October 18, 2005

Impressed by Harriet Miers?

Are you impressed by the fact that Harriet Miers moved into the managing partner position at a big law firm and spent a lot of time in bar assocation work? If you are, are you also someone who knows much about what areas of work lawyers of different abilities move into? If you are in a position to know what a career path like this really means about a person's legal acumen, email me. I'll keep your identity private (unless you clearly request to be named).

UPDATE: From a person of impressive large law firm experience:
Often - especially in large law firms -- partners with diminishing, diminished or little business, but whom the firm wants to keep for various reasons, take on bar association or administrative work at the firm. (The analogy in academia would be to tenured professors who do a lot of “service,” but do not do much research/publishing or active teaching.) There are many factors involved in such career paths (and certainly some highly distinguished lawyers who are truly competent and have significant business also take on such work). For associates, such a path is often (but not always) a sign that there is a problem, whether with the availability of work for that associate, the quality of the work, or otherwise.

MORE:
By way of background, I worked for five years as an associate at a 100 lawyer office of a "large law firm" in the midwest. For the following three years I worked at a bank and became aware of the internal politics of two mid-to-large Chicago firms.

My perceptions of the managing partners at these firms is that do not tend to be "the best" in their field. That is to say, if they are a litigator they are not the best litgator at the firm; if they are a transactional attorney they are not the best transactional attorney at the firm. I think the reason for this is the best litigators tend to be the ones who love it and if you are a managing partner you don't have much time for litigating. My experience was also that managing partners tended to have very good relations with some of the firm's largest clients and/or a strong presence in the community.

The managing partners I was aware of were universally smart though and had many skills which many other lawyers lack. Most notably, while everyone likes to get what they want and many lawyers are good at getting what they want, the managing partners I was aware of were good at getting what they wanted through consensus or the appearance of consensus.

Assuming she has those skills, it would be interesting to see how they translate in a group of nine.

I was unimpressed with none of the managing partners I came to know of. Then again, none of them were nominated to be on the U.S. Supreme Court.

HERE'S ANOTHER:
When I see that someone is managing partner, I can be sure of one thing: that person is politically astute and powerful. However, I would never draw any conclusions (based on that fact alone) about that person's pure lawyering ability or intellect.

What does it mean to be politically astute and powerful? It might mean that person has the largest book of business and the firm would fold if he or she left. Therefore, that person has the brute power to get anything he or she wants. Now, it may be the case that the managing partner has the most billings because he or she is the best lawyer in the world and all the clients know it, or it might mean that he or she inherited the book of business from a retired partner who was cultivated through years of sucking up.

The fact of being managing partner might also mean that the person has impressive people skills to unite a group of strong-minded partners. A related phenomenom is the managing partner who is the least objectionable among warring factions within the partnership. Of course, these qualities again say nothing about legal acumen.

Thus, a person can become managing partner for a variety of reasons, some of which may be related to intellect and lawyering skill but some of which have nothing to do with those qualities.

As for the bar activities, I would agree with the poster with "impressive large firm experience." When I see that kind of resume, I adopt a presumption that it may be a negative signal. Now, I would characterize my presumption as "easily rebuttable" because I have known excellent lawyers with significant bar activities. However, I have also known big firm partners who have used such activities to mask the fact of extremely weak abilities.

Bottom line for me? I just don't know enough about the nominee to form any judgments about her lawyering skills or intellect. I think it's admirable and impressive that she was the managing partner of a major firm, but it tells me nothing (without more) about intellect and analytical ability.

20 comments:

PD Shaw said...

This an interesting article about the role of women as managing partners. http://www.mcca.com/site/data/magazine/coverstory/0803/managingpartners0803.htm

Key graph:

Pisa estimates that she devotes about 60 percent of her time to management and the remainder to her mergers-and- acquisitions practice. Park rarely practices law anymore, particularly since the firm Pillsbury Madison merged with Winthrop, Stimpson, Putnam & Roberts in 2001, a major administrative undertaking. Similarly, Lagarde says her management duties take 150 percent of her time.

AJ Lynch said...

Based primarily on my reading obits (you know the Irish sports pages), it seems to me that managing partners tend to provide the muscle and power (Machiavellian skills) that every large firm needs to be very successful/ profitable.

vbspurs said...

