As I type this, I am sitting in the Newark airport watching the snow fall and foolishly pretending that I will get on a plane this evening. It is just not going to happen. On the good side, it is giving me the opportunity to reflect on the alumni event from which I am returning.
For a few years of my life I was an associate at the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York City. Practicing law at Cravath was a great experience. Not because it was fun. Truth be told, some of the time it was not that much fun at all. But it was a phenomenal education. Cravath represents many of the most powerful companies in the world and as a junior attorney you were given the opportunity to look behind the curtain. Of course, you were given the opportunity to look behind the curtain 100 hours a week. But in exchange for those hundred hour weeks, you got to learn the intimate details of the companies that drive the world's economies.
The thing that I have always admired about Cravath is that it has an incredibly strong corporate culture.
I am certainly not the first to say that having a strong corporate culture is a key success factor for any company, big or small. But that was unquestionably true of Cravath, which is one of the most prosperous law firms in the world. The thing I admire about Cravath's corporate culture is that it is clear and dominant -- Cravath is a firm where law is practiced without compromise and without apology. Most of us didn't go to Cravath as young attorneys intending to make partner -- simple math made clear that wasn't likely (only a handful made partner out of any entering class of 70 or more). We went to Cravath because it was a great place to learn and a great place to leave. And that was the culture. At Cravath you practiced the best law with the best people and when you left, you took with you the training and those connections.
Unlike most businesses, attrition is part of the plan at Cravath. The Cravath model doesn't work unless dozens of attorneys leave the firm each year. So leaving is part of the culture. But what makes Cravath successful is its ability to promote attrition while maintaining strong relations with those who leave the firm. Former Cravath attorneys often leave the firm to join clients and quickly go from billers to bill payers (Chris Bogart left the firm to become General Counsel of Time Warner and Rob Kindler left to become global head of M&A for JPMorgan). Others go to major law firms throughout the country and either hire or are hired by Cravath attorneys to assist with cases or transactions (some excellent firms like Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, Quinn Emanuel and Boies, Schiller & Flexner were started by Cravath alumni). And some departing attorneys even join the startup world (Andrew Klein was a Cravath associate before he left to form Wit Beer, subsequently architecting the first online IPO and subsequently morphing his beer company into Wit Capital), ultimately hiring Cravath to represent the companies they start. As a result of these many continuing relationships, the Cravath ecosystem is a powerfully symbiotic one.
In recognition of this ecosystem, and in support of its culture of "benevolent attrition," Cravath does something very smart -- it holds periodic alumni receptions. Former Cravath attorneys get together along with the firm's partners to catch up, meet newly departed Cravath associates and, above all else, network. While some of the time is assuredly spent remembering the all nighters or that time you were told by a partner to "go play in traffic," most of the time is spent appreciating the things you learned and the folks you met while at Cravath. With all the commentary on social software, for my money I'll take old school "social networking" any day. While Cravath has an online alumni network, technology can not possibly replicate or replace face to face schmoozing.