Several followers of Heller Highwater have pointed out this week’s cartoon over at The Recorder (via CalLaw).
Check it out here.
So who are the people in the doorway? Phyllis Gardner, Matt Larabee and Barry Levin? LOL.
life preservers for the support staff of a flooded law firm amid the flotsam and jetsam
I want to point out an excellent comment made by a Hellerite over at the Above The Law blog. As I’ve said before, much of the name calling and finger pointing that some people feel must be done should be done over at ATL. But this comment was an anamoly for ATL’s usual sophmoric and frathouse type comments. After I read it, I realised it really should have been made here at Heller Highwater. No matter – I am just glad the person had the courage and patience to put the demise of the S.S. Heller Ehrman in perspective and could craft a well-structured comment. Read below and see if you agree.
And I appreciate the props the commenter gives Heller Ehrman support staff towards the end. He/she points out what I call the mushroom method of management: mushrooms grow best when they are kept in the dark and you keep feeding them manure. All I have to say to my fellow mushrooms is: “Cross over children. All are welcome. All welcome. Go into the Light”
I worked at Heller for well over 7 years. When I arrived at Heller they were on the top of the charts and I watched, sadly, as the firm slowly collapsed. This commentary is based on what I saw and experienced while being employed there. I worked in both an administrative capacity and as a general employee.
I have/had worked at law firms for nearly 15 years by the time I landed at Heller. I have worked at large law firms and small law firms and my previous employment at a satellite office of a large firm, though enjoyable, left me feeling like I was a small cog in a big machine. The managing partner did not know my name and the rumors of merging caused me to jump ship to Heller.
The early years:
My entrance into Heller at the initial outset was a good one. They were riding high and doing great business. My office (I was, again, in a satellite office), was the “jewel in the crown” and it was not uncommon for the shareholders and associates to bill well over 100% of their time. During this period of growth, the office I was in was able, due to its success, to allow Heller to expand in other cities and provide a cushion, if you will, for those offices that were having a slow time “ramping up.”
During these years the office I was located was basically allowed to do what we wanted. We were able to suggest policies and procedures and many of our ideas were accepted as firm-wide policies.
The shift in business:
Then came what I felt was the downfall of Heller. In 2003, if I remember right, I was in a meeting of all the attorneys. It was announced at this meeting that the firm was going to “shift” its priorities. The new direction was to focus on those big clients. Become a “one stop shopping” for them. The firm was going to spurn small businesses – deals under $50,000 or so and pass those off to other firms we had relationships with. The thinking was that we did 75% of our business for the top 20 clients. The plan was to bring in other attorneys, special counsels, etc. and start “selling” ourselves to the clients: “Why take your business ____ when we can do it here?!”
Two problems with this:
1. Heller had/has a mindset of billable time that doesn’t fit in terms of market. You can charge X amount of dollars in New York but you can’t charge the same X amount of dollars in Seattle or Anchorage and, soon enough, there were issues with the “Special Billing Rates” or, “Sprates” as they became called. The Client might not mind spending $300 per hour for Heller to do litigation but they might have an issue of spending $300 per hour for Heller to do tax research. This was a CONTINUAL problem with the office as more “Sprates” became the norm. This also caused issues in the head office in terms of resentments between offices. As much as Heller always did a great job of cross pollination of offices and getting attorneys involved – the issue of billable hours and what was charged was a bur under the saddle of the accounting department. This was an issue that, I don’t think, ever got resolved.
2. Heller did not take into account the relationships these clients had with other offices. And though they expected (hoped?) that the client would be more than willing to shift their other types of business to Heller – it did not really happen. Thus some of the Special Counsel attorneys or associates hired specifically to provide that service quickly found themselves out of billable work to do.
The Associate Problem:
This new focus had a quick adverse affect on the associate core. Soon after this announcement I met with a well liked long time shareholder who was in the process of leaving. I asked him his opinion and gave him my own. In all the years I’ve worked in law, there was a standard operating procedure in terms of the “shareholder” or “partner” track. Basically it was this:
1. Get out of law school and enter law firm.
2. Work on cases, assist Shareholder/Partner in the process of work.
3. Shareholder/Partner mentors the Associate on the rules of law and how to navigate the law firm mentality.
4. Shareholder/Partner shows Associate how to drum up business, create client networking opportunities, work the system and create long lasting fruitful relationships.
5. Associate starts to bring in a small book of business.
6. Associate’s book of business starts to provide more business for the attorneys in the firm.
7. At some point the Shareholder/Partner Committee looks at what the Associate as brought to the firm and after careful evaluation they decide to make the Associate a Shareholder or Partner.
With this change of focus in the Heller mentality, this was no longer a viable methodology. To what, then, were the Shareholders going to judge the associates? The only thing they could really track, and that was billable hours. So, basically, if you wanted to become a Shareholder at Heller you better bill a helluva lot of billable hours. If you wanted a life – don’t look at Heller.
When I posed this scenario to the exiting Shareholder he confirmed that I was, indeed, correct in my thinking.
I was not surprised when quite a number of associates left soon after this change of thinking went into play. And who could blame them?
Creation of Practice Groups:
Or, what I refer to as: “Putting square pegs into round holes.”
Within a year or two of this re-thinking of client support, the market had seemingly collapsed and Heller was in a state of disarray. It began to shut down some offices and the billable hours were no where near the “glory days” of over 100%.
When something bad happens, you usually return to those things that make you feel stable. Whether it’s Mom, Apple Pie and Baseball – Law Firms go back to hunkering down and re-thinking. And that re-thinking was to try and regroup into one juggernaut firm.
Thus the creation of Practice Groups.