There are two ways of interpreting the findings via emails, etc.:

(A) In an era where Affirmative Action was just beginning to take root in the US (and certainly before it, the ethos of minority advancement whenever possible), she was bright enough to be hired on in a prestigious law-firm, but perhaps she her staying on was due to tokenism.

(B) Her mind is geared towards the bureaucratic, making her invaluable to the running of law-firms, as AJ Lynch mentioned.

Neither option leave me salivating...

But like a mantra, I will invoke the "We're waiting for the Hearings to begin before passing judgement".

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

I found this on Beldar just now, which migh interest in case no one has linked to it yet:

A Westlaw Romp through Harriet Miers' Record

Cheers,
Victoria

BoneUSA said...

I've been an associate at a very large NYC law firm for several years. Both our current and most recent managing partners are considered among the top handful in their respective practice areas nationally. My sense is that one took the post based both on personal ambition -- wanting to reach the top of the firm's "pyramid" -- and on a vision for the firm's future. The other wanted to crown a prominent career with some years of service to the firm. Again, both are highly intelligent (one would qualify as brilliant) and capable.

I offer this only as a counter-example to the situation where a senior partner is put to pasture with in an administrative position. What we can infer from Mier's service as her firm's managing partner is probably something only her former colleagues can answer.

Lawpolprof said...

My understanding, from both my practice (associate) and my spouse’s practice (partner), is that these positions are pretty impressive. Managing partners at the mega-firms (I would not include HM’s firm in this category) have accumulated a large book of business, served in management capacities along the way – either in practice groups or as a local office partner-in-charge – and will usually make the jump directly from management committee. These folks are exceedingly political – both in terms of connections and behavior, with a vision for the firm (even if it may be misguided), and are the effective CEO (with a compliant management committee) over maybe a thousand people. These are not token positions. In fact, they are clear bottom line positions. Who will make us (the partners) the most amount of money in that position? Certainly these folks do less actual practicing of law (probably 35-40% of non-management attorneys) – but the economics of law practice need folks to bring the business in and others to manage the workers. The bar association folks, again in the top-twenty world, are folks who want to reclaim that (mythical IMHO) era of lawyers as esteemed professionals. The “Young Lawyers” division folks are probably not in this category, but the heavy-weights probably are.

These are all impressive qualities. I think, however, they hardly translate into qualities of the sort of nominee I would select. If, however, I were a pro-business Republican with low approval ratings replacing a woman on the Court who was a former legislator, it may not be the worst idea in the world.

Sloanasaurus said...

Annyone who has been a manager in business knows that it is quite different from being just a plain old attorney. Managing people and institutions is a lot different than thinking about issues in a back room.

Greg said...

It might provide a useful metric for this question to ask what lawyers think of the legal abilities of law professors.

Beldar said...

I respectfully submit that my own big-firm experience gives me a meaningful perspective here: Associate in the trial department of Houston-based Baker Botts (400+ lawyers), 1981-1987; associate, 1987, then partner, 1988-1990, in the litigation department of the Houston office of New York-based Weil, Gotshal & Manges; shareholder and head of litigation in the Houston office of Dallas-based Thompson & Knight, 1991-1992. Since then I've practiced on my own or at three much smaller firms. I've also had personal dealings with, or otherwise been reasonably well informed about, managing partners of most other of the ten or twelve largest law firms in Texas over the last 25 years. Obviously I'm willing to speak for attribution, as I don't blog anonymously.

At each of the big firms I was at (including NY-based WG&M), and each of the other big Texas-based firms of which I'm aware, their managing partners were extremely well-respected for their practice abilities both inside and outside the firms. The notion that they Peter-Principled their way into managing partner, or that their firms would have presented anyone of lesser ability and respect to the firms' clients and competitors as the firms' leaders, is absolutely outrageously funny. In some big-firm cultures, in which the managing partner is primus inter pares in pie-slicing, one's own revenue streams (which are dependent at least on client perceptions of excellence, and we're talking here about sophisticated clients for the most part) are likely to have played a big part in one's rise through firm management. Even in less dog-eat-dog firms, though, it would simply be unthinkable to let a merely-competent drone become managing partner. Head of a committee or a "task force," sure. But probably not even a department head -- nothing that would catch the public eye.

