Barry Landsberg, Partner, Manatt Phelps


Current title and employer?

Senior Partner, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP in Los Angeles

What is your particular role as a partner?

I litigate business and regulatory cases and appeals for large hospital systems and other health industry providers. I am a member of the firm’s Board of Directors. I co-chair our appellate litigation practice and was the Co-Chair of the firm’s Litigation Division for seven years (2000-2006).

Law school? Law review?

Emory. And, yes, I was an editor of the Emory Law Journal.

Other than the money, what’s the best thing about being a Partner?

Two things: Having ultimate responsibility and getting new-client business.

Do you enjoy managing clients?

Absolutely. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job.

Why?

It’s what makes being a lawyer real. For clients, it’s not about theory or law, it’s about results. They expect to win, not to have their expectations managed. Large institutional clients are often stressed with other large problems, so what they need is execution, not just sound judgment. Clients become repeat clients because you win, not because “you fight the good fight” and lose. Vince Lombardi wasn’t wrong.

Did you ever consider a career change, or are you a law geek through and through?

Law geek all the way. This apparently has roots in elementary school, where I disagreed reflexively with everyone. I got sent home from first grade several times—once for telling the teacher the food pyramid was a fraud. I live and breathe the law. Before getting married, I had at least the same chance of boring a date with obtuse drivel about my cases as [Living the Dream’s] Nick Conley did in “Typo.”

How did you eventually become a Senior Partner / Head of Litigation? Was it easy?

Definitely not easy. I practiced in relative obscurity my first five years at Manatt—15 years into my career. I was well-regarded as a lawyer, but that was it. Things turned when I began generating business in my focus area, health law. Five years later (late 1999), I was selected to co-lead our Litigation Division. I had no interest in a senior management position, and I did not ask or politick for the role. The incoming Manatt managing partner thought I had a certain collegial spirit that would be helpful. I’d also earned a reputation for taking an “enterprise” approach to some great clients. That meant not only putting the most effective lawyers before the clients, but also sharing large amounts of origination credit with other lawyers for repeat business and even new client work. Back then, not too many partners in law firms were infusing other lawyers with real hard-dollar ownership of client work, so I may have been leading a bit by example.

Worst memory of being a lawyer?

The first time I got to argue anything in a courtroom. It was an appeal in the Second Circuit. I was a second year, which was unheard of (most litigators cut their teeth arguing something much more pedestrian, like a discovery motion), but we were a little firm with big clients—and the partner had a trial starting that day. I didn’t sleep for three days before that argument.

So, there I am in Foley Square getting hammered by all three Second Circuit Justices who thought the court had no jurisdiction. I wasn’t prepared for that. The partner had convinced another panel of the same court two weeks earlier that there was jurisdiction. I start ripping apart my court clip trying to find the order while I attempted to explain, but I was no different than some kid saying, “Hey, that’s not fair!” Bad move. Jurisdiction does not work that way, and the court ripped me some more.

Somehow we won the appeal, but I’ve never been nervous in a courtroom since. That was rock bottom, albeit with a happy ending. I frequently tell young litigators this story when they’re panicked about heading off to court. My humiliation tends to calm their nerves.

Best memory (thus far) of being a lawyer?

We were in a Birmingham Federal District Court in 1980. I was a first year on a team of five lawyers (one-half of our little firm), and we had just defeated a motion to stop a tender offer. Skadden, who represented the target and brought at least 10 lawyers, had launched full-on securities and antitrust litigation to stop it. After the judge denied the injunction, our client’s CEO basically said to the partner, “Take the company jet wherever you want to go for the weekend.” The partner looked at me and asked, “Where to?” I said Paradise Island, and off we went. We stayed at Howard Hughes’ Brittania Beach Hotel. I love being a lawyer, but it never got more extravagant than that.

What’s the best advice you ever received as an associate?

A partner I worked for years ago gave me a private pep talk once. I was just starting my second year and had billed something like 2600 hours my first year. I was feeling overwrought, and it showed. The partner handed me a thick case file and said, “Barry, there are two kinds of people in this world—those who get it done, and those with perfectly reasonable excuses for not getting it done. Which one do you want to be?”

Any advice you want to pass along to associates looking to impress?

Produce high-quality, compelling legal writing. Without it, the “on your feet” work that associates want in court and with clients won’t happen. Lawyers excel at different things, but where I came from, great legal writing was the associate’s rite of passage. It’s the one thing a young associate can control because there is no one between her or him and the computer screen. Get that done right, and you’re on your way.

What makes an associate a superstar?

