These days, Texas associates, like their peers across the country, anxiously read almost daily news stories about law firm layoffs. What started late last fall in New York as a fate only befalling securitization lawyers has since spread coast-to-coast, sparing almost no practice area.
On Feb. 12 alone — known on some blogs as the “Valentine’s Massacre” — approximately 300 lawyers nationwide lost their jobs. And those are only the publicly announced layoffs. No one knows how many more lawyers have suffered so-called “stealth” layoffs, i.e., reductions-in-force handled secretly or touted as routine shedding of less productive lawyers with no reference to a slowdown in firm business.
In previous economic downturns, stealth layoffs were the norm, not the exception. Knowing that layoffs could tarnish a firm’s reputation with clients and future recruits, firms were reluctant to admit or announce layoffs. In 2009, however, reductions-in-force are so widespread that firms actually do themselves and their associates a disservice by being less than forthright about layoffs.
In a world of e-mail, tabloid Web sites and blogs, a truly stealth layoff is nearly impossible. People inevitably find out about the layoffs, and the fact that the firm was secretive harms the firm’s reputation more than declining revenues or a layoff ever could. Stealth layoffs also foster negative feelings among those affected because their job searches are hindered by potential employers’ suspicions that the lawyers were let go for performance rather than economic reasons.
Because few Texas firms have taken the direct approach, many local associates are wondering whether a stealth layoff is in the cards and what they can do to protect themselves. To avoid the cut list, associates who have noticed a significant slowdown in their work should:
• Maintain an enthusiastic and flexible attitude toward work. Associates who are available and willing to handle anything that comes along are invaluable in any economy.
• Volunteer to assist sections, departments or even offices that seem busy. Many firms will move around associates internally to avoid layoffs in slow areas. Associates who step forward for re-assignment are more likely to get this opportunity.
• Seek a secondment opportunity. Because the economic downturn affects clients as well as firms, many companies are instituting hiring freezes and examining legal budgets in hopes of finding ways to reduce expenses. Bringing an outside lawyer in-house for a few months can save the company money on outside legal fees while providing valuable inside training for the law firm associate. At the same time, the firm may be able to recover some of the associate’s salary expenses from the client.
• Take a proactive approach. An associate who has a good relationship with a partner or practice group leader could suggest, given the slowdown in work at the firm, that the partner recommend the associate for a permanent position with a client company. An associate who moves in-house with a client can help to cement the firm’s relationship with that client and allow the firm to avoid the severance costs of a layoff.
• Suggest a pro bono sabbatical. At least one major New York firm is offering its associates the opportunity to take up to one year’s leave from the firm to work for a nonprofit organization. The firm will pay each associate a $60,000 salary for the year, reducing the pay cut for the associate while saving the firm significant money.
Lemonade Out of Lemons
For associates who are laid off, the next question is: “What do I do now?” Firms may simply be right-sizing in response to reduced workloads and lower-than-average attrition rates, but this explanation is little solace to those who have been laid off in the midst of one of the toughest job markets for attorneys in more than 20 years. For laid-off lawyers, taking action is the key to an expeditious transition to a new position:
• Prepare a résumé. Prepare a detailed résumé that describes not only practice areas, but also specific experience and industry expertise. More experienced lawyers should also have a list of representative transactions or cases as an addendum. As job opportunities arise, create a tailored résumé that specifically highlights experience that is relevant to each potential job.
• Line up references. Before leaving the firm, identify two or three supervising attorneys or partners who would be willing to serve as references. Written performance evaluations also could be helpful.
• Network. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Contact current and former peers, partners, clients and even law school classmates to discover potential job opportunities.
• Use search firms and job boards. Contact several reputable attorney search firms and check the Internet job boards on a daily basis.
• Consider the possibilities. Do not assume that practicing law is the only option. A tough job market is the perfect time to truly reflect upon one’s interests, skills and talents in a broader way. Perhaps something other than practicing law is the best next step.
• Take care of yourself. Stay positive and patient. Although the job search may seem slow, opportunities will come along and interviews will go more smoothly for those with a good attitude, a positive outlook and a flexible approach.
Although it may seem hard to imagine, the market will come back. When that happens, the firms that were straightforward about their layoffs and that took extra steps to maintain positive relationships with departing attorneys by providing severance, references and outplacement counseling will have an advantage in recruiting and retaining talent and clients. In the meantime, for those employers that are hiring, this is a fantastic time to find exceptionally talented lawyers on the job market.
Stacy Humphries and Elaine Makris Williams are principals with MS Legal Search, a Texas-based attorney search firm that has been in business for nearly 15 years. Both are former practicing lawyers with J.D.s from Harvard Law School and the University of Texas School of Law, respectively.