An Interview with Steven Harper

ATL: What are some changes you would make to fix what’s broken about the law firm model?

I would try to get people to realize there is value in thinking beyond this year’s profits per partner and to focusing on broader questions of institutional culture — stability, mentoring, so forth. Ideally firms would have one-tier partnerships and lockstep compensation among equity partners. Otherwise you’ll have this continuing lateral partner frenzy that is tremendously destabilizing. And research, by Bill Henderson and others, shows that relying on lateral hiring is dubious even as a profit-maximizing practice.

The firms with the best stability also have formal mandatory retirement. It’s a check on entrenchment, analogous to term limits. Before lots of firms had mandatory retirement, but then people came to view it as unfair or discriminatory. I think that for a profession like ours, mandatory retirement can be very helpful.

Having mandatory retirement isn’t the same as saying a lawyer can’t practice law. It’s just making room for someone new in the equity partnership. Great lawyers can keep on practicing and get paid, not as equity partners but maybe as salaried individuals. They might get paid a lot even, but at least they wouldn’t be there as a block to equity partnership for younger lawyers.

One of my mentors at Kirkland was Fred Bartlit [who went on to found Bartlit Beck]. Fred is someone who should try cases until he doesn’t want to any more, and he should be compensated fairly for doing so. But there are lots of others who hang on simply because they don’t know what else to do.