In addition to superb legal scholarship, a superstar associate takes the project to a materially better—and sometimes different—place. That requires a young associate to have the self-confidence to push back and not always tell the partner what he/she wants to hear. It seems obvious, but it does not happen often. Many excellent associates are task-oriented, often because they are stretched with many assignments from partners on different cases. They do well just to answer all the partners’ questions correctly. (I wouldn’t want to be an associate again.) But, what if the partner is asking the wrong question? Many associates won’t go there. Life is short, they figure. A superstar associate seeks me out and says, “Hey, Barry, I think you’re wrong here, and here’s why. I think we ought to argue this instead.”

Also, a superstar associate almost never offers a “perfectly reasonable excuse” for declining work. He or she just “gets it done.”

What makes an associate mediocre?

“Rounding off” on legal problems that demand rigorous consideration. That includes dashing off emails with unfinished thoughts. A mediocre associate reflexively considers him or herself to be overwrought. He or she might say, “I’m drowning,” when the water is only ankle-high.

What’s the best way for an ambitious associate to actually make partner these days?

It’s easy—just be a superstar.

Seriously though, you don’t have to be the law firm equivalent of Kobe Bryant, born with such prodigious talent. It’s a law firm. Everyone is smart. A partner—or prospective partner—is someone who has worked his/her tail off, excelled substantively, shows great judgment, and who exudes a “first-chair” presence. By that, I mean someone who can lead a complex matter and the client from start to successful finish. Having clients doesn’t hurt either, but it’s not a prerequisite.

Note that I did not say that we advance an average associate who is merely connected to the “right” partner. At our firm, that won’t work. Sure, doing superb work for “important” partners’ practices might help that particular associate’s visibility, but it’s also true that successful partners and great associates tend to converge, with one fueling the other.

At Manatt, we have a distinct process for senior associates up for partnership. The point of it is to conduct an in-depth career review of the person’s work and prospects for future success. It doesn’t matter if the associate has spent little or no time working with any one partner. What matters is the quality of the associate’s work, judgment, character, and integrity. Does the associate act like an owner of this business? What are the associate’s prospects to contribute as a partner? Has the associate become an “important” lawyer, based upon his/her success for clients and being “out there” in the legal community?

This is not the full list of partnership criteria, but it is fair to say that it’s no popularity contest, and we don’t make partners just because someone has worked hard or done his/her time. We look at everything that should matter. It’s business, but it’s also an associate’s professional career on the line.

Read more interviews and Bitter Success.

22 Comments

  1. WTF?

    October 8, 2008 at 7:14 am

    This was the most depressing interview yet, because the guy championed everything that blows about law: be a law geek, kiss partner butt, never make a mistake, work whenever the partners say so. Bring back the Cerberus guy. That guy was a success.

  2. Law Geek 2

    October 8, 2008 at 8:35 am

    Disagree!  Think this interview was AWESOME!!  He tells it like it is.  No BS, just honest big firm scoop.  It’s not his fault he actually loves what he does for a living and is successful at it… and you don’t.  And aren’t.

  3. ANON

    October 8, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Agree with law geek 2.  Some of us actually like being lawyers and want to know the truth about partners and what they think, etc…

  4. That's it, drink your kool aid

    October 8, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Never say no to work.  That’s how you’ll make partner.  Trust us.
    After all, it’s not like we’d have a reason to string you along for years killing yourself and wasting your youth in a shitty little office, except that that’s our WHOLE BUSINESS MODEL.

  5. Big Biller

    October 8, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    You guys are cowards!  If you don’t have game, that’s your problem!!!!  Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.

  6. Junior

    October 9, 2008 at 5:20 am

    Thought this interview was great.  Thanks, Bitter Lawyer.

  7. Colonel Jessup

    October 9, 2008 at 8:00 am

    You want the truth—you can’t handle the truth!!!

  8. Katherine

    October 9, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Thanks….thought this was a great interview.

  9. Al Dickman

    October 9, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    This partner may be a smug fellow, but face it, when you work for a firm, this is what you will work for.  So get used to it, men.
    The one or 2 good looking women have a chance to get other kinds of dividends if they put out, but the for guys, its all about putting out the work.
    As long as that’s known up front, there should be no debate.  So go out and get the job done!

  10. Third Year Punk

    October 9, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    Why is he smug?  If anything, he’s earnest.  Tells you his story.  No gloating, no arrogance at all.  Especially for a partner at a prestigious firm.  Why is everyone so freaked out by the truth of this proffesion?  Deal with it already.  This is what being a lawyer is all about.  Why blame him for being successful and letting us in on the secret handshake???!!!!

  11. Kool Aid Sommelier

    October 10, 2008 at 6:24 am

    The point, which some have apparently missed, is that never saying no to work is NOT how you make partner. 
    Who makes partner is all about business-case vis-a-vis your firm’s workload (your ability to generate new business if required, or how much they need you running your existing clients/matters if not) and firm politics, and this rarely involves being the guy who never says no.
    That is what they tell you so that they can keep the 95% of people – yes, that’s right, 95% – who will NOT make partner working themselves to death for nothing.

