Can an organization’s culture portend disaster?
For the answer, we need look no further than some of the most high-profile corporate scandals. Lehman Brothers, Worldcom and Enron— companies that experienced some of the largest bankruptcies in history— used accounting gimmicks which stemmed from bankrupt cultures. Command-and-control, internally-competitive, autocratic, star-oriented organizational cultures breed unethical and—in extreme cases—illegal behavior.
Now Big Law gives us a new don’t-let-this-happen-to-you poster child for embracing the right culture. Leaders of the once top-tier law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf overstated revenue and used accounting tricks to hide losses and cash flow shortfalls, according to a 106-count indictment that a New York state grand jury handed up last Thursday. If convicted of the most serious charges, Chairman Steven Davis, Executive Director Stephen DiCarmine and Chief Financial Officer Joel Sanders, each face up to 25 years in prison. Dewey filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May of 2012. The alleged financial shenanigans began as billings dipped and clients evaporated during the depths of the 2008 financial crisis.
But Dewey’s problems began long before the firm’s leaders allegedly began their deceit, as I describe in my new book, The Bounty Effect: 7 Steps to The Culture of Collaboration®. Formed in 2007 from a merger of two venerable firms, Dewey Ballantine and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, the firm reportedly employed three thousand people globally at its height. Dewey’s roots date back a century, but it took roughly five years for the firm to come unglued.
Among other cultural defects, the newly-merged firm created a two-tier partnership system in which it treated “stars” differently than other “partners.” After the merger, Dewey began recruiting so-called “lateral partners” rather than promoting from within. These partners received multiyear, multimillion-dollar guarantees. Dewey’s secretive culture prevented the firm from sharing this information with all of the partners. While one lateral partner reportedly had a six-million-dollar-a-year guarantee, other partners received four hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year.
The stars were those who the firm expected would bring in the most business. Dewey considered other partners “service partners,” the ones who wrote briefs and performed or managed the legal heavy lifting. When word of the wide compensation gap spread, the service partners—many of whom had worked for the firm much longer than the newly-recruited “stars”—became resentful. Clearly, star culture had compromised trust and poisoned the organization. And, guess what? Some highly-touted “stars” were unable to live up to their hype, and therefore revenue fell short of what Dewey needed for paying annual compensation commitments to these “stars.”
The merger occurred right before the financial crisis. By the end of 2008, Dewey had more than $100 million in term debt outstanding and available lines of credits totaling more than $130 million with four banks. The firm’s credit agreements required Dewey to maintain a minimum cash flow. To abide by this covenant, the firm’s leaders and others conspired to misrepresent Dewey’s financial performance, according to the indictment.
So brazen were the defendants, according to the indictment, that they created a document called the “Master Plan” which outlined fraudulent accounting tricks. Plus they reportedly discussed the alleged fraud in a series of emails. One of these apparently read, “Can you find another clueless auditor for next year?”
Suppose Dewey had fostered a collaborative rather than command-and-control culture and organizational structure? What if Dewey had shared rather than hoarded information, harnessed broad input into decisions, and encouraged partners to work together both in developing business and producing legal work? The firm may have weathered the financial crisis rather than devolving into apparent unethical and possibly illegal activity.
Dewey is by no means the only law firm with a two-tier partnership system. Nor is it the only firm that embraces a star-oriented, command-and-control culture. Many law firms and organizations in multiple industries and sectors run the risk of financial implosion, because their cultures are bankrupt. The solution, as I describe in The Bounty Effect, is to change the structure of organizations from Industrial Age command-and-control to Information Age collaborative