It is not, however, true that being a terrific practicing lawyer, or even a terrific revenue generator, is sufficient to be an effective managing partner. Any lawyer with big-firm experience knows of the corner-office rainmaker partner whose colleagues distrust or despise him for his personal attributes. So I think to the extent one can generalize, it would be fair to say that in general, to become managing partner of a major law firm, you need to have the respect of your peers as a lawyer, plus some other type of management qualities and people skills; but what those are, varies quite a bit, I think, from firm to firm and even from time to time within a single firm.

Some managing partners manage through fear, some through persuasion and reason; some delegate, some don't; some essentially quit practicing, others never do. Occasionally you'll see a stable power-sharing arrangement arise, but that generally doesn't tend to work any better for law firms than it did for Rome (i.e., won't outlast a particular set of proconsuls' lifetimes, and likely not that long). Big firms are generally eager to have, and perhaps must have, a benevolent despot to maintain their success, but how despotic varies quite a bit.

Bar prominence doesn't bring much business to large law firms in big cities. The notion that she was "shunted off" into that is, again, too silly to be taken seriously by anyone who understands the economics or power structures within large law firms. Like pro bono work, it would be something very much approved of in theory, but wholly insufficient on its own to maintain a long-term position of power within a large law firm, much less to support a rise to managing partner status on its own.

I don't really understand your question about "what areas of work lawyers of different ability move into." I've known able and less able lawyers in every practice area, and known (or known of) managing partners of large firms who've been litigators, deal lawyers, tax lawyers, whatever.

Specifically with respect to Harriet Miers, keep in mind that she was the managing partner of Dallas-based Locke Purnell, with 200+ lawyers, and in that capacity guided it to a merger of equals with Houston-based 200+ lawyer Liddell Sapp, and then she became co-managing partner in the combined firm, Locke Liddell & Sapp. Almost any observer of the Texas legal scene would point to this as one of the most risky, yet most successful, major law firm mergers in Texas; the combined firm is a bigger player than either predecessor alone could likely have become, and can compete much more effectively against the very small number of firms who'd already gotten well beyond critical mass in both Houston and Dallas, plus against the ever-steady pressure of out-of-state large firms who've attempted to build big presences in Texas. The challenges of being a managing partner as two large, well established firms merge their cultures can be enormous.

Note, too, that even those managing partners who rule benevolently and wisely will inevitably generate critics and enemies. In an email exchange I recently had with one pundit/journalist, he or she told me that his/her anonymous sources for a particular point were "people with no axe to grind, people who were current or former partners." My reply to him/her was that there is no such thing as a former partner with "no axe to grind," and that even current partners may well have them too. The proof of a managing partner's effectiveness, though, is in the eating of the pudding -- how big a bowl the pudding came in, how many years in a row the pudding was sweet and ample, how long the managing partner kept his/her position as head chef.

Ann Althouse said...

Greg: I would be VERY skeptical of a lawprof nominee, I assure you!

Beldar and others: My question isn't (just) about how good generally a person needs to be to take this career path but about how much this career path shows about a person's capacity to do legal analysis. My hypothesis, which your argument doesn't refute, is that these positions are pursued by those whose skills are in the business management category. I have yet to see any evidence of excellence in the area relevant to the work of the Supreme Court. It's important to recognize that the legal practice she engaged in did not involve much actual practice of law.

Also, Beldar, why are you just promoting Miers like an advocate? What's your motivation?

Beldar said...

Our host wrote, "It's important to recognize that the legal practice she engaged in did not involve much actual practice of law."

Excuse me? Since when is representing commercial clients in lawsuits not the "actual practice of law?" Surely you've misspoken there, Prof. A. Maybe you meant to say "constitutional analysis," in which case you'd be only sorta right, because we know she has at least three reported decisions that included constitutional law issues, one of them a case of first impression of enormous importance and against one of the Nation's top constitutional law scholars. But if you have the impression that commercial litigators do no "legal analysis," you're very, very, very badly mistaken. How do you think those cases on which the appellate judges write their opinions get to them, except through the work (including legal analysis) done by the lawyers who litigate those cases? That which you use in your classrooms to teach legal analysis probably came in the first instance from the briefing and argument presented by a practicing lawyer like Harriet Miers.