  12. Buttboy

    October 11, 2008 at 11:04 am

    I liked the interview because it gave some real clarity about what partners want.  It doesn’t mean that I’m what they want or that I could successfully turn my life inside out to become what they want, but at least he’s upfront about it, and from his perspective, let’s face it, he wants the right things.  It’s just reality.  It doesn’t make that reality any easier if you are realizing that you’re one of the 95% who aren’t really born to be a BFP.

  13. Lisa P

    October 12, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    I agree with Butt Boy.  I liked the interview very much.  Good insight into the mind of a partner and what these guys like and don’t like.  Thanks!

  14. Rodger

    October 13, 2008 at 11:42 am

    I agree—great interview.

  15. Not a law geek

    October 14, 2008 at 5:23 am

    To the law geeks:

    This is AmLaw rah rah bullcrap. The reason I like this site, and I suspect the reason many others do, is that it highlights folks that had the courage to do something more personally satisfying (I don’t mean heartwarming pro bono stuff, just stuff you enjoy) or at least more lucrative than be a biglaw drone. This guy is so brainwashed that he’s convinced himself that on his deathbed he will actually be glad he wasted his life winning a few pointless cases, and acting tough for doing it. The Cerberus guy was rad because he makes more than this dude while taking a dump; the other interviews were cool because those guys had the balls to do something else. This guy is just a law school gunner who’s never stopped gunning. That’s the kind of shit they celebrate on AmLaw, but I like that this site–at least formerly–refused to lionize the pie eating contest winner for eating more pie.

  16. Bitter Boy

    October 14, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    I agree, but I don’t think this dude is saying you have to be a gunner—or celebrating his life as a partner.  I think he just likes being a lawyer and is good at it.  What the hell is so wrong with that?  So tone it down, guys.  Don’t get all negative and insulting just because someone likes being a goddamn attorney. It’s not his fault that most of us hate what we do and he doesn’t!

  17. Karen B

    October 14, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    I love this interview!!!!

  18. Any more bs?

    October 15, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Yeah…great interview.  Gunner in law school turned gunner in law firm.  Original.  Great anectdotes, too.  They made the Partner seem “real”…someone I could “relate to.” Sent home from first grade for arguing about the food pyramid?!?!?!!? HA!!  Classic.  The ole’ “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer because I liked to argue as a child” story??!?!!?!? YES!!! The food pyramid wasn’t invented until 1988, but I don’t mind.  It’s a nice touch.  Humanizing. 
    Keep on truckin’.

  19. Pete the Partner

    October 16, 2008 at 7:03 am

    Very good!  Straight answers, no nonsense.  The young associates out there interested in making partner should listen to what this man says.

  20. noone

    November 16, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    As someone completely outside the field of law, I can only say that working long hours goes into being a success in any field.  Why do people get so crazy angry about that part?  I work as part of a team, and the one guy on the team (not me) who answers his phone WHENEVER it rings, nights, weekends, in the middle of the airport, or even in the middle of a meeting, is the guy that everybody wants working for them.  He is the #1 choice.  Why?  Because he has no kids and his ego depends entirely on feeling like everyone’s hero, so he makes himself available 7 days a week, and guess what?  He is everyone’s hero.  It’s not rocket science.  You work hard, it shows.  I don’t work as hard as him, but I have a family and other committments and people call me only if Guy #1 is unavailable (which occasionally happens), and they hope I’ll work magic like him, and sometimes I do, but really, he is the one they want.  And that hurts a little, but at the same time, so what.  I get what I deserve, including family time, and he gets what he deserves, including the admiration and respect of his peers.

  21. rip 'n run

    November 17, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    There’s nothing inherently evil about his comments, although two points caught my eye.  First, his comment about feeling like you are drowning when you are only ankle deep.  Having been neck deep with water rising fast, a partner usually still perceives you as only being ankle deep.  They have no time or concern for how much work you actually have.  Second, he talks about not turning down assignments in the same breath he mentions “getting out there” in the legal community.  Those two ideas are mutually exclusive. 
    The best insight

  22. One of those women....

    April 29, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Well, Al Dickman, you sure do fit the bitter lawyer bill.

    As a woman who has practiced for over 25 years, I assure you that no woman is going to get anywhere in the long term, good looking or not, by “putting out.” We need more talent, brains and hard work, and the better looking we are the smarter we had better be, because the presumptions are always to the contrary. Clients could care less what the horse/filly/mare/stallion, or in your case gelding, looks like, they just want to win the race.

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