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Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison Chairman Tower Snow Jr. is squeezing all the juice he can out of this lemon. On Tuesday, the 950-attorney firm announced a voluntary program that will let partners and associates take unpaid time off without losing their benefits. The plan, the first of its kind for the San Francisco-based firm, gives lawyer the option of taking a month-long sabbatical or working, say, three days a week. The offer expires at year’s end. It is the latest in a string of increasingly severe cost measures that Brobeck has taken in the face of a wilting economy. The once high-flying tech firm has been struggling through the market slowdown, leaving partners to wonder if last year’s average $1.17 million draw was just a fluke. Brobeck’s average billable hours are down about 12 percent, according to Snow, and the commensurate drop in income could be significant. Snow declined to elaborate further. The economy’s persistent malaise has put Snow in a bit of a quandary. While other firms mull pink slips, Snow has repeatedly sworn that Brobeck will not cut muscle by laying off lawyers — a bold statement given that staff salaries are by far the single largest law firm expense. What’s more, Brobeck grew 60 percent — a staggering 330-plus attorneys — in 2000. Lowering body count would, in some respects, be the obvious remedy. Snow has also ruled out compensation cuts. Snow on Tuesday said he intends to keep his word even if the hoped-for economic rebound remains a mirage. “The talent,” he said, “is too hard to find.” Any short-term gains would be offset by long-term pain when the economy turns, he said. Snow’s policy has led to a number of creative measures aimed at saving a buck here and there. Among the expenses slashed: meals, travel and entertainment on the firm’s dime, messenger services and staff overtime. All told, Snow is hoping to lop $30 million off the ledger. Despite the fanfare surrounding Tuesday’s announcement, the new time-off program isn’t likely to generate much extra cash. Snow expects, at most, to save $2 million. That amounts to about $9,950 per equity partner, just enough for an extra family vacation or two. And it remains to be seen how many idle lawyers, already unnerved by the precarious job market, will risk an absence. Not everyone is going to have the option. Any leave requires approval from the practice group head. Snow said it’s unlikely that intellectual property and securities litigators will be able to take time off. With layoffs and salary cuts off the table, Brobeck administrators began contemplating alternatives a few months ago. “We’ve got a bunch of people sitting around twiddling their thumbs,” explained spokesman Allan Whitescarver. In the past, Brobeck has allowed lawyers to take time off on an ad hoc basis. Snow said he expects between 50 and 80 attorneys to go on leave. Tuesday Snow said he’d already received two dozen requests, mostly from corporate lawyers. By the time they return full time, Snow expects business will once again be brisk. Still, it’s bound to get worse before it gets better. Wednesday marked the start of the annual August slowdown on Wall Street. If corporate America starts doing deals again, it won’t happen until after Labor Day.

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