The pluses and minuses of partnership

I had the pleasure of meeting many distinguished members of Maryland’s legal community last night at The Daily Record’s 2012 Leadership in Law event. This included a number of partners from firms such as Venable and Zuckerman  Spaeder.

So when I read a column this morning in the National Law Journal on the possible pitfalls of becoming a partner it seemed especially timely.

“Obtaining partnership can be a significant achievement and offer a lawyer substantial rewards, but it may also involve substantial risk,”  writes Michael Downey, a partner at Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis. “Due care should be exercised to ensure a proffered partnership position is indeed a prize, not a trap.”

Downey says that becoming an equity partner involves assuming several types of increased risk. He says a new partner may be expected to “contribute capital, to pay money into the firm or leave money in the firm for it to use — or lose.” Second, a new partner may “assume greater responsibility for the firm’s debts and liabilities.”

Third, Downey says a new partner may “relinquish predictability in compensation.” He says that partners often receive a “comparatively smaller monthly payment or draw, and may not learn or receive their full annual compensation until profits and losses are determined at the end of the firm’s fiscal year.”

To minimize these risks, Downey said attorneys  contemplating becoming a partner should be mindful of the risks, review the firm’s governance documents, conduct due diligence about the firm, get third-party information about and evaluations of the firm and think about perhaps joining as a non-equity position or as of counsel.

Maryland attorneys: what do you think? What have your experiences been?

Awards and announcements roundup

Several local lawyers are receiving high honors these days.

– Victoria Sulerzyski, an attorney at Ober|Kaler, received the 2012 Volunteer of a Lifetime Award from United Way of Central Maryland in a ceremony Sept. 20.

Sulerzyski has volunteered for over 10 years at places like PACT: Helping Children with Special Needs; the Kennedy Krieger Institute; Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities; and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

– Seven local firms received recognition as  ”highly recommended” Maryland firms in the newest edition of “Benchmark Litigation.”

The list includes DLA Piper, Hogan Lovells, Kramon & Graham P.A., Miles & Stockbridge P.C., Whiteford Taylor Preston LLP, Venable LLP and Zuckerman Spaeder LLP. Attorneys and these and other firms were also named “Local Litigation Stars.”

— Phoebe Haddon, dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, is hosting this week the 2012 Teaching Conference of the Society of American Law Teachers.

Haddon won the society’s “Great Teacher” award last year. The conference hosts more than 150 law professors Thursday through Saturday. This year’s theme is “Teaching Social Justice, Expanding Access to Justice: The Role of Legal Education and the Legal Profession.”

Law clerks show their smarts at MSBA

At Thursday’s “Are you smarter than a law clerk?” session at the MSBA conference in Ocean City, Court of Appeals Judge Lynne A. Battaglia’s law clerks proved that they are pretty darn smart.

They answered all but one question correctly. Even the one they got wrong they originally got right; they just waffled in the end and answered “yes” instead of “it depends.”

Playing the role of Vanna White, Battaglia (pronounced the Italian way, with no hard “g” sound as she informed the crowd) showed off towels and mugs stamped “Smarter Than A Law Clerk.” Panelist James Archibald of Venable LLP in Baltimore provided the prizes.

Lunch was provided by panelist Paul Mark Sandler, name partner of the Baltimore firm Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler. Hilariously grouchy comments provided by the third panelist, retired Baltimore County Circuit Judge John Fader II, who said every time he attends the MSBA conference he sees people who don’t need to be there and then returns to the courtroom and sees all of the attorneys who should have gone.

The session often felt like comedy hour, with audience members yelling out to Battaglia, “What would the Court of Appeals say?” She demurred, saying, “You know I never give out advisory opinions.”

Sandler playfully tangled with Battaglia over her decision in Griffin v. State this year that left the tech-loving Sandler disappointed.

He also got into it with Fader over a British murder case from the 1800s that led to attorneys being allowed to hear confessions from their clients and then turn around and cross-examine other suspects on the stand to lead jurors to believe that the other suspect was the murderer. Fader said he didn’t like that ruling and that it shouldn’t be the law.

“Everybody’s wrong,” Fader said, “except for the people who believe the way I do.”

