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Three top law firms in New York say the impending recession hasn’t affected their recruiting and staffing plans, despite several reports to the contrary on Vault.com’s message boards. “I heard that about 20 junior attorneys at Weil got laid off lately due to insufficient work at the firm,” one poster asked last week on the Weil, Gotshal & Manges message board. “Is this true?” The Stroock & Stroock & Lavan message board cited the year-end firing of several associates and wondered if the cuts signaled an impending downturn in the legal industry. “[Can] anyone tell if that’s a fat trim or a signal for real troubles?” In an interview last week, a Stroock spokeswoman said the cuts took place because of performance reasons and not economic concerns. “We’re not actively downsizing our staff,” said Diane Cohen, Stroock’s director of legal personnel and recruiting. “In fact, we’re currently conducting a dozen or more lateral searches.” “We have a year-end review process, and during that process, we do speak to people or follow up with people, since we have a mid-year review as well,” Cohen added. “That happens every year.” The only unusual aspect of the cuts, Cohen said, was that they targeted unusually young lawyers who had only been at the firm for a couple of years. Young lawyers are typically given around three years to establish a sufficient and consistent billing practice. The salary explosion for young lawyers, prompted by leading New York City firms and their West Coast counterparts trying to outbid each other for top legal talent, may be forcing firms to weed out their weaker associates earlier than ever, said one experienced legal recruiter. “The increased compensation of associates is creating enormous downward pressure on partner profits,” said June Eichbaum, a partner with Heidrick & Struggles, a legal search firm. With firms unwilling to lower even inflated salaries, the cutting of weak staff may be necessary to ensure continued profits. “In my 14 years in legal search, I have yet to see a pullback in salary,” Eichbaum added. “It’s very hard to take something away from someone. It’s amazing how quickly a sense of entitlement develops.” “I don’t know how this grew to something on the Internet,” Cohen said. “It may be because the people were more junior than we typically see.” At Weil Gotshal, a spokesman denied rumors that layoffs followed insufficient caseloads. “It is inaccurate,” said Norman LaCroix, the firm’s chief financial officer. “In fact, we are still in the market looking for good associates.” LaCroix added that the firm’s litigation, intellectual property, and business reorganization practices all needed to fill associate openings. In addition, LaCroix said the firm’s corporate securitization practice hired three new associates in January. “We’re planning to bring in a full class in the summer and planning to bring in a full class in the fall, and have no unusual attrition objectives that we’ve planned or budgeted for or contemplated,” said LaCroix. At Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells, mentioned on its message board as another firm that’s laying off associates, a partner squelched those reports and instead boasted of a successful 2000 and a full caseload for 2001. “We’re in a hiring mode at this time,” said Jim Benedict, the head of Clifford Chance’s litigation practice. “We have more big cases now than we’ve ever had before.” In fact, a recession will likely help the firm, Benedict said. “When the markets turn down for any considerable time, you can be assured it will be followed by an increased pace of litigation,” Benedict said. “So to the extent the economy remains cloudy, litigation prospects remain the brightest.”

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