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“Fencing on a tightrope” was the analogy used by Bradley Arant Boult Cummings chairman Beau Grenier to describe the perilous balancing act law firms have to perform in the face of a changing legal market.

At a panel discussion Friday moderated by Grenier in New York, legal industry experts debated the value of the traditional partnership model, as well as other alternatives for creating a governing structure likely to keep law firms competitive and profitable.

The panelists, meeting at the Thomson Reuters Law Firm Leaders Forum, generally agreed that the traditional firm partnership was outdated. But they varied dramatically on the degree of the changes needed.

“Most firms should convert to C-corps,” Adam Smith Esq. president Bruce MacEwen said at the forum, which began Thursday with a discussion on the state of the current legal market.

MacEwen told the audience that he believes few firms genuinely benefit from the partnership structure. Applying a top-down management hierarchy modeled after corporate clients is the better path to big firm profitability, he said.

“My fear is that we are going to be our own worst enemy in this period of transition,” said MacEwen, a lawyer and consultant to firms on strategic and economic issues. “I lay most, or all of the blame … at the feet of the partnership model.”

Steven Harper, a former Kirkland & Ellis partner and columnist for The American Lawyer, drew on the 2012 collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf to illustrate the dangers of what he sees as partnerships within partnerships developing in law firms. Partners can become beholden to one another with limited or no accountability to those at the bottom, he said.

“What’s happened over the years is that in most partnerships the most traditional 3-to-1 ratio or 4-to-1 ratio of top equity partners to the lawyers at the bottom has now exploded. When Dewey & LeBouf collapsed, it was 20-to-1. That’s not a real partnership,” said Harper, author of “The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis.”

Roger Meltzer, global co-chair of DLA Piper, cited his firm’s single-tier partnership as a model for maintaining traditional partnership roles and ensuring that lawyers feel like they have some skin in the game.

“I’m a big believer in the notion of this kind of alignment as something that ends up retaining the notion of partnership and retaining the young lawyers’ belief that there’s something to achieve and to aspire to,” Meltzer said.

The discussion also featured a contentious debate about the transformative impact of millennials on the industry. Several panelists said that law firms need to develop greater flexibility in addressing the distinct needs of young lawyers.

Dr. Larry Richard, founder of LawyerBrain LLC, a consulting firm that exclusively focuses on the legal profession, used data to highlight how young lawyers differ from their older counterparts in the workplace. He cited their demands for autonomy, altruism and social connectivity, arguing that firms need to answer those demands in order to retain young lawyers.

“There’s more evidence that [millennials] want more meaning and purpose in their work than any previous generation to date,” Richard said. “There’s lots of way to produce that, but if we ignore it, they’re going to leave.”