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In 2009, more people were laid off by more firms than had been reported for all previous years combined. Letting attorneys go in significant numbers is not something large law firms have had a great deal of experience with until recently. Nevertheless, it still comes as a surprise how poorly some large law firms have handled the process of layoffs over the past year. (This is the second in a series of two articles; read part one.) Large law firms made decisions about how they laid off this record number of attorneys under great stress and uncertainty, when the risk of total firm collapse existed and in fact happened to some. It became clear, however, that law firms have much to learn about how to handle layoffs while keeping a long-range perspective in mind. Accounting firms and management consulting firms have for many years invested in maintaining good relations with their former employees. They have, of course, not done so out of the goodness of their hearts, but rather because it has proven to be good business. Through measures such as developing alumni networks to keep in touch and developing programs that attract alumni to remain engaged with their former employers, these companies regularly develop future business contacts and promote loyalty and goodwill that can help attract top candidates and clients in the future. The business argument that has persuaded business leaders across industries to maintain good relationships with their former employees follows. First, attorneys already have a lifetime affiliation with a firm for which they have worked because the firm is always on their resume. When asked, as will be the case in almost any new position, alumni will of course speak more highly of the firm if their departure is handled well. The reverse is also true. Second, the market will improve at some point, and firms will again compete for talent. It is much less expensive to rehire people who have already been trained by the firm than to invest the huge sums that firms have traditionally put into their recruiting programs or paying recruiters to hire laterals. Alienated former employees will not want to return and, even if they do, are not likely to perform at their best. In addition, any negative information about a firm will impact future law student candidates who often listen closely to the experience their school’s alumni have had with a firm. These recruiting circles are small. Third, especially in a tough economy, it is critical to leverage relationships for business development. A firm has no way of knowing where its former attorneys will end up; and, if they happen to land in a large potential client’s office, their opinion of the firm matters a great deal. Conversely, if attorneys retain a positive view of their experience there, the firm could have much to gain. Law firms have an opportunity to learn from corporate America and recognize that it is always good business to create a web of connections and to invest in developing positive relationships among people. Over the past year, only a limited number of law firms have seemed to understand that it is in their interest to help their attorneys land well. The lack of foresight many firms have demonstrated in how they let attorneys go is not only due to pressure to save money but is also explained in part by the legal field’s record of lagging behind other industries in developing and leveraging alumni networks. Some law firms have taken the lead in developing such programs in recent years, but making the case for a law firm to develop procedures to maintain goodwill with their attorneys on their departure and going forward will likely be an uphill climb in the current economy. Virtually all businesses are concerned about how to do more with less, so law firm leaders are likely to question what can be done when most are already having to make budget cuts. Even though law firms lack the infrastructure that other industries have created, measures to maintain good alumni relations do not need to be cost-intensive. At their core, successful networks are a combination of strong communications, networking and follow-up. As other industries have learned, such programming is all about relationships; and, while it may be nice to have money to support them, hosting receptions and other costly events is not the only option. In fact, inviting alumni to a law firm social event may not be the most effective route to maintaining good relations with attorneys who have been asked to leave. In one example, associates who had been laid off received their firm’s alumni end-of-the-year newsletter, which included an invitation to the firm’s holiday party. To its credit, the firm was making clear it considered these former employees to be just like other alumni of the firm, but several of the laid-off attorneys expressed incredulity that the firm that fired them now wanted to celebrate the end of the year with them. Further, the firm seemed to lack sensitivity when the letter it sent went on to tout how successful the firm had been that year — one in which it also laid off 55 attorneys, all of whom were receiving this news. Other kinds of interaction could prove to be both more productive as well as less expensive than formal events. Particularly when administrators within a firm have seen their responsibilities expand because fewer people are left to do the work, the measures a firm is most likely to adopt are those that will not require much additional work. A few low-cost examples of steps to maintain good relations with law firm alumni follow. First, the loyalty-engendering practice of partners giving departing attorneys contact information for those who are knowledgeable about the individual’s field, and making calls on an attorney’s behalf, costs nothing but a little time. Particularly since it has now become standard practice solely to confirm dates of employment, law firms willing to reach out on an individual’s behalf, give candid recommendations or at the very least provide an objective reason for the departure, will stand out among their competitors. Second, a firm can piggyback the steps it takes to develop alumni networks onto other initiatives already being undertaken. These can include incorporating alumni into client seminars and events, offering discounted continuing legal education (CLE) programs to keep bar memberships current, and inviting alumni to program events already planned as part of women’s or diversity initiatives or of particular practice areas. Third, a firm can inexpensively create an alumni directory, keeping e-mail addresses and other contact information updated so that individual alumni can reach out independently to one another. Maintaining such a directory provides a fair-value exchange for the firm, which gets up-to-date employment information and business leads. Fourth, disseminating job postings has been a low-cost item that many attorneys have appreciated in firms that have begun this practice. The firm’s clients are often happy to have applications from alumni, and posting positions of which a firm’s individual attorneys are aware helps build their personal networks as well. Finally, in headier economic times a number of firms developed a component of their websites specifically dedicated to alumni of the firm, but creating a firm-specific alumni group on Linked In and Facebook can achieve similar results at lower cost. Content is typically driven by determining what information alumni want, which has included career programs (webinars, conference calls, or in-person) and allowing alumni to opt in to different newsletters that practice areas put out with practice/industry-related news. The future hiring model for large law firms remains up in the air, and the rise in the use of contract attorneys may change these equations so that law firms make money without modifying the way they let their attorneys go. The return on investment in continuing relationships will be great for firms that still want to compete for top talent and loyal clients. For those firms that want to compete, but might have handled layoffs in ways that were less than productive last year, future success will largely depend upon senior management creating a culture that recognizes the value of strong relationships and leverages opportunities to maintain them. Kate Neville, Esq., a Harvard Law graduate, is founder of Neville Career Consulting, LLC, which provides guidance to attorneys considering a job change or career transition, whether within the practice of law or to another field. Kate helps practicing attorneys identify the full range of their professional options and develop strategies to pursue them successfully. This is the second in a series of two articles published by The National Law Journal. The first article can be found here.

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