As the managing partner of Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York City, John R. Ettinger ’78 spends a lot of time thinking about the future—specifically, how to position his firm most advantageously for the long term. In a profession where many managers plan for the next year or two, Ettinger tries to look well beyond that—five, even 10 years ahead. That’s one of the reasons he joined the advisory board of HLS’s new Center on Lawyers and the Professional Services Industry and is spearheading an effort to raise money for it. He recently shared some thoughts with the Bulletin.
What kinds of changes do you expect in large firm practice over the next decade?
Legal practice will look vastly different in 10 years’ time. I’m fairly confident that we will see new practice areas emerge and old ones diminish, firms will continue to grow in size and geographical reach, career paths followed by lawyers will become much more diverse, pricing models for legal services will evolve, and in response to all of these trends, law firms may have to change some elements of how they are organized internally. I don’t think, however, that this will necessarily all evolve into a common model, even among the larger firms. Factors that may push powerfully in other industries toward a uniform business model—one example being economies of scale in some industries leading inexorably to growth—are unlikely to lead to the same result for law firms.
How much of a strategic issue is personnel for you?
There is no more important and commonly shared challenge for large law firms than how to attract and retain the numbers of talented lawyers necessary for the desired growth.
There has been the exponential expansion of alternative career paths for lawyers who start in, or consider starting in, large law firms. Plus, most large law firms are attempting to grow faster than the law schools. One could speculate that this will lead to a less leveraged firm structure where most firms have several associates per partner. But I suspect that the demand for services of the type we currently provide will continue to support the leveraged model. The way that firms price their services, though, may also need to evolve as part of the process of matching the supply of lawyers with the growing demand for services.
How will firms attract and retain the numbers of lawyers they need?
First, the intellectual stimulation of the work we’re doing is vastly superior to what it used to be. And I’m not looking at this through rose-colored glasses. While there is a fair amount of routine work, the opportunity now for associates to get more interesting work and more responsibility is far greater than before. I spoke not too long ago to a young partner who left the law for banking only to return a few years later despite considerable success as a banker. He missed the access he had as a lawyer to the senior-most corporate executives and to the most important issues of corporate strategy, which he did not find in banking.
But law firms will also have to exploit other comparative advantages, like the basic flexibility of our business structure in accommodating long-term career objectives. They can and should permit their lawyers over the course of their careers to do a number of different things, including things outside the firms. We’ve been encouraging our lawyers in recent years to consider taking some time away from the firm for public service, broadly defined. Another advantage is that our horizontal, non-job-specific form of organization is particularly well-suited to provide more part-time and flextime opportunities and potentially more creative career paths.