TBA Law Blog

Posted by: William Haltom on Apr 1, 2013

Journal Issue Date: Apr 2013

Journal Name: April 2013 - Vol. 49, No. 4

I am now in my fifth decade of law practice. This does not mean that I have been practicing for over fifty years. It simply means that I started practice in the 1970s (the very late ‘70s), and have continued through the ‘80s, ‘90s, aughts and teens.

My law practice has indeed covered five decades, two centuries, and two millennia. Moreover, I have spent my entire career at the same law firm (Thomason, Hendrix, Hungudunga, Hungudunga, Hungadunga and McCormick) and have been a partner there since the first Reagan administration. You would think this means I am now pretty secure in my job. But think again, senior partner-breath!

Once upon a time, becoming a partner in your firm was the Holy Grail of the legal profession. When you became a partner, you were at the apex of a professional pyramid. Beneath you were many young associates who worked for you day and night. They headed for the library while you headed for the golf course! And if you eventually became the senior partner, you were the Queen Bee, and the associate drones delivered the honey!

But these days, even old gray-haired partners like me are expected to work as hard or harder than their associates. If we don’t, we may soon be looking for work at another location where we ask questions like, “Do you want fries with that?”

As it turns out, in these difficult and challenging times, a partnership in your law firm should never be confused with tenure. The only lawyers who enjoy tenure are law professors. (It’s not fair, really. Law professors don’t practice law. Many of them don’t even teach. Thanks to the Socratic method, they just ask questions, and they don’t even have to know the answers! And they never lose their jobs!)

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, law firms across America are now issuing pink slips to partners. The traditional notion of partnership is now definitely eroding. Even if you are a senior partner, you had better be boosting the firm’s bottom line, or you may be shown the firm door, and I’m talking about the exit.

According to a recent poll by the American Lawyer, some 55 percent of law firm managing partners across the nation have said they plan to ask between one and five partners to leave in the coming year.

And don’t think this trend is limited to those fancy-pants, white-shoe law firms in New York and Washington. Again, according to The Wall Street Journal, Waller, Lansdon, Dortch & Davis in Nashville has reduced its number of equity partners over the last few years from 85 to 55. As firm chairman John Tishler told The Wall Street Journal, “We had a lot of hard conversations, and so some people left us.”

My managing partner, Ebenezer Keeney, has not yet issued me a pink slip. We haven’t even had a “hard conversation.” But I’m not taking anything for granted. After all, I am a partner in a white-shoe law firm if you consider the fact that I wear white bucks with my seersucker suits.

After five decades on the job, I realize I’m only as good as this month’s billable hours. Law practice has now become a classic example of “what have you done for us lately?”

But if Ebenezer Keeney approaches me with a pink slip, I’m going to ask for two things. First, I definitely want the gold watch, and I want it to be a Rolex. It doesn’t even have to be a real Rolex. It can be one of those fake Rolexes they sell on the sidewalks of New York City for 10 bucks.

And second, I definitely want one of them golden parachutes. I’d even settle for a yellow parachute. Heck, I’d even settle for a nice haystack to land in.

But until that pink slip or that hard conversation comes, here is a word of advice for me and all my fellow lawyers out there who are currently partners in their firm: We better look busy.

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.