How law firms here fared in the Vault rankings

The Vault rankings of law firm prestige are out. The Vault rankings are based on surveys filled out by 15,000 law firm associates who rate firms on perceived status. No matter how you feel about rankings, these are an interesting read because they include some of the associates’ comments about the firms.

No firm based in Baltimore made the list, but several large firms with a major presence here did. Here’s are their rankings and a sampling what Vault and associates said about them.

  • Hogan & Hartson (the survey was done before Hogan merged with the British firm Lovells earlier this year) ranked 28 this year, down from 25 last year. Vault comments, “As one would expect of the largest and oldest BigLaw firm with roots in Washington, D.C., Hogan & Hartson’s Beltway influence runs deep” and notes that Chief Justice John Roberts is a Hogan alum. Associates called the firm “lifestyle-friendly” but also “legends in their own minds” and criticized Hogan for “stealth layoffs.”
  • DLA Piper ranked 53, down from 44 last year. Vault comments, “Some love it, some dislike it, but generally associates agree that recent salary cuts have lowered morale.” Associates said things like “competitive and diverse,” “amazing pro bono opportunities” and, somewhat bewilderingly, “extra large pizza with no toppings.” Associates also said the firm is too big. One senior associate told Vault, “Within 12 months, I have gone from my friends saying “wow” when I tell them I work at DLA Piper, to them snickering and asking me why I haven’t left yet.”
  • McGuireWoods‘ ranking is unchanged from last year, at 82. Vault says, “McGuire attorneys enjoy the rewards of working at a big-market firm in small-market settings, entering friendly offices in the morning and heading home to their families at night.” Associates made comments like, “good firm; good people,” “old school, boring,” “less pressure than many other similar-sized firms” and “favoritism toward anointed associates.”
  • Venable comes in at 83, up from 85 last year. Vault comments, “Venable LLP is a mid-Atlantic force that, until the capital markets meltdown, had defined itself by aggressive expansion.” Associates said, “very nice mid-Atlantic practice,” “quirky,” “strong pro bono commitment” and “bonus and compensation system allows firm to rationalize less-than-market salaries for certain associates.” There’s also a comment from a Baltimore corporate associate: “In Baltimore, we do fairly sophisticated work. It’s not Wall Street, but the projects are interesting and challenging. My practice group covers a lot of people and a lot of different sub-specialties, so it can be hard to find your place when you start. It is difficult to see what the future of the group is. While it’s not written anywhere, if you bill 2000 hours people are pleased.”

Updates on Sheryl Robinson Wood

We’ve got some updates to share on the Sheryl Robinson Wood story, courtesy of the two major Detroit newspapers. If you haven’t seen the story, Robinson Wood is a Baltimore Venable lawyer who had been working as an independent monitor overseeing the Detroit police department’s effort to comply with a consent decree. She resigned last week at the behest of the judge overseeing the case after he confronted her over text messages given to the judge by the Department of Justice showing Robinson Wood had inappropriate conversations and meetings with former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press report that city officials there are hopping mad and may pursue legal action to recoup some of the $10 million they’ve paid to Robinson Wood and her team over the years.

The Free Press says that, according to unnamed sources, the texts were “discreet” and “did not clearly show the pair were romantically involved.” The paper reports that “Hours before submitting a letter of resignation last week, Wood began making calls — to the department she had been monitoring for six years and to about a dozen staff members. She told them she was tired, burned out from the job and ready to move on to a new phase of her life, according to a source familiar with her last days at the post.”

The News quotes a law professor as saying that Robinson Wood “could face legal disciplinary action or criminal charges, which may lead to the city recouping some of the fees.” The News also has a city councilwoman saying that Kilpatrick lobbied heavily for Robinson Wood — then known as just Robinson — to get the monitor job.

Another councilwoman “likened Kilpatrick to Superman’s archenemy, Lex Luthor, repeatedly causing trouble for Detroit long after he left.”

Venable cuts salaries across the board

It was only a matter of time.

Our 2009 incoming associate salary chart showed earlier this month that Venable was still planning on paying the current crop of incoming associates–well, the crop that was supposed to start in September but now will start in January 2010–last year’s going rate of $160,000. According to Above the Law, an in-house memo says that first-years will now earn a mere $145,000, in line with what other big firms, such as DLA Piper, are doing.

That’s just the beginning of the cuts. Everyone, possibly even up to equity partners, will see their numbers go down, effective July 11.