As for your clarified question about managing partner status indicating "capacity for legal analysis," I think there's probably a generally positive correlation between that and being a managing partner in a large law firm, but it's second-order. That is, for reasons I posted last night, I think most managing partners of large law firms tend to be drawn from among the ranks of those partners most respected by the firms' own lawyers, competitors, and clients for their practice skills; and one may make some very general assumptions that practice skills are the result of being able to perform legal analysis competently. But I wouldn't suggest that one necessarily does much legal analysis per se as part of the duties and work that, strictly speaking, one does as a managing partner. Maybe trend-spotting and positioning to take advantage of growing practice areas, or evaluating lateral hires, might involve some legal analysis, but I think it's fair to say that the job of being a managing partner, once one has it, is mostly about managing.

I've written at length on my own sources of bias and motivations for defending the Miers nomination, but that's an absolutely fair question for all who're posting or commenting conspicuously about the nomination, which I certainly am! To paraphrase them: I don't know Ms. Miers, but I've known of her since well before she began representing Dubya, and I've had many, many cases with and against both Locke Purnell and Liddell Sapp. I was horrified at some of the misinformation spread about Ms. Miers in the first hours and days after her nomination — allegations that, for example, she was a "third-rate lawyer" at a "second rate firm," who hadn't even been on law review and had an undistinguished record at a bad law school, and who'd "never handled any big cases" and had "no qualifications" other than being the President's crony. And as a practicing lawyer who believes the Court ought to have at least one member drawn from the ranks of practicing lawyers, and someone who's traveled in many of the same circles that Ms. Miers has, with some personal knowledge and reasonably well informed opinions on some of these factual issues, I felt compelled to speak out.

Besides, I argue almost everything like an advocate. Guilty as charged. I'll also plead guilty to being long-winded. If there's a blogospheric equivalent to taking judicial notice, that can be done with respect to me being long-winded and inclined to argue like an advocate. :-)

Ann Althouse said...

Beldar: I said being a managing partner and concentrating on the bar association doesn't involve much practice of law. That was not about the aspect of her career in which she did commercial litigation. To reframe the question, if she was such a terrific commercial litigator, why did she move into law firm management and bar association work?

Stuart Buck said...

My sense is that the managing partner position and the bar association work are two very different things. While a managing partner obviously doesn't have as much time for the actual practice of law, it still may be the case (as Beldar points out) that Miers got to that position by winning respect both for lawyerly skills and managerial abilities.

The bar association work is different. There are some absolutely top-notch lawyers who spend time on various bar association activities; but I also tend to wonder why someone would be able to spend so much on bar work. (The best practicing lawyers, in my experience, tend to be up to their ears in real work for paying clients.) On the whole, bar association work seems neutral to me -- it doesn't prove or disprove that someone is a good lawyer.

PD Shaw said...

beldar said: "the Court ought to have at least one member drawn from the ranks of practicing lawyers"

Eight trials (four of which she was lead counsel) and arguing seven appeals over thirty years does not rank her high among the ranks of practicing lawyers.

The post hoc justification of Miers is that as a practicing lawyer she has an intimate familiarity with the rules of procedure and trial practice that the SCOTUS oversees. But clearly her area of practice, drew her more to the conference room than the court room. As did her associational, managment, and political acitivities.

Crank said...

I will (prudently) not comment on my own firm's management one way or another, but I have seen the manging partner (before he became such) of one of our major competitor firms in action at trial, and he was very, very good. Of course, some firms have corporate transactional lawyers as managing partners, and while I have great respect for top-notch transactional lawyers, their practice is rather different from the world of judges and litigators.

Certainly, managing partners at big firms are smart people, but the skills you bring to that job are a little different from the skills that make you a good litigator in the first place. It's a good credential but not, in itself, proof that Miers has what it takes to be a Supreme Court Justice. Writing ability, in particular, is not required.

Robert said...

Maybe this is OT, but how did she get the White House counsel position?

Beldar said...

Our host asks: "[I]f she was such a terrific commercial litigator, why did she move into law firm management and bar association work?"

