Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Last Thursday’s decision by Cooley Godward to lay off 86 associates was a very public step in a year-long effort by San Francisco Bay Area firms to trim their attorney ranks in the wake of the tech economy’s collapse. The 10 highest-grossing Bay Area firms have 261 fewer lawyers than they had at the beginning of the year, enough attorneys to staff a firm roughly the size of McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen. Attrition clearly accounts for some of the losses, but firms also acknowledge they have aggressively eliminated under-billing associates through stricter performance reviews. No surprise, the biggest declines have come at firms that bet heavily on the tech sector. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati has seen its ranks slide by 75 lawyers since January — or roughly 10 percent of the firm’s attorneys. At Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, 63 fewer attorneys are on staff, and Morrison & Foerster — which hailed its climb to 1,000-plus attorneys last November — has since dipped back to 946. “You’re kidding,” said one recruiter, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If someone said a firm lost 30 to 40 attorneys I wouldn’t blink … the number 70 is more than you would expect.” And though recruiter Marty Africa said the numbers fall within mean attrition rates at most firms, firms with once flourishing corporate practices are “piddling out people like an old lady that’s lost control of her bladder,” Africa said. MoFo and Brobeck firm managers agree that they have cut some associates in the wake of poor performance reviews. But they contend the majority of departures have been due to attrition. “I expect we will end the year at roughly the same size as last year,” said MoFo Chairman Keith Wetmore, adding that 82 associates will be joining the firm in the fall. “Attrition this year looks like the average.” Brobeck managing partner James Burns Jr. said the drop-off in attorneys was “a pretty normal state of affairs.” While he didn’t specify the number of performance-based departures, he said the level was the same as last year. “What’s changed is we’re not in the lateral market,” Burns said. Rather than hiring attorneys, the firm is redeploying lawyers from one practice group to another. Wilson Sonsini also chalked up its 10 percent drop in attorneys to the normal rate of attrition. “The number of departing attorneys is similar to years past, but is actually lower than last year,” said Donna Petkanics, managing partner of operations. “Overall head count is lower only because we haven’t hired at the same frenetic pace.” The biggest declines, of course, are at Cooley Godward. On Friday, associates and staff continued to grapple with the aftermath of Thursday’s layoff announcement. The firm still is not releasing a geographic breakdown of where layoffs occurred. But at the firm’s San Diego office, an associate who was fired said he was among 12 there who got the ax. He said he wasn’t sure about an exact number of nonattorney staff cut from the outpost, but he estimated it was about 15 percent of office personnel. That included a recruiter, administrative staff and a few secretaries. The associate said the cuts were primarily senior associates — a move that would trim the number of people who would be eligible for partner in the next two years. “You could see it was coming up,” he said. “They weren’t going to make them all partner.” In order to get a severance package, associates were asked by the firm to sign a confidentiality agreement, he said, and he asked that his name not be used for this story. At Cooley Godward’s main office in Palo Alto, Calif., the firm’s managers were barraged with media calls throughout Thursday from national and local media outlets. The press onslaught spilled over onto other firm managers, who said they felt under siege because of the onslaught of unwanted attention. The key question posed to Cooley Godward’s competitors: Who will be the next to lay off associates? That answer was no clearer on Friday, but firms that have seen associate numbers slide may be able to buy some time before another big layoff is announced. Cutting staff has also helped big firms reduce their bottom lines. Since January, Cooley Godward has seen the number of nonlawyer employees drop by 15.8 percent to 797. At Brobeck, the number is down 11.5 percent to 1,020. MoFo, however, boosted its staff by 3.8 percent, to 1,375, and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe raised its levels by 9.5 percent to 898. Recruiter Beth Palmer, of The Affiliates, said hiring is tied to practice areas. Paralegals and secretaries with two to five years of litigation experience “can almost write their own ticket,” Palmer said. She added that junior secretaries and paralegals are not faring as well, perhaps because work they previously handled is now being handed off to junior associates. For the less experienced professionals, she said, “it’s probably taking longer to find a position than it was six to nine months ago.” For firms that didn’t gain as significant a toehold in the tech economy, the financial news has been mixed. Thelen Reid & Priest actually laid off a small number of associates in the spring. Firm spokesman John Heisse said the cuts were the result of having added too many IP attorneys prior to the economic downturn. But some are defying the downward trend. Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe has actually boosted its ranks by 73 lawyers, a 13.9 percent increase. Heller Ehrman attributes its increases to its diverse practice, which includes strong antitrust, energy, complex commercial litigation and biotechnology practices. “We definitely weren’t as sexy as some of our competitors” during the dot-com craze, said Barry Levin, Heller Ehrman’s chairman. “But I think our strategy of having a more diverse practice base will serve us well.”

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.