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Turks and Brahmins.

Turks and Brahmins Turks and Brahmins. Ellen Joan Pollock. Simon & Schuster, $21.95. Until the mid-eighties, lawyers at New York's Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, once the largest law firm in the country, wore nearly identical dark blue suits to their offices at One Chase Manhattan Plaza, headquarters of their chief client, the Chase Manhattan Bank. And not just any dark blue suit, but a boxy, ultra-staid version--always with a plain white shirt, never stripes--that was the Milbank livery, as peculiar to the firm as its custom of a partners' lunch every Monday at the Down Town Association, a private club a block away from the Milbank offices. As compensation for attendance, each partner got a crisp $10 bill fresh from the nearby Federal Reserve.

Besides Chase, Milbank's other major client for at least six decades was the Rockefeller family, which owned Chase. Strong personal alliances between Milbank partners and the Rockefellers ensured that the family and the bank would account for most of Milbank's business for years. The firm did all the legal work on the building of Rockefeller Center.

Milbank carefully nurtured its "insular, noble culture," to use the words of Ellen Joan Pollock, a Wall Street Journal writer and editor, who in this book chronicles the firm's more recent vagaries as its ties to Chase and the Rockefellers loosened. For 50 years, from 1931 to 1981, the firm never took on a "lateral" partner from the outside; all its 65 or so partners had apprenticed with the firm as salaried associates straight from mostly Ivy league law schools. Until 1984, no Milbank partner ever had left the firm to become a lateral-hire partner elsewhere. The partner compensation system was an old-fashioned "lockstep" one, in which the size of a partner's profit share depended strictly on seniority, not on rainmaking skills (Milbank partners flinched at the very idea of making rain) or hours billed.

By 1984, the 200-lawyer Milbank was an almost laughable anachronism, left behind in the great law office revolution of the late seventies and early eighties, when both old and new firms ballooned in size, dumped lockstep compensation for "merit" systems that rewarded achievers, raided each other for star players, and hustled ceaselessly for clients. If Milbank carefully recruited its associates for future partnership, other firms "leveraged" them, as the jargon goes, hiring them in quantity, working them around the clock (at huge salaries), and using their billings as profit centers. By 1984, Milbank's total revenues were $74 million and its profits $370,000 per partner. By contrast, the 500-lawyer Skadden, ARps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, with a finger in almost every merger-and-acquisitions pie of the eighties, ranked first in the country with $129 million in revenues and $795,000 in profits per partner.

Pollock's book narrates how, during the latter half of the eighties, a determined group of partners transformed Milbank into a high-grossing late-20th century megafirm, more than doubling its size and luring on board such glamorous laterals as former Abscam prosecutor Thomas Puccio and the Asian-business rainmaking dynamo, Alice Young. This meant changing from lockstep to merit pay, a gruesome process in which eight longtime partners saw their draws cut and two others were pushed out. But by 1989, revenues jumped to $178.7 million with $664,000 in profits per partner. The architect of all this was Jacob D. Worenklein, who arrived at Milbank in 1973 and sold himself to clients as an "entrepreneurial counselor," Pollock writes, who would not simply document deals but present clients "with innovative possibilities and sometimes even business partners that added value to the pure legal work Milbank performed." This year, Worenklein became the firm's chairman.

Pollock was formerly a senior writer with The American Lawyer, the magazine that lawyer-journalist Steven Brill started in 1978 to chronicle and to some extent promote the transformation in the practice of law that the Milbank story exemplifies, a transformation that is part of the larger displacement and decay of what Tom Wolfe has called "the old Protestant aristocracy" that once ruled the United States. Pollock has done her reporting homework--although Turks and Brahmins has a trudging, dutiful quality that fails to bring to life the numerous strong personalities on both sides of the Milbank revolution.

More disappointing, the book fails to examine the implications of the commercialization of law practice. Since the late seventies, when the Supreme Court approved professional advertising, self-promotion has been a big part of almost every lawyer's operations. The relationship between lawyer and client, however, is not supposed to go on at arm's-length, with each party pursuing its own self-interest to some possible mutual benefit. The lawyer is supposed to be the client's agent and fiduciary; the client's interests--and only the client's interests--must prevail. The potential for conflict of interest when lawyers hustle themselves and get into their clients' business ventures is vast and demoralizing.

Similarly, what does it mean to belong to a law firm if one is in constant competition with one's partners? These days, a firm like Milbank becomes merely a glorified office-sharing arrangement, with access to a nostalgic letterhead and a pool of bright associates to exploit. No wonder young lawyers are starting to view firms as Ponzi schemes, where, by the time they are seasoned enough to qualify as partner, not only are there no slots open, but most of the partners who hired them are gone.

Milbank, however, seems to have had no choice but to do what it did. Chase Manhattan recently announced a $1 billion quarter loss and 5,000 impending layoffs, and last year, a Japanese developer bought a majority interest in Rockefeller Center. In the face of such reverses the old Milbank would have died. Instead it chose to save its life by selling its soul.
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Author:Allen, Charlotte
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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