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Donna Dennis remembers the day she was walked out of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison’s Concord, Calif., technology center. Brobeck’s announcement on Friday, March 30, that she and 15 other employees in the San Francisco East Bay facility were getting the axe left her stunned. After all, as she understood it, chairman Tower Snow Jr. had told her and all of Brobeck’s employees just two days earlier, in a firmwide video conference, that there would be no layoffs because of the economic slowdown. “No layoffs,” she heard. “It was a very complete surprise to us,” Dennis said. “Everyone thought we were secure, from what Tower Snow said in his video conference.” Snow insists the cuts have nothing to do with the economy, but rather with the conclusion of mass tort litigation those staff were assigned to. Still, although no other mass cuts have been reported yet, legal support staff throughout the San Francisco Bay Area can feel things tightening. Firms are trying to cut costs any way they can while holding on to their staffs. And whereas last year’s hires filled both vacated and abundant new support staff positions, this year’s hires appear to be mostly for replacement — if that. “If someone on support staff leaves, we’ll ask, ‘Do we have to replace that position or can someone else pick up the work?’ ” said Cheri Vailancour, director of human resources at Fenwick & West. Silicon Valley firms like Fenwick, Cooley Godward and Venture Law Group are keeping their staffs abreast of how the economic downturn is affecting their firms’ budgets. So far, their candor has paid off by alleviating fears of layoffs and prompting some staff to volunteer for the extra work that accumulates when other staff take off. “We’re also being very careful with our hiring,” said Donald Keller Jr., a partner at Venture Law Group. “We’re not in a mode to be wasteful.” Fenwick’s Vailancour remembers a recent Tuesday meeting she had with some of the firm’s support staff. She said two operators in document production had left Fenwick, and the firm wasn’t seeing attractive applicants to replace the pair. In a cost-saving measure, two employees offered to pick up the slack. “Two evening people agreed to come in two hours early,” she said. “I think people were excited in solving these problems by being creative.” The meetings also give Vailancour the chance to reassure the support staff that weathering the downturn is a team effort and that she anticipates no change in the standards for the firm’s performance-based reviews. Mozhgan Mizban, director of client services at Cooley, said the firm’s new leaders, Stephen Neal and Mark Pitchford, took a national road trip in late February and March to all of Cooley’s offices. She said the pair toured in part to explain the new management structure to the firm’s staff, and also to explain how the firm is coping with the economic slump. “I guess that helped to alleviate any panic,” she said. “There would have been a lot of questions.” Perhaps most important, Mizban hears secretaries and paralegals tell her that work still flows on their desks and that they are keeping busy. As long as that continues, Mizban doesn’t anticipate a panic state. HANGING ONTO PERKS The downturn is likely to have an impact on raises and perks, though so far it appears to have been minimal. “We certainly have made a decision to give raises,” said Cooley’s Mizban, “but commensurate with how the firm does this year. We don’t know how things are going to play out.” Mizban said the firm hasn’t cut back on any staff perks, including staff appreciation week from April 23 to 27, but she also said it’s too soon to tell exactly what may be a dollar-saving option down the line. Mary Tumakay, a legal secretary in Cooley’s mergers and acquisitions department, said she appreciates Cooley’s perks. The firm pays for its support staff to attend trade association meetings and for 20 days a year of free child care. It also dishes out some plush bonuses. But she knows those kinds of extras aren’t essential when it comes time to pay her bills. “The bottom line is, ‘Do you have a job?’ ” she said. VLG’s Keller said that to the best of his knowledge, legal support staff at the firm still get most all the traditional perks, except for one small thing. “We took a trip to Las Vegas last year. I don’t think we’ll be doing that this year,” he said. Beverly Kundracik, a paralegal in estate planning on leave from Quillinan & Luce in Mountain View, Calif., said the bull economy was great for attendance at the Palo Alto, Calif., Legal Secretaries Association meetings. Firms paid for their secretaries to attend association dinners. Soon, the packed dinners may be a thing of the past, said Kundracik, Palo Alto Legal Secretaries Association president. “I think [firms] were talking about cutbacks in benefits,” she said. “I don’t know if they’ll cut anything out, but they’ll be more selective.” Despite the tightening economy and any talks of cutbacks in perks, even support staff at some of the most tech-heavy firms around feel relatively safe. “I’m calling [the slowdown] just a blip on the screen,” said Jennie Crawford, a senior paralegal at Venture Law Group. “I mean, we have a lot of long-term employees here. It’s that we’re built to last.” Crawford said her workload has actually increased lately. Keller said that although profits are down somewhat compared to the comparable quarter in 2000, the firm has landed 35 companies as new clients this year. And staff at midsized firms like Farella Braun & Martel in San Francisco and smaller firms around the Bay Area are fairly safe, because a healthy amount of work still comes their way and because at smaller firms there simply isn’t much excess to cut. “The big firms seem to have frozen their hiring and recruiting,” said Helen Yune, a paralegal in estate planning and probate at Farella Braun. “But the small firms seem to be doing well.” Paralegals like Yune can feel especially good, according to support staff recruiter Carol Kearney of Kearney, Boyle & Associates. So far, Kearney said, the only significant drop she’s seen is for trademark work. The need remains strong in areas like corporate law, estate planning, employment law, litigation and — to no one’s surprise — in bankruptcy. While paralegals in more stable practice areas may be relatively safe, Beth Palmer, division director for permanent placement at The Affiliates, said secretaries may be shielded even better from a threatening economy. “We are seeing fewer and fewer people entering the profession,” Palmer said. Since the supply of qualified legal secretaries hasn’t kept up with the demand, Palmer said there will likely always be a job for a good legal secretary. Paralegals who’ve weathered tough times before understand the cycle. “I’ve been through a couple slowdowns before,” said VLG’s Crawford. “The market might shift, but you adjust, and then you’re off and running again.” RELATED STORIES Read other storiesfrom California Legal Pro. Insights for the otherlegal professionals include a story about The Arc, a nonprofit that matches developmentally disabled workers with jobs at law firms, the tale of a New Jersey legal assistant who appears in three episodes of “The Sopranos,” and a profile of a paralegal who spent 200 hours last year volunteering and was honored by her firm.

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