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Fact: In late February, a high-level committee at New York’s Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft debated how to match the big associate raise. Fact: At roughly the same time, the firm was completing regular reviews of associate performance. Fact: In the days and weeks ahead, somewhere in the range of 10 to 15 associates were told to take steps toward leaving the firm, Cadwalader confirms. Were these pressured departures the result of tough fiscal choices or of tough quality assurance? As in most questions of causation, the answer is unclear. One anonymous ex-associate says that practice-group heads explicitly drew the link between these heave-hos and the need to raise salaries. Managing partner Bob Link denies that link. He says that, like most businesses, the firm routinely takes steps to winnow out employees who, for whatever reason, are not fitting in well. He stresses that these associates often are terrific at other firms and that Cadwalader gives them ample time to jobsearch. The reason for these partings clearly wasn’t a global crisis at Cadwalader. In 1999, the New York office grew 31 percent, tops in the city. Profits per partner have roughly doubled over five years, to $934,000. The dozen ex-associates that I interviewed left for every reason under the sun — one left to practice dunking a basketball. Most left freely and with positive feelings. But at least one associate feels scarred. As he remembers it, the firm gave him an excellent review, then trumped up some reasons for firing him two months later, citing overuse of Westlaw and a bad review by a colleague for whom he had never worked. In his recollection, a partner told him, “I know you think we’re assholes, and you’re right. But we have acted legally. You’re at will, and we can fire you.” “I feel like I’m being fired,” said the associate. “Well, if that makes you feel better….” Told of episodes like this, Link responds, “It’s natural for people to misreport and misperceive. We go through extensive efforts and reviews.” Cadwalader does have a history. In the notorious “Project Rightsize” of 1993-94, the firm shed 17 partners and ended up paying $2.5 million in damages for the wrongful termination of Florida rainmaker James W. Beasley Jr. Last summer, the firm confirmed, about eight associates were let go after evaluations. “It’s funny. When you’re interviewing from Cadwalader, everyone wants to know if you were fired,” says one who left voluntarily. Headhunters say that other firms may do the same sort of winnowing, but more subtly and gradually, and perhaps in smaller numbers. Associates resent any implication that if you leave Cadwalader, you stink. Au contraire, some say: If you’re not a star, not tight with your boss and you’re in a cold area, you’re vulnerable. This may not be a firm for the meek. “Because they’re paying a lot and giving a lot of perks, they think they don’t have to be civil,” says one ex-associate. Another reports a partner telling him after he (the associate) pulled an all-nighter, “I’m not going to hold your hand. There’s enough hand-holding here.” In fairness, these stories could have come from any big, bad New York firm, and they were outnumbered by bland expressions of loyalty. What are the larger lessons? First, if it’s at all true that the new salary hikes led to layoffs during the greatest boom in history, then clear the sidewalks when the recession hits. Second, this episode shows that the Internet is no antidote to Big Law’s ruthlessness. For all their whining, “Greedy Associates” promote a casual acceptance of capitalism’s excesses. Be careful what ye sow. Listen to the warped, mad-prophet wisdom of ex-Cadwalader chair Jack Fritts in a deposition in the Beasley case: “And life is not made up of love, it is made up of fear and greed and money — how much you get paid in large measure.”

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