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Are law firm staff layoffs creating unmanageable workloads for so-called survivors? They are at Seattle-based Davis Wright Tremaine, according to a lawsuit filed by a former secretary, who claims she was unfairly fired by the firm after suffering panic attacks brought on by unrealistic work demands following staff layoffs. In a suit filed last month in Oregon state court, Nancy Topolski claims that Davis Wright Tremaine wrongfully terminated her and violated Oregon’s family leave act as well as the state’s disability and discrimination and retaliation laws. She is seeking nearly $1 million, according to the complaint. Lawyers for Davis Wright last week petitioned to have the suit moved to federal court. Topolski was hired as a legal secretary in the firm’s Portland office in 2007, according to the complaint, and provided full-time support for three attorneys. The firm laid off “a significant number” of employees including 11 secretaries in the early fall 2009, and Topolski then became responsible for supporting a fourth attorney — Greg Chaimov. “Mr. Chaimov had a tendency to wait until the last minute to give assignments to Plaintiff, which ended up causing projects to be rushed and completed to standards lower than Plaintiff desired,” the suit reads. Topolski informed her supervisor several times in late September and October that her increased workload was causing her stress, affecting her ability to sleep and causing her to make mistakes. On Oct. 21, Topolski suffered a panic attack while at work and told a human resources representative that she needed a lighter workload, which the representative indicated would happen, according to the complaint. However, no changes were made and Topolski suffered a second panic attack at work on Nov. 3, the suit says. She was fired the following day. Topolski’s lawyer, Carl Post, declined comment on the case through a colleague at his firm, Law Offices of Daniel Snyder in Portland. Davis Wright maintains that it did nothing wrong. “While we don’t discuss the particulars of individual employment situations, we are confident this matter was handled appropriately,” said Mark Berry, a partner at Davis Wright and the firm’s internal employment counsel. Growing workloads have become a common problem for legal support staff in recent years as many firms have cut down on those positions, said Patricia Infanti, the president of NALS, formerly the National Association of Legal Secretaries. In addition to increasing the attorney-to-support staff ratio, many large firms have done away with “floaters,” or backup workers who could be called in to assist swamped staffers. “Most definitely, there are some people who can handle that better than others,” Infanti said of increased workloads. “It can be especially difficult for those who really care about what they do, and perhaps feel like they aren’t producing their best work. They are having to do more with less, and having to explain to attorneys that they have fewer resources.”

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