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There’s less work to go around. Attrition is down. And an associate who is not partner material is fired. This was a layoff: true or false? It’s euphemism time again at The Am Law 200 — 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 smells like a layoff. In retrospect, it all seems inevitable. For the last couple 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. Now what? It’s a question for the partners. Do they maintain their back bench strength as the economy slows? Can they get along without some of their less-than-stellar youngsters? Partly this is the meritocracy in action. But it’s also the bottom line — in the form of the partners’ shares — at work. 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 cull 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. “The thought was always to be up front,” says the firm’s relatively new national managing partner, Mark Solomon. Calling the cuts anything but layoffs, he says, “wasn’t even on the radar screen.” 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 Washington, D.C., legal public relations guru