The Wolf Of Biglaw – Above the LawAbove the Law

Fatima Fokina

(photo by David Lat).

If you’re looking for a high-powered, take-no-prisoners law firm straight out of central casting, they don’t come bigger or badder than Kirkland & Ellis. The firm unquestionably enjoys a reputation for top-flight lawyering where businesses go when everything is on the line. The firm also sits atop the Am Law 100 rankings based on gross revenue. But amassing more money than any other U.S. law firm in an industry built on human beings billing hours doesn’t come without some baggage.

For those who somehow don’t know, Kirkland & Ellis made its modern reputation as the OG, eat-what-you-kill megafirm. Whereas Biglaw firms through the 20th century had adopted lockstep compensation among its associates and partners to encourage team-first thinking and staffing, K&E recognized that this system was leaving young rainmaking superstars feeling undercompensated compared to the value they were bringing in. Kirkland started the trend of luring high performers away with gargantuan salaries based on collected dollars, one that the rest of the industry has largely now adopted. And with partners reportedly pulling in eight-figures, it has no doubt been lucrative.

But all that cash doesn’t come from thin air. As a recent  Bloomberg Law article highlights, Kirkland has long had a reputation for brutally long hours, unforgiving deadlines and workloads, and sharp-elbowed political jockeying. Reading some of the stories together might conjure up images more along the lines of “Lord of The Flies” than a sophisticated legal powerhouse. But Kirkland’s newest chairman, Jon A. Ballis, indicated in the same Bloomberg Law article that he’s trying to change that reputation. What he has to say speaks plenty about K&E, but even more about our industry as a whole.

Wolves In Wolves Clothing

Former K&E associates, of which there are many, report their experience as like working in a “den of wolves” where the mentality is “we can destroy everybody, so let’s actually go destroy other people.” Associate turnover is a constant, and it increased by a jaw-dropping 60% to 70% in 2021 according to Bloomberg Law. But when the paychecks and bonuses are as big as K&E can afford to throw around, there’s always someone else in line waiting to pick up the slack. As one former associate put it, “It’s OK if you leave because we can just hire more people.”

John Ballis, for his part, acknowledges the reputation K&E has in Biglaw, but he begs to differ. He contends that K&E has made strides to lessen competition and promote teamwork. However, Ballis doesn’t argue that even this new, cuddlier, friendlier Kirkland is a playground. If you’re not looking to work your tail off, K&E may not be the place for you. If you want to try for that Jordan Belfort, Wolf of Wall Street, yachts-and-Dom lifestyle, Kirkland might just give you that shot.

But should you take it?

The Downside Of Fantastic Wealth And Power

Yachts are great, but how much happiness do they provide you sitting in port? What’s the point of a summer home you never visit, or a Maserati you never drive? Fat stacks and other status symbols are undoubtedly fun to pursue and even more fun to have, but they can’t be the only thing you have in your life.

I’ve written in this space many times that, at our core, lawyers, staff, and members of every profession are happiest and most satisfied when they’re driven as a team by a common purpose. Maybe that purpose is service to a worthy industry, or striking a sustainable work-life blend. Maybe the common purpose is the team itself, spending time together, accomplishing goals, and seeing how far your team can push itself. Sometimes, the common purpose is making obscene amounts of money. That can work for those motivated by it, but it carries consequences.

This isn’t just a Kirkland thing. K&E is far from the only law firm in the world that demands ungodly numbers of hours from its people and burns through attorneys like they were tissues. But it is an exemplar of the form, and its model should give most of us pause as to whether it’s something we would want to emulate, especially if our goal isn’t money, but happiness.

For as fuzzy of a concept as happiness may be, there’s a surprising amount of scientific literature on the topic. One common recurring theme, as highlighted in a recent Harvard study, is the important association between happiness and close interpersonal relationships, particularly spouses, family, friends, and social circles. Being part of a positive, supportive circle of people is a huge leading indicator of satisfaction and contentment. Conversely, one can imagine that spending 3,000-plus hours a year in a competitive professional pressure cooker might have an adverse impact on someone’s sense of inner calm.

And happiness and productivity don’t have to be mutually exclusive. A new study published in MIT’s “Sloan Management Review” once again makes the case that happy workers are better workers. By ensuring our teams are tending to their lives outside the office, the product they generate in the office improves.

Choices, Choices

I love the practice of law, and I deeply admire the leadership of firms like Kirkland & Ellis for the innovation they drive and the ways they push our industry forward as a whole. For all the reported challenges, Kirkland & Ells is to be lauded for almost single-handedly reshaping an antiquated lockstep model that ignored economic realities and that didn’t directly reward individual performance. But there’s a sickness at the heart of the Biglaw model, and it’s one that tends to make you wealthier and, by many metrics, more successful, the more you give in to it. The more power and wealth are at stake, the more that sickness tends to lay itself bare.

In the hard-driving Japanese business culture, there’s a term called karoshi. It means “death by overwork.” Enough Japanese office workers have died as a result of working themselves to the bone that the language developed its own shorthand. We’re not there yet, but as salaries keep driving higher and pressure keeps mounting, we have to acknowledge that’s the road our industry is choosing to go down.

But choices need to be made, and tomorrow is always a chance to choose something new. It’s always up to us.

Here’s hoping we choose wisely.

GoodnowJames Goodnow is the CEO and managing partner of NLJ 250 firm Fennemore Craig. At age 36, he became the youngest known chief executive of a large law firm in the U.S. He holds his JD from Harvard Law School and dual business management certificates from MIT. He’s currently attending the Cambridge University Judge Business School (U.K.), where he’s working toward a master’s degree in entrepreneurship. James is the co-author of Motivating Millennials, which hit number one on Amazon in the business management new release category. As a practitioner, he and his colleagues created and run a tech-based plaintiffs’ practice and business model. You can connect with James on Twitter (@JamesGoodnow) or by emailing him at [email protected].

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