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Ex-Heller Partner: Women Lawyers Were ‘Canaries in the Coal Mine’

Posted Nov 3, 2008 3:56 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A former Heller Ehrman partner who spearheaded a project to retain women lawyers has been doing some thinking about why law firms dissolve.

Patricia Gillette, an employment lawyer, leaped to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe last October for what she describes as “cultural reasons.” At Heller, she founded the Opt-In Project with another lawyer in an effort to find out how to retain women lawyers. What she learned, she tells the ABA Journal, was that the problems spurring women lawyers to leave law firms were also contributing to firm implosions.

“Women were the canaries in the coal mine,” says Gillette. “What we found is that the issues that were causing women to leave law firms have become the issues that are causing young lawyers to leave large law firms, whether men or women.”

The project identified several problems with the management structure at law firms that are forcing out young lawyers unwilling to wait for the remote partnership prize, contributing to unhappiness among Baby Boomer lawyers seeking new practice options, and eroding the cohesiveness that had held firms together.

Gillette spoke about the need for cultural adhesiveness in a San Francisco Chronicle story about the dissolution of Heller and another San Francisco law firm, Thelen. The story says declining law firm profits test partner loyalties, leading some to leave for better pay. The loss of rainmaking partners and their important clients then leads to the decline of their former firms.

Gillette expanded on her comments in an ABA Journal interview. She says law firms need to change an up-or-out ladder structure of associate progression in exchange for a “lattice” structure that allows associates to opt off the partnership track for a while because of family responsibilities or other pursuits. Law firms need to abandon the billable hour and quit paying associate bonuses based on hours billed, she says. Instead bonuses should be based on an associate’s quality, efficiency, productivity and profitability, she says. Similarly, pay increases and progression in a law firm should be based on merit rather than associate class, in her view.

“I predicted three years ago that the billable hour would be gone in 10 years, and I stand by that,” she said. “There’s a point where law firms can only make more money by billing more hours and charging higher rates, and clients are starting to say, ‘No more.’ ”

Law firm models that emphasize profits over culture harm attorney retention, she says—and they also chip away at cohesiveness. She believes law firms with cultures that emphasize profits and billable hours won’t be able to keep their lawyers because they will leave for law firms that pay even more.

“When you let go of that culture and manage only by profits by partner, there is no glue to hold people together,” Gillette told the ABA Journal. “You’ve got to have trust between partner and partner, and partner and associate, and between clients and law firms. And that trust was broken. To survive, I think you’re going to have to see law firms restoring that.”

Gillette says trust can be built at law firms by getting associates involved in the redesign of law firm structures and being transparent about the process. She says Orrick is working on building the right kind of culture, but adds that Heller Ehrman once had a similar culture.

“I don’t think Heller Ehrman had any more of these problems than other law firms,” she said. “In fact, it had less, because Heller Ehrman had a very strong culture for a long time. I think people lost their sense of how strong the culture at Heller was.”


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