The common thread that binds and explains her life has been service: Service to her family and to her church; to her law firm; to her city as a city council member; to her local, state, and national bar associations; to her paying clients; to the indigent through pro bono work; to the people of the State of Texas, as counsel to its governor and head of the Texas Lottery Commission (the latter of which has produced over $7 billion for public school finance); and now to the people of the United States as counsel to the POTUS and other key staff positions inside the Administration.

I don't know which of these roles she volunteered for and which she was asked by others to undertake; my guess is that it's been a combination of both. If fame or fortune or other personal goals had been what motivated her, she'd almost certainly have avoided obligations that might compete with her litigation practice, and certainly would not have ended up in such low-profile Administration positions. But I think it's reasonably clear that either through her own conclusions, the arguments of others, or some combination, she perceived that her service was needed in all of those other aspects in addition to, and ultimately instead of, her service to her paying clients.

I'm not trying to paint her as Mother Theresa of the Dallas Bar. Obviously she's been able to enjoy some financial rewards from her hard work. Standing for elections to city council and to the bar association positions bespeaks ambition as well, and those who lack self-confidence rarely prosper in litigation. I'm confident she's made some enemies — John Fund reports that the ex-Texas Lottery top administrator she sacked, who then sued and settled, is eager to be subpoenaed so he can escape his confidentiality covenant, and someone from that position is likely to have been nursing a decade-old grudge. And you simply cannot run a major law firm without stepping on a few toes, and most managing partners end up cutting a few off.

When one looked at John Roberts' career path, knowledgeable cynics said, "It looks like he's been 'running' for the Supreme Court at least since high school." That's a bit harsh, but he too had ambition, and for whatever reasons he certainly did have almost the "model resume" (except that his circuit judge service ought to have extended back a decade to his first, Bush-41 nomination; not his fault, outside his control). Whether it was the result of his conscious choices or not, "Supreme Court pathway!" practically screamed at you from his resume.

"Service" screams at you from Harriet Miers'.

Beldar said...

Robert asked: "[H]ow did she get the White House counsel position?" My understanding is that she'd already been in a series of White House staff jobs including Staff Secretary and Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy (not sure about that title). The Counsel to the POTUS spot opened when Alberto Gonzales was confirmed as Attorney General in February of this year. I presume that the President already viewed her qualifications (including "already holds the confidence of the POTUS") as ample and asked her to take the Counsel slot because he thought she was the best qualified person for that job; regardless, it was his choice.

Ann Althouse said...

Beldar: Re service: that's all very nice, but it still underscores my point that her career does not show a person with the relevant abilities and expertise. The question isn't whether she's a good person.

Similarly, your description of how she got her job as counsel to the president shows something other than the relevant skills. Yes, she has personal skills relevant to getting close to those with power. That is not satisfying at all!

Beldar said...

You asked what being a managing partner shows about her abilities to perform legal analysis. I answered that -- some, but less than what her practice career shows. If your original thesis for this post was that being a managing partner shows nothing about her ability to perform legal analysis, I think that thesis has been refuted.

Now you're trying to argue that because she spent some of her time doing management and bar work, she lacks the ability to perform legal analysis. I'm sorry, but that's a non sequitur. I don't know how much she cut back on her practice for paying clients in the 1990s, but it's quite clear from some of her reported decisions that she continued to practice, and indeed some of what looks to be her most challenging, high-stakes matters occurred during that same time period.

Being "nice" — your dismissive term for exhibiting high ethical and moral standards, energy, selflessness, integrity — is, I agree, not the same as having raw intellectual and analytical ability. Abe Fortas was brilliant, but ethically challenged. He lacked essential qualities other than brilliance to be even an acceptable Justice. Being "nice" (not the term I'd pick, but we'll use yours) is indeed a qualification for the Court -- necessary, but not sufficient.

I also agree that the attributes which got her the White House Counsel job aren't exactly identical with the attributes we look for in a Supreme Court Justice. Personal loyalty to the POTUS is key for one, not for the other. But that does not mean that other attributes aren't common to both. If you want to talk about making difficult decisions, including decisions that turn on legal analysis, with incredibly important stakes and under enormous pressure, having performed successfully in the White House Counsel's job is indeed a relevant credential -- useful and probative, if neither necessary or sufficient. But I have never argued that she should be on the Court because she has "personal skills relevant to getting close to those with power," and neither has the President.