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All but three of the most profitable New York law firms saw profits per partner fall, the American Lawyer reports.

All but three of the most profitable New York law firms saw profits per partner fall, the American Lawyer reports. 4

What has the world come to when Cravath, Swaine & Moore has a terrible year? The firm that has served for decades as the touchstone for prestige in the profession last year suffered a 13 percent drop in revenue and a 24 percent plunge in profits per partner, and has asked incoming first-year associates to delay their start dates.

As Cravath goes, so go New York’s top firms?

While most Manhattan-based outfits had a better year than Cravath — only Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft suffered a steeper drop in revenue and profits — the pain was widespread. All but three of the 15 most profitable New York corporate firms (based on 2007 figures) saw their profits per partner fall. The few that had a decent 2008, such as Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, are bracing for harder times in 2009.

The recent boom that made so many on Wall Street so rich has been revealed for what it was: a shiny but fragile bubble kept aloft in part by false assumptions, wild expectations and, in some cases, fraud. During that time, law firms saw revenue and profits rise at an astounding rate. From 2003 to 2007, Cravath’s profits per partner rose 59 percent, Sullivan & Cromwell’s 61 percent, and Debevoise & Plimpton’s 82 percent; Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz’s PPP nearly doubled, rising 91 percent.

Looking ahead, the future for these 15 elite firms is as uncertain as the Wall Street world they draw their strength from. Many of their financial institution clients are grievously crippled and slashing expenses, including legal fees. Some have simply died, including Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, while others, like the big private equity funds, are hibernating. The backlash against Wall Street may create a new regime that curbs the enormous profits that had become the norm, either through regulation, legislation or market forces. This in turn, may leave less money for the lawyers. “The big financial institutions are no longer the most desirable clients the way they used to be,” says a management-level partner at one of these firms. “They’re all sending out letters demanding, not asking, for significant rate concessions.” Decisions about legal fees have, at some companies, been taken out of the hands of the more friendly general counsel’s office, he says, and are now the province of an alien purchasing department.

As detailed in our Corporate Scorecard in April, the decline in corporate activity in the United States in 2008 was stunning. M&A was down by 52 percent (measured by value of deals); the number of initial public offerings was off by nearly 85 percent; high-yield debt offerings were down 67 percent; and investment-grade debt issues were down 60 percent. While litigation, the other big driver for New York firms, hasn’t suffered as much, most clients are pushing for discounts.

During the boom times, many firms leveraged their workforce with associates. At one point, Cadwalader, which threw itself into the structured finance arena, had a leverage ratio of 7.5 (determined by dividing the number of associates and nonequity partners by the number of equity partners). After associate layoffs, it lowered that ratio to 5.8, but its leverage is still higher than all the other firms in this group. The next most leveraged firms are Weil, Gotshal & Manges (5.5), Paul, Weiss (4.7), Schulte Roth & Zabel (4.3), and Cleary Gottlieb (4.2). The firms with the lowest leverage are Davis Polk & Wardwell and Sullivan & Cromwell, at 2.9.

Dozens of firms across the country have laid off associates, but the top New York firms have been loath to take that step. Now some of the most tradition-bound Manhattan shops are reassessing their principles. A management-level partner at an elite firm that has never resorted to layoffs says that this topic is no longer off-limits. “What’s different is that we’ve never seen anything like what’s going on in terms of the impact on the financial industry. It’s unprecedented,” he says. “While we’re saying we never have [done layoffs in the past], and would like to continue to say that [in the future], there’s only so long we can maintain this position. At some point you have to be at the right size relative to your business.”

What will that right size be? Last year, only one firm in this group reduced its head count: Cadwalader laid off 131 lawyers. Some firms found themselves on the opposite end of that scale, increasing their ranks as of Aug. 31, 2008: Davis Polk’s rose 13 percent; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy and Cleary rose 9 percent; Sullivan and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett went up 8 percent; and Cravath went up 7 percent. With attrition near zero — what sane lawyer would leave her job in this economy? — firms will see their numbers climb just by bringing in a class of first-year associates.

That’s why several firms that can’t yet bring themselves to impose layoffs have tried other measures to stem the influx of bodies. Cravath in March announced that it will stagger starts for first-year associates across October, November and January. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Simpson Thacher have offered associates the chance to take a hiatus from their work to explore public interest options, or, in Skadden’s case, any other field of interest. Both firms will pay associates a portion of their salary to take this break.

At this point, says one partner in management, firms like his already have cut extraneous expenses and are running “very, very leanly.” Cutting lawyers is the only significant cost-saving measure that remains. Of course, partners can accept lower profits. But at some point, if profits drop too low for too long, even the most elite firms will worry about losing partners to competitors, or other types of businesses. “If we’re significantly less profitable, that’s what you do worry about,” says this partner. “You see firms unraveling because they have two to three key players leave.”

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