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It’s euphemism time again at big law firms — that point in the business cycle when stringent review standards are dusted off to justify “performance-based cuts,” and gardening metaphors — notably “pruning” and “weeding” — are suddenly in vogue. But let’s face it: A pruning by any other name feels a lot like a layoff. In retrospect, it all seems inevitable. For the last couple of years, firms bulked up their associate ranks as they struggled to keep pace with more work than they could handle. Then, to improve retention, they raised salaries drastically, just as the flurry of new-economy work ended. Now the firms are crammed with richly paid associates who have less work to do, and fewer job opportunities elsewhere. What’s next for partners? Do they maintain their back bench strength as the economy slows? Can they get along without some of their less-than-stellar youngsters? Just how much will they give up to keep associates who aren’t staying for life anyway? Many managing partners we talked to aren’t shy about the need to trim the ranks, but they are loath to admit to layoffs. Whatever is going on, it has associates bracing themselves — with good reason. In February, for example, New York’s Dewey Ballantine told 17 associates to leave. A month earlier Cleveland’s Arter & Hadden told 16 partners and associates in its Los Angeles office to find new jobs. Arter & Hadden showed courage when it announced its January layoffs, attributing them not to the performance of the lawyers, but to a slowdown in business. Then again, maybe Arter & Hadden was just being smart. Internet message boards like Greedy Associates are rife with rumors about which firm will be the next to issue bad news. People will find out what firms have done and judge them for it. “You can’t hide anymore. There are too many outlets,” says D.C. legal public relations guru Jay Jaffe. Dewey Ballantine learned the hard way. “We’ve become the poster child for layoffs,” laments Everett Jassy, chairman of the firm’s management committee. Jassy says that low-performing associates at Dewey have always been given candid biannual reviews, which normally take place in June and December. This year, he says, because attrition is down, some lawyers were told to leave regardless of the review schedule. The firm did not specifically ask the associates to keep quiet about the cuts. “For their sake and their own interests,” Jassy says, “it was assumed they wouldn’t talk.” But one jilted senior associate did, sending out an e-mail to lawyers at Dewey and other firms. Soon enough, the front page of The New York Law Journal proclaimed: “Dewey Lays Off Associates as Attrition Slows.” Morale at the firm plummeted. But Dewey partners say that, after meetings with associates, things are back to normal. Arter & Hadden, on the other hand, seems to have emerged from its cutbacks unscathed. In January, when it had been made clear that the L.A. office needed to scale back, firm management and a variety of Los Angeles partners consulted the firm’s labor lawyers and human resources department, among others, to determine the best way to go about making the cuts. When layoffs came at the end of that month, they were announced publicly, both at the firm and in a press release. “The experience was unpleasant,” says Harriet Welch, managing partner of the Los Angeles office, “but I feel very strongly that secrets and trying to hide are silly.”

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