Just when the legal community moved on to tracking the demise of next year's summer associate programs, Dechert went back to some cost-cutting measures the Philadelphia legal community hasn't seen in significant numbers in months: layoffs.
The firm continued to make staff and attorney cuts, laying off partner-track and staff associates as well as paralegals Thursday.
The majority of the cuts were said to be in the mass torts/products liability practice and the general litigation practice with at least one labor and employment associate let go out of Philadelphia. Legal blog Above the Law said cuts were reportedly around 25 associates firmwide along with additional staff and paralegals.
When asked to confirm these reports and more specifically whether there were seven layoffs in Philadelphia, including five attorneys and two paralegals, the firm said in a statement only: "We had laid off a number of people. These layoffs include attorneys from across several areas and offices at various experience levels. We have also laid off a number of staff. We are matching our resources to what we believe our needs will be going forward."
This makes for the sixth round of cuts the firm has done since March 2008.
The firm laid off 13 U.S. associates in its finance and real estate practice in March 2008 and then later gave that group the option of taking temporary positions in other practice groups. In December 2008, 72 U.S. administrative positions were cut and another 15 staff positions in London were put into redundancy consultation.
In February 2009, the firm cut 19 attorneys in its U.S. offices, including associates and counsel positions. That was followed a few weeks later by word the firm cut 10 staff attorneys.
In March, Dechert dealt its biggest blow, letting go of 125 people firmwide. That group was comprised of 63 attorneys and other time keepers and 62 administrative staff.
Though several firms are said to be letting attorneys and staff go in smaller groups, avoiding detection in the press, the last report of a group layoff in Pennsylvania came out of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis back in April. Since then, the focus has been on deferrals of first-years, salary cuts and summer program cuts. But legal consultants have said more layoffs could come because the demand for legal work is stagnant and hasn't picked back up yet.
Ward Bower of consulting firm Altman Weil said in March, when Dechert made its last round of cuts, that firms are really operating without a safety net and they can't be blamed for conducting numerous rounds of layoffs when the economy changes daily.
"I think a lot of these firms that have announced a series of cuts have done so each time hoping it's the last," Bower said at the time. "What they don't want to do is cut any more than they have to. Nobody at this point knows where the bottom is."
Although Dechert has made several rounds of attorney and staff cuts, it has not had to cut salaries -- though some high-level partners took a reduction in pay that could be recouped at the end of the year. The firm did defer its 2009 first-year associates to three different staggered dates through the fall of 2010. That has led some to wonder whether it would be next to cut its 2010 summer program to avoid a bottleneck of associates starting in 2011. But the firm has made no announcement one way or the other in that area.
While Dechert said cuts are across several practice areas, reports have pointed largely to mass torts and products liability this go-round, with Above the Law citing half of the 25 layoffs coming from that area.
After the Vioxx litigation for Dechert client Merck settled in late 2007, there was a bit of a lull in the practice. But Dechert Chairman Barton J. Winokur said in March of this year that the work that dried up was replaced within two or three months of the settlement.
The firm has recently represented Pfizer in Philadelphia courts, successfully getting a class decertified in a case over the drug company's epilepsy drug, Neurontin. The firm was also retained in 2008 to handle cases involving cholesterol-lowering drug Vytorin and cosmetic injection treatment Botox.