Law firm partners, associates, and even law students are buzzing about a New York Times piece entitled “A Lawyer And Partner; And Also Bankrupt.” The article was written by James B. Stewart, author of the number one bestseller, “Den of Thieves,” a harrowing account of insider trading scandals on Wall Street.
The subject of the Times piece, Attorney Gregory M. Owens, is not seeking compassion, sympathy and least of all, publicity. Owens works full time as a “partner” at the mammoth, deep-carpet, filthy rich firm of White & Case in New York. (More about those quotation marks later).
On New Years Eve, Owens, 55, quietly filed a petition for bankruptcy, seeking to eliminate his debts, most of which stem from the disastrous collapse of another member of Big Law, Dewey & LaBouef. (D&L was to law firms what the Titanic was to cruise ships).
Owens doesn’t seem to be a spendthrift but recently had gone through a costly divorce. On his bankruptcy petition, he lists his assets as a few hundred bucks in cash, used clothing worth $900, and a broken watch. And, oh yes, about $1 million in retirement funds that are exempt from creditors under federal law.
Currently, he makes about $375,000 per year as a “services partner” at White & Case. (He'd made about $500,000 a year at D&L). In reality, a "services partner" is simply a high-paid employee. In contrast, an “equity partner” really owns a piece of the joint. Owens, for example, could be fired if business slacks off or he has a falling out with an equity partner for any reason at all, including perhaps bad publicity in The New York Times. His specialty is the financing of mergers and acquisitions. Or, in the words of the White & Case website Owens has extensive:
corporate finance/banking transactional experience representing investment and commercial banks, as arrangers, agents and lenders, and borrowers, with respect to among others secured and unsecured debt financing, senior and subordinated debt financing, borrowing base finance and letters of credit.Yes, you may YAWN, now.
Again, it’s hard to feel pity for someone with his salary. On the other hand, I feel sorry for anyone grinding their lives away on such document-intensive boring-as-dirt labor.
At its core, the story is not really about Gregory Owens. It's more a symbol of the changing times in law firms, especially Big Law. If you’re not a rainmaker – a guy or gal who brings in well-paying corporations – your career hangs by a thread.
Many years ago, I was a young partner in the Big Law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. We didn’t have equity versus non-equity partners. After working hard-as-hell to become a partner in the Litigation Section, I left -- flat out quit -- to pursue a writing career. I didn't think I could maintain the schedule required of a Big Law trial lawyer and also write a successful, i.e., publishable novel. Also, to be frank, I thought my professional life -- representing one giant corporation against another -- added little positive to society. My friends, mostly lawyers, thought I'd gone stark, raving mad.
While practicing part-time on my own in 1988, I sold my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” to Bantam in a six-figure, two book hard-soft deal. (Two novels, both hardcover and paperback. Ah, those were the days). Though long out of print, thanks to the wonders of Amazon, the novel is still selling these days on Kindle.
Where would I be today, had I stayed with Big Law? Making millions or bankrupt? Who knows? (The American Lawyer says the average profits-per-partner of the top 50 members of Big Law was $1.6 million in 2012. Ahem. That's a lot of kindle books at $3.99).
But I know this. I’m HAPPIER doing what I'm doing now and have done for the past 25 years. And that’s worth a lot more than being an “equity partner.”