he was born in Indiana, born and raised in Indiana and so forth. So anyway, the long story short is what I’ve been doing lately is trying in the midst of what has really been a lot of chaos, to put it mildly, surrounding not just events in the world generally, but the Trump presidency in particular, I’ve tried to do what I can to keep straight a sequence of events or the sequence of events and it’s extraordinarily complicated relating to the issues of Russia interference with the 2016 election.
And there’s so many different dimensions to it that what I ultimately wound up doing, and every litigator who has ever tried a case or put together a case will understand this approach, I’m trying to put together a comprehensive timeline. And unlike a typical case where you’re dealing with history because whatever has happened is the reason the client is talking to you, this story is still unfolding and we don’t even really know for sure where it’s going to lead. But I’m working with Bill Moyers’ people who have been outstanding in really helping execute the project. I started writing a series of articles for Moyers earlier this year and then ultimately went into the timeline, it evolved into the timeline where we’re just trying to help keep the facts straight and it’s become, I gather, a fairly valuable resource for a lot of the journalists and others and just people who want to keep the facts straight about what it is that’s gone on in terms of the sequence of events, again, as they continue to be disclosed, relating to Russia’s interference with the 2016 election and whether, and if so to what extent, anyone involved in the Trump campaign or his aids had anything to do with that and so forth.
Steve: Again, I can’t begin to encroach on the ground that Special Counsel Mueller will follow, but I think it’s a story that I’m doing it for my own edification, number one, because I really want to understand this stuff. I’m doing it number two because I think it’s a story that’s going to turn out to be really important for democracy in America. If you’re really concerned that the right to vote matters, then you want to know if somebody’s, if a foreign power has attacked that and there’s every indication, at least from a U.S. intelligence agencies, that it did. You want to know how that came about and what we’re going to do about it in terms of the future. To me it’s a significant project and hopefully one that would be also useful in helping just citizens who want to follow the story to try to keep track of it without getting lost in the 24/7 news cycle of sound bites and shiny objects.
Chris: And Steve, where can people follow you on this subject? I know you mentioned, was it Dan Rather had some articles?
Steve: The best way to follow the Trump-Russia timeline is at BillMoyers.com, where we have it up. They have it prominently displayed. It’s updated every – the pace of recent events, I’ve had to update it several times a week, but typically at least once a week we update it with the latest developments. I update it with that stuff and they make it accessible to people.
Steve: Dan Rather was, Dan Rather a couple of days ago I was on Dan Rather’s America, which is a SiriusXM radio program. He was interested in that, so I spent, he spent 45 minutes talking to me about it on his program. People I guess are paying attention to it, which is gratifying. You do things and you kind of – it’s sort of like writing a book. It’s the same process. You do this and you put it out there and you don’t really know what happens. At least when you’re trying a case in front of a jury, you look at them and you can see them grimace if you said something that you know they don’t like, but you don’t really know unless you hear back from people through comments or otherwise, whether what you’re doing is making any difference. And I don’t know if it’s making any difference or not, but it’s making me feel productive and useful, so that’s good.
Chris: Well, I would say I’m grateful for you continuing to apply those litigator fact-finding skills to a situation as you said has been kind of clouded and confusing and doing it with a little bit of the emotion removed that seems to be plaguing most social media channels and news wires. It’s hard to take anything seriously with as slanted as things are these days, so-
Steve: Well, that’s the, to me that’s the critical, that’s what’s so important about keeping the Trump-Russia timeline as far as I’m concerned, pristine in its approach to facts so that every single entry I have linked to truly credible, verifiable factual news sources because people get lost in the screaming. And the worst thing you can do, and every lawyer will tell you this too, whether you’re dealing with a client or a judge or a jury, the worst thing you can do is to undermine your own credibility by taking an extreme position and even worse, an extreme position that turns out to be factually dubious or even soft.
So I’ve tried, again, with kind of a litigator’s approach to try to be really careful and stuff has to be – I’ll hold on to things for a longer than some of the news services will hold it before they make my timeline because I want to see someone else report it. Okay, BuzzFeed may have it and maybe BuzzFeed has it right, but I want to see somebody other than BuzzFeed come up with something. Or if you go to the other side, okay, Breitbart has something. Well, okay if Breitbart is saying something, but I’m not going to, I’m don’t want to use it just because Breitbart, let’s see somebody, let’s see corroborating evidence, let’s see triangulation. Let’s see something that we’ve got proven and provable facts before we take the position as I am, that the public reading this can believe me.
The Center of My World has always been My Family
Chris: Yeah, thank you for sharing. And Steve, kind of in closing and asking the last question, what in life gives you meaning and purpose right now?
Steve: Oh, for me that’s always been a really easy one. It’s my family. I have, I’m married to the same woman I met as an undergraduate in college.
Chris: That’s awesome.
Steve: More than 40 years ago. That’s not an easy feat for lawyers.
Steve: But we have three great adult kids and three grandchildren. To me that’s always been, they’ve always been the center of my universe. The practice of law can swallow you. And I have worked, and my wife’s been great at this actually as a support, I’ve worked really hard not to let that happen to me. And it served me well. It’s the old joke, nobody ever on his deathbed ever said I wish I had spent more time at the office. It’s true. And you know what you do as a lawyer is important. I don’t mean to underestimate that at all. And everything we do as a lawyer is critical to our clients and sometimes it’s even critical to democracy itself and the functioning of our system, but at the end of the day everything becomes pretty personal and for me the center of my world has always been my family.
Chris: Yeah, yeah. Well thank for sharing that, Steve.
Chris: And congratulations on 40 years.
Chris: Steve, it’s been an honor. Thank you for your time today. I really appreciate you being on the show.
Steve: My pleasure. Enjoyed it.
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