This is the first part in a series I will audaciously and perhaps misguidedly and at the risk of over-promising call “Metrics that might matter.” It’s prompted, as many new creative efforts in human life, by frustration with the status quo.

Our industry—BigLaw—is dominated by popularly tracked and widely published metrics of financial performance centered on:

  • Gross revenue
  • Profits per [equity] partner
  • Revenue per lawyer
  • and bringing up the rear, profits per lawyer.

My thesis in this series will be that the way we think about these measures entails shortcomings so serious as to distort our overall conception of the industry. We simply aren’t looking at law firm financial performance through clear lenses; we’re seeing it through frosted glass..

More realistically, no responsible for-profit corporation would dream of using comparable metrics. Imagine, if you will, an S&P 500 company reporting satisfaction in its year-end results because growth in its management compensation outpaced its competitors. Say what?

First up: Gross Revenue.


On April 10, 2015, GE Chairman and CEO released a letter to shareholders that the company would be selling off most of its GE Capital division within the next two years. The division had contributed 46% of the GE’s revenues at its peak year in 2001. By 2018, that proportion is projected to be less than 10%. On word of the announcement, GE stock popped up 12%, and its three-year performance has caught up with the S&P 500 whereas it had been lagging before the announcement. Wall Street analysts across the board gave high marks to the spinoff and disposition, and particularly to GE’s concomitant concentration focus on machinery, jet engines, power generating turbines, and other highly sophisticated products embodying GE’s new focus on being “the world’s premier digital industrial company.”

GEStockPop

Today GE focuses on a few core industries, including autos, aviation, chemicals, industial manufacturing, “intelligent environments” (energy performance and cost), oil & gas, and power & utilities. For such an enormous and complex organization, you can describe their mission in one line of text—and it’s intelligible and sensible.

Thought experiment: Imagine an AmLaw 100 firm announcing a similar move, namely jettisoning a practice that used to account for nearly half the firm’s revenue to make a focused bet on the future. Hard to imagine that? Frankly, almost impossible: Corralling your usual grouping of autonomous, not to mention self-protective, partners into backing such a decisive move beggars the imagination.

Now the easy part: Because this is a thought experiment, might we stipulate for purposes of argument that some heroic Executive Committee could engineer such a transformation. How would the legal press report on the firm’s performance in future years? Much easier question: Firms whose revenue takes a big tumble will find themselves on any number of “Top XX Worst Performers” lists, regardless of why the revenue tumbled.

No, it’s not fair to point the finger entirely at the legal press. Presumably, as for-profit enterprises who pay attention to readership figures and the assumptions and predilections of their audience, they know that Gross Revenue is one of the highest-profile scorecards kept about our industry. (The AmLaw 200, the Global 100, the [Region/Sector] 50, etc., etc.) I understand the mildly prurient appeal of reading such rankings: Who’s bigger than who? And I understand how trivially easy it is to assemble the lists: Ask firms and they’ll send you the numbers, or just sit back and wait until reporting season is over. That’s not what this column is all about. It’s about confusing naked size with excellent, or even passable, performance.

Ask yourself: On what rationale does Gross Revenue as a key indicator of law firm financial performance make any sense whatsoever? Yes, it’s roughly correlated with size and geographic span, probably with industries or number of clients served, but those are all measures of tonnage, not healthy or unhealthy financial performance. General Motors, consistently in the top 10 of the Fortune 500 (a gross-revenue based ranking), turned in decades of breathtakingly disastrous financial performance.

You might object that a high level of revenue also correlates with highly productive lawyers, but RPL is the measure of that, not gross throughput.

Or that sheer size indicates marketplace acceptance and client demand. To an extent, yes, but for what kind of work under what form of rate structure? I’ve also been impressed over the past few years by the growing number of firms that celebrate their year-on-year revenue growth when their lawyer headcount grew even faster. This technique explores new territory in defining performance down.

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