Though they had been around in some way shape or form for some while the firm made a push to implement them in a more forceful way thus creating a layer of bureaucracy that had not been in existence.
And if you’ve got a litigation practice group, and a business practice group, why not create practice groups for departments, too? Marketing department, Records department, Accounting department, Human Resources, etc. Suddenly creating a level of middle management that had not been there before.
In all my years of working in law the one thing I’ve seen of most middle managers, though not all, is that they spend their time doing “job justification” instead of actually doing their job. “Job justification” is usually defined by creating work that is neither important nor needed but sounds good. Implementing policies that either aren’t thought through, or don’t work. And then forcing un-thought-through processes on the very people they are designed to help. Causing untold anger and friction.
What about the Shareholder Bonuses?:
Ahh, yes, the final nail in the Heller coffin. Doesn’t it always come down to money?
By late 2006 the firm had begun looking for ways of bringing in more business. Sending attorneys around the country, trying new things, creating more relationships. Or attempting to. With little success.
It was the goal of the managing shareholder to provide bigger bonuses to the shareholders. But how? The easiest way was to shrink the people taking pieces of the pie but you can’t just layoff workers who provide such important support. Nope? You find a way around it. You out-source them.
Within two years most every support department (not counting Secretaries and Paralegals) had been outsourced and the rumor of million dollar bonuses was being spoken about in certain circles.
What this did, though, was create another layer of disconnection between staff and attorneys. Where everyone was “in this together” – a sudden “us v. them” mentality started to be created. For those who had NOT been outsourced, the interaction of employees that were Heller and now were no longer Heller but still roamed the halls was viewed as: “Well, that’ll be me in a couple months.” Employees who had been outsourced felt more like numbers instead of names – not only were they treated differently, they were not able to participate in some things such as “staff appreciation” or “holiday bonuses” – thus creating another level of discontent. The outsourced members felt like “second class citizens.”
Don’t underestimate the brains of your employees:
When I was still at Heller (I have since left) the staff knew everything that was going on. As much as the management and shareholders tried to keep them in the dark – the staff knew far more than the management realized. Suzie Secretary didn’t get where they were with a 50 IQ. But, sadly, management continued to treat the staff like they were idiots. (Case in point, before I left there was a “mandatory” meeting with some of the upper management that didn’t bother to tell everyone what the meeting was about – turns out it was a “tell us your issues” meeting – but it left more people frustrated and angry than “listened to.”) Staff gives up their lives for a company – the company needs to respect them enough to be honest with them – damn the ramifications.
Heller WAS good place to work. I will miss it and my many friends who worked there. But I will not miss incompetent middle managers who did nothing.
I continue to be amazed at the many kind words and offers coming in from ex-Hellerites such as Denise Bottarini. I don’t remember Denise but I am sure some of you in San Francisco do. Here’s what she sent our way:
“I’m writing this with a heavy heart – I was a litigation paralegal hired under Janet Kaplan’s reign back in 1977 and left the firm in 1982 to go in-house to Atari, Heller’s client at the time. I’ll never forget how I came to Heller. I was in the midst of an interview with the Paralegal Manager at now defunct SF law firm when she suddenly said “you don’t want to work here — you should be at Heller Ehrman! That’s where you want to work!” She picked up her telephone and called Janet who said “send her over right now”. 3 days later …I got the offer and began working at a firm where I met friends who I consider the best in the world. There was something special about the team that Janet hired – Patty Mordecai and Joan Fink to name two of them. Kathy Rogers and Bob Glick never left! I had the good fortune of also working with the best and the brightest of associates and partners who included me as part of their team and valued my contributions. And, no matter what the pressure or the deadline, we always managed to have a great time.
I’ve moved on in my career and have been a legal recruiter for the past 16 years on the Peninsula and in SF. If I can be of any assistance to any of the support staff, please contact me at the number or email address listed below.”
In case you haven’t seen the article, either online or in print, here is the link.
Try not to laugh or cry on the inside over the light treatment given to management as to the cause or causes of our current maritime mishap: “. . . foundered while it shared with other law firms a challenging economy and an intensely competitive mutual effort to attract top lawyers who can bring in business.”
Yes. That’s it. A 119 year old firm that has weathered the 1906 Earthquake, The Great Depression and more, suddenly runs aground in a few short years. And it is due to the economy and competition.
Noted today September 18, 2008:
While I wish we didn’t even need this blog, the hits say “We need this blog.”
No silly, not what you are thinking. Not even close.
We are over 6,000 hits for the day and have been named as the ABAJournal Featured Blawg of the Week:
And the only Layoff blawg at that. We rule.
Now get back to work or get back to helping your co-workers.
If you don’t read the comments, you should know that several ex-Heller associates and support staff have stopped by and left their comments. While they express concern for our current state they also mention that there is “life after Heller” – and not as a means of schadenfreude.
I think it is important for Heller support staff to understand that there are times when everything, even good things, must come to a close. Have you ever fallen in love with a television series that drags into its 10th+ season ala E.R.? I’d rather remember something as having gone out at its apex.
I don’t mean to trivialize the situation at Heller by using this example – I am a Heller support staff person too. I just don’t dwell on the fact that I should have left sooner – I don’t live a life of regret or “shoulda coulda woulda.”
Right now, like a dying patient, Heller support staff need hospice to help them make a transition. It is scary – especially if you’ve worked at Heller for 10, 20 or even 30 years like some of us. You wonder to yourself:
“Can I actually get a job? A job that I’ll like?”
“Do I want to work for law firms?” (Isn’t that a daily question? LOL)
“Have I had the opportunity to gain new skills? Can I be competitive with other applicants?”
Please feel free to make comments – even if you need to do so anonymously and from home or some other non-Heller location. This is your site.