Venable helps prairie dogs

utah_opt.jpgWere you wondering why Venable was one of
the sponsors of the Maryland Zoo‘s new prairie dog
habitat?

No? Well, I was curious about the firm’s affinity for
the critters, so I asked.

Here’s the answer from former chairman Ben Civiletti, forwarded to me by a firm spokesman:

Our partner, Rob Zinkham, is on the Zoo Board and he appealed to the [Venable] Foundation to support the Zoo which was in dire straits several years ago. Because the Zoo is important to the children of the community, we made an unrestricted donation last year of $10,000 and a significant amount in the prior two years. We knew that the Zoo was making a special effort to develop an appealing attraction to little children called “Prairie Dog Town.” The Zoo intended to use our donation and that of other private donors to attract enough funds to install “Prairie Dog Town.” I assume that if enough funds were not developed, they would have used our unrestricted gift in other ways to improve the Zoo.

The vast majority of our contributions go for the needs of the poor, children, the arts, the elderly, the profession and victims of abuse.

Of course, The Sun writes today that the rascally rodents immediately tried to escape their new digs (pun intended–sorry), and some got pretty close to success:

As officials were promoting the return of the zoo’s 28 prairie dogs – their former digs had been out of sight in a closed section of the animal preserve for more than four years – some of the critters found ways to jump, climb and get over the walls of their prairie paradise, a centerpiece exhibit just inside the zoo’s main entrance.

None got away, but for a few anxious minutes, they found every weakness in the enclosure built to hold them. Zookeepers had to bring out nets to catch escapees.

This might have been a little embarrassing for the zoo, but it could be the start of a great new marketing campaign for Venable. I’m seeing a video of the prairie dogs intrepidly trying every path they can think of to get out, and then a tagline along the lines of, “Our lawyers don’t take no for an answer” or “Venable: We’ll find a way.” What law firm wouldn’t want to be associated with burrowing rodents?

Firm postpones start dates for a year

Ballard Spahr is the latest firm to delay first-year associates’ start dates. The incoming class will now start in September of 2010. No, that’s not a typo. Yes, the associates will have to wait a whole year.

The firm will pay them each a $45,000 stipend “if they find legal work in the meantime that provides public service or enhances their professional development.”

Ballard Spahr is based in Philadelphia but has 49 lawyers in Maryland.

Another firm with a major Maryland presence, Venable, announced earlier this month that its own first-years would start in January 2010.

Venable’s twist on the cosmo

09_18_cosmopolitan.jpgI went to a reception Wednesday celebrating Venable’s new digs on Pratt Street. (They’re very nice. And there’s a bocce court on the roof, just like at the Washington office.) When I walked through the door, the nice lady who greeted me immediately offered me sparkling water or a “Venabletini.”

Intrigued, I asked what was in a Venabletini, and she confided that it’s basically a cosmopolitan.

But of course, the reporters’ credo being, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” I had to dig a little deeper. At my request, Venable spokesman Chuck Wilkins sent over the exact recipe today. It’s 1 oz. vodka, 1/2 oz. triple sec, 1/2 oz. lime juice and 1/2 oz. cranberry juice, garnished with lemon peel. So yes, it’s more or less a cosmopolitan, with maybe a little more lime juice, depending on which cosmopolitan recipe you follow.

You heard it here first, folks. Next time you’re out at the bar, try and order a Venabletini. If one person does it, the bartender will just think you’re sick. If three people do it, she’ll think it’s an organization. But if 50 people do it, she may think it’s a movement. (My sincere apologies here to Arlo Guthrie, who never did anything to me to deserve this.)

CARYN TAMBER, Legal Affairs Writer

More on big-firm salaries

Some more news on the big-firm salary front: the largest of the truly Maryland-headquartered firms, Miles & Stockbridge, is up to $140,000. The increase, which is as of the new year, is a $15,000 bump from last year’s rate.

That puts Miles at the same salary level as Ballard Spahr’s Baltimore’s office. Both firms are $20,000 lower than the Charm City offices of Venable and DLA Piper, two firms born here but now playing with the big boys on a national level.

Miles chairman John Frisch says the raise doesn’t come with a billable-hour requirement hike. Miles remains at 1850, lower than Piper or Venable.

CARYN TAMBER, Legal Affairs Writer