April 13, 2012 2:55 PM

Unfortunate (and Ironic) Comment Award

Posted by Steven Harper

If Dewey LeBoeuf has so-called friends like its former partner John Altorelli… well, you know the rest.

Altorelli’s recent comments to Am Law Daily include so many candidates for my Unfortunate Comment Award that it’s difficult to choose just one. So let’s go with the most ironic. In discussing whether Dewey could have done a better job of managing information—presumably referring to publicity about attorney layoffs, partner departures, and financial results—Altorelli said:

“In most law firms, I think, as good as the lawyers are at advising clients, they’re not as good at taking their own advice. They are surprisingly obtuse when it comes to their own situation.”

He then proceeded to reveal himself as someone surprisingly obtuse about his own situation. Before listing those inadvertent revelations, consider how Altorelli himself embodies the lateral partner hiring phenomenon that has overtaken much of big law as a dominant business strategy.

The revolving lateral door

After  graduating from Cornell Law School in 1993, Altorelli made his way through four law firms in only 14 years—LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene MacRae; Paul Hastings; Reed Smith; and Dewey Ballantine (shortly after the collapse of Dewey’s merger talks with Orrick, Herrington Sutcliffe, and a few months before its October 2007 merger with Altorelli’s original firm, LeBoeuf). Such a journey is not likely to produce deep institutional loyalties anywhere.

He’s not unique. For example, as I was writing this post, The Wall Street Journal reported that Brette Simon had left Jones Day to join Bryan Cave. Since graduating in 1994, she’s also worked at O’Melveny Myers; Gibson, Dunn Crutcher; and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter Hampton.

Still, Altorelli’s book of business apparently qualified him for a place on Dewey LeBoeuf’s executive committee. He says that former chairman Steven Davis will “take the axeâ€� for whatever is going wrong now, but surely the firm’s executive committee wasn’t a collection of potted plants. It seems improbable that Davis alone could have forged and executed Dewey initiatives that issued bonds and used guaranteed multi-year compensation contracts to lure prominent lateral partners.

But now Altorelli says: â€�The only people who need contracts are those who are not so secure. I feel bad that firms have to go that way, in competition for laterals and the like.â€�

Not my fault—or anyone’s

Then again, Altorelli also suggests that management hasn’t contributed to Dewey’s current problems. Rather, it was just the “bad timingâ€� of a long recession that didn’t allow the firm to burn off expenses associated with the Dewey/LeBeouf merger: â€�We kept thinking it’ll get better tomorrow, then it doesn’t get better. The next thing you know it’s been four years.â€�

Magical thinking rarely results in a winning strategic plan. Curiously, Altorelli also notes that during that same period while he was at the firm, he and Dewey prospered: “I had five of the best years of my career.�

As he headed for his fifth big firm in 19 years, Altorelli offered several additional insights that qualify for stand-alone Unfortunate Comment Awards, especially coming from one of the firm’s recent executive committee members who professes to have a continuing hope for Dewey’s future:

—“I’m not sure how they can weather the departures.â€�

—“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say, I don’t know how many more they can suffer.â€�

—“[There] could be a survival path for a smaller Dewey. I don’t know how that would work. They seem to have a strategy. Or the firm will be busted up into a bunch of little pieces and survive in the hearts and souls of a lot of good people.â€�

Yet perhaps the unkindest cut of all came in contrasting his professional life at Dewey with how things will be better at DLA Piper, where he will serve on its executive committee:

“Altorelli says he was drawn to his new firm by the chance to help change the way he practices law. Altorelli… says the firm is experimenting with ways to ‘try to get back to more of an intellectual pursuit, rather than just grinding out the paper.’ ”

If Altorelli’s interview had appeared five days earlier, I would have looked for this concluding line: “April Fool!”

Just delete “April.”

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.

Related post: From Russia with Love

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