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The back-to-back closures of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison and Skjerven Morrill have triggered a hiring free-for-all as law firms scramble to snap up hundreds of suddenly available attorneys. But for every lawyer now on the job market, there’s one or more support staff in a similar situation. And while announcements trumpeting former Brobeck and Skjerven partners’ new firms are an almost daily occurrence, the prospects for the orphaned paralegals, secretaries, records clerks and librarians are decidedly less rosy. The past week’s dissolution of Brobeck and Skjerven left about 715 staff members unemployed. According to partners at Bay Area firms, the local legal market is not likely to absorb such a glut of staffers. It’s going to be tough, says Daniel Higgins, a partner on the policy committee of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. “I think that there are going to be, unfortunately, a lot of human beings trapped in the wake of these events.” For many of the 600 Brobeck staff members — none of whom is receiving severance pay — this reality is creating a lot of anxiety. “I think the attorneys have basically done all this and they’re taken care of because they had already started making deals with other firms,” says a Brobeck staff member who wished to remain anonymous. While the attorneys might take their secretaries with them, the staff member went on, “it’s the other staff that really suffers. We always perform a very vital function in the system, but when things like this happen they don’t care.” The demand for support staff mirrors the demand for attorneys, with certain practices carrying more cachet than others. As a result, the most sought after staffers at the moment are in busy practices like litigation and intellectual property, say partners at Bay Area firms. “In a very specialized area such as IP, many paralegals do tend to specialize — and it indeed makes them more marketable,” says Charles Campbell Jr., a partner in Altheimer & Gray’s San Francisco office. Campbell says his firm has contacted Brobeck about a pair of staff openings it is hiring for. Whether Altheimer scoops up any additional Brobeck staffers depends on whether any of the Brobeck attorneys it is in discussions with decide to sign on, and which practices they’re in. There are some encouraging signs for staffers among the initial waves of partner relocations. When Steven Zager and a crew of 17 Brobeck attorneys joined Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld in Austin, Texas, the group brought 12 staff members with it. And according to Marina Park, Pillsbury Winthrop’s firmwide managing partner, the firm intends to include staff workers with the 15 Skjerven attorneys it just hired, though it’s still too early to say exactly how many. Even before Brobeck and Skjerven called it quits, staff workers faced a rough job market. As law firms tightened their belts to weather the economic downturn, many trimmed the size of their support staff. Over the past two years, almost every major Bay Area firm, including Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich, Cooley Godward, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and Fenwick & West, have laid off significant layers of support staff. At the same time, a generation of computer-literate attorneys has lessened the need for secretarial staff. While law firms once dedicated a secretary to every attorney, it’s now common for two or three attorneys to share a secretary. “I e-mailed with a secretary the other day that had seven people she staffed,” says law firm consultant Peter Zeughauser. The secretaries and paralegals are in a much better position than the rest of the support staff at Brobeck and Skjerven, however. It’s the librarians, record clerks and information technology workers that face the bleakest prospects, say many. Most firms already have this type of infrastructure in place. And while adding extra attorneys to a firm can create a need for more secretaries and paralegals, it doesn’t typically require a firm to add information technology personnel. “I hate to be pessimistic about anything,” says McDermott, Will & Emery’s Anthony De Alcuaz, “but I think those people are going to confront a fairly saturated market.”

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