Beware the Ides of March

Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar in the National Ar...

Last Word: Beware the Ides of March

Lexpert, March 2009

By Marzena Czarnecka

March 15, 44 BCE: Julius Caesar’s assassinated by his fellow citizens and friends (“Et tu, Brute?”), making the Ides of March a day of infamy forever more. And old Julius (Caesar, not Melnitzer) would surely appreciate that in the legal profession the Ides of March is still celebrated, annually if unwittingly.

You didn’t know? They don’t officially mark it, of course, not most law firms. But, in most law firms, the month of March is, if not exactly a month of bloody assassination (although, figuratively speaking, it can be), certainly a month of infamy. And, in eyes of some, betrayal. Or at least torture. Frustration. Pain. And in 2009, it’s going to be worse than ever.

The month of March is the awful month during which most law firms finalize the split, and partners find out how much of last year’s pie they get—and, in open compensation systems, how their share compares to that of their fellow partners. And, through bitter, knuckle-gnashing conversations with spouses, brothers, friends, enemies and competitors, how they compare to, well, pretty much everyone in the country.

Oh, the stress. My heart rate’s going up just writing about it. I’ll let you in a little survivalist secret: if you work in a law firm and are not a partner, strongly consider taking your vacation in March. Vancouver is beautiful this time of year—of course, it’s full of lawyers in the throes of the split, too. How about Mexico? It’s crowded, but tolerable. The Mediterranean can be quite nice. Alaska and Antarctica are gorgeous, and even a Third World war zone may be a safer place to be than in the path of a partner who just found out he’s getting less of less than he expected. (I’ll be in China… carefully avoiding Chinese lawyers. Because they might do their split in March too, the historical Maoist-veneer notwithstanding.)

If you must stay at the job in March, make an effort to avoid all non-essential contact with partners. It’s actually easier this month than in others. They will spend a great deal of time behind closed doors in secret conversations with each other. When you see them coming out of those closed door meetings, duck. If they call you right after one of those meetings, let the call go to voice mail, and return the call directly to voice mail. Rely on e-mail and the Blackberry for essential communication. You know the tricks.

If contact is unavoidable: take a deep breath and, as the partner rails, howls and is totally and completely unreasonable, petulant, unbearable, abrasive, obnoxious and downright evil, be gentle and understanding. Seriously. I know it’s hard—what you want to do is whack him or her upside the head and then deliver a well-placed kick in the butt. Fight the urge. He’s just found out the New York office cost him $50,000 this year (and he spent that $50,000 last year). She’s just found out that not only is she getting less than she conservatively hoped—and she’s not stupid, she did the math, she knew it would be less than in 2007—she’s getting less than he is, and she wants him dead. He’s trying to cope with the fact that although his share of 2008 profits is 1.2 instead of 0.9, it’s actually 20 per cent less. She’s trying to figure out why her share of profits is 1.1 while his is 1.2, when she knows she’s worked 1.5 times as hard as he has…

The Ides of March in 2009 will be particularly bloody because 2008 was an extremely uneven year for Canadian law firms. Generally, most firms have risen (or fallen or plateaued) in tandem. There have been superstars and superfailures, but there’s been a predictable bell curve too. In 2008, I suspect the pattern will be anything but neat. Some mid-market or “second tier,” as the first tier likes to call them, firms may outperform the first tier firms. For national law firms, regional performance will be all over the place. Among the crème-de-la-crème, firms sharing the same office tower—and much of the same clientele—may have drastically different results. Different practice areas will be affected differently, and how law firms handle those differences will be vastly different: all resulting in wide variation in partners’ take-home.

All of this, of course, is supposed to be highly confidential, privileged, “for partners’ eyes only” information. And it will be all over the street in minutes. (It already is, and the split’s not even done yet. The final 2008 numbers aren’t even in. And people are already talking about which firm’s partners are going to take the biggest hit. The betting, of course, is those with New York offices.)

Partners will feel underappreciated, misunderstood, undervalued—betrayed. And you know what comes next.

Musical chairs. Recruiters are squirming with anticipation.

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based freelance writer who really wanted to work “crossing the Rubicon” into this piece, but couldn’t.

• Thomson Reuters article record