New Lessons from Bingham McCutchen Case Study

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HLS case study “Bingham McCutchen: Combinatorial Mathematics” made the news recently, as law firm Bingham McCutchen faces challenges following a series of partner departures. Citing the case study for its depiction of Bingham’s growth trajectory, the Am Law Daily reports that Bingham posted its worst financial performance in 2013, which some at the firm attribute to contracts guaranteed to attorneys in connection with a 2009 merger with McKee Nelson. According to the Am Law article, guaranteed contracts had succeeded in previous mergers that Bingham pursued, but met opposition when Bingham honored McKee’s closed compensation system for the duration of the guarantees. As financial performance dipped, legacy Bingham attorneys reportedly wanted more transparency about compensation guaranteed to attorneys brought in from McKee. A wave of departures ensued.

The Bingham case study, authored by former HLS Professor Ashish Nanda, chronicles the firm’s series of “combinations,” or mergers, that transformed Bingham from a “middle-of-the-downtown-pack” Boston law firm in the early 1990s to a preeminent international law firm by 2010. While these mergers led to phenomenal growth for Bingham, they also had downsides: there was some attrition, gripes about cultural change, and a nagging difficulty attracting lateral hires. The case ends with the McKee Nelson deal, the tenth merger that managing partner Jay Zimmerman pursued since his election in 1994.

Now, looking back five years, the case is an opportunity to reflect critically on the past and consider strategies for damage control at present. What about the 2013 guarantees was problematic? What risks from its growth strategy surfaced recently and how might Bingham have better addressed these concerns?

Moreover, on June 1, 2014, Zimmerman relinquished day-to-day management of Bingham, ending what one Bingham employee called a “benevolent dictatorship.” How might the firm manage the leadership transition and its institutional culture? Was Bingham’s success a one-man operation, or might this be the change that Bingham needs to survive?

“Bingham McCutchen: Combinatorial Mathematics” is available from the HLS Case Studies website. Free educator copies are available for faculty and staff at non-profit institutions. For more information, or to discuss how to adapt the case study for your academic or professional education needs, contact Lisa Brem, Case Studies Program Manager, at lbrem@law.harvard.edu