Law Practice Management

Partner Decries Depersonalization of BigLaw, Urges Investment in Associates

A law firm partner who saw the demise of her former firm, Heller Ehrman, says the quest for immediate returns and status contributed to its downfall.

Patricia Gillette, now a labor and employment partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, says too many of the nation’s largest law firms are marching down a path of depersonalization that ignores associates’ needs and their own viability. She writes about her concerns in an article for the American Lawyer.

“As a former partner of Heller, I saw our firm, with its rich culture of consensus and collegiality, collapse in part because some partners thought it would be OK to trade core values and firm identity for a moment at the top of a list; because some partners favored the elusive ‘global reach’ over more realistic ambitions; and because some partners chose more immediate returns over the history and tradition of the firm. In big firms that have survived, loyalty is too often defined by the portability of a partner’s business, associates are seen (and see themselves) as fungible commodities in whom no one has a stake, and fudging numbers of women and minority associates and partners is justified, if it gets the firm to its rightful place on yet another list.”

Law firms used to be about trust and relationships—between lawyers within the firm and between firms and clients, she says. The trust has been broken, she asserts, as law firms focus on profits per partner at the expense of their associates.

Gillette urges firms to look at associates as valuable assets who must be mentored, developed and trained. Rewards should be based on teamwork, productivity, quality work, loyalty and competence. She also says relationships can be strengthened with clients through alternative billing and learning more about their businesses.

“Managing only to the bottom line is a short-term strategy,” she says. Firms that ignore relationships “do so at their peril.”

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

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