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Public law offices could learn a thing or two from their private-sector brethren when it comes to the right and wrong ways to lay off attorneys and staff. Two key lessons private firms seem to have learned as they have axed employees: Don’t dither, and don’t cover up. That’s particularly important for public offices where the whiff of politics can create an atmosphere of suspicion surrounding layoff decisions. Take, for instance, this week’s announcement by Oakland City Attorney John Russo to trim five attorneys from his payroll. It seems clear that Russo was in a no-win budget situation and had to slice his staff. But he faced questions about the way the news was delivered. The lawyers who were fired say they don’t know why they were the ones to get the ax, and as they told The Recorder earlier this week, the cuts appeared to be made without regard to seniority, performance or workload. Russo fought to keep the lawyers, and there’s no question that terminating staff is a thankless task. But making sure everyone is clear about how and why particular positions are affected may save public officials and their staffs further unpleasantness. Private firms found this out the hard way. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati didn’t come out and say it was laying off associates — instead it did dozens of “performance-based terminations” — and ended up looking less than forthright. Cooley Godward, on the other hand, publicly announced that attorneys would be shown the door. It was a painful event for those involved, but it seemed to be a quick and honest way to do business. And it saved lawyers from the indignity of having budget-based layoffs masquerade as performance-based firings. Clearly, Oakland’s layoffs are just the first in a parade of pink slips. In Contra Costa County, the Board of Supervisors has told the PD, the DA and the probation department to cut spending by 10 percent. San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan must cut $2.1 million from his $29 million budget. Santa Clara’s public defender’s office may be forced to chop $4.5 million from its $33 million budget. And Alameda County DA Tom Orloff must trim 10 percent from his $34 million budget. Orloff says he may be able to avoid layoffs this year, but “next year, at this point, it’s really a crap shoot.” As Russo points out, the layoffs are particularly unfortunate because local governments will be forced to go to outside firms to handle litigation. In the long run, that’s going to cost the public more money. “It may save the city a little money in the short term, but it is penny wise and pound foolish,” he said earlier this week. But that argument hasn’t budged the officials who control municipal and county coffers. Fiscal prudence, it seems, is not their foremost concern. They’re using a chainsaw when a scalpel is required. So government legal chieftains are left with little choice. However unsavory, they must make cuts. And they must do it in a humane and professional fashion. That means communicating in a straightforward manner about the decisions they face, who’s involved and why certain positions are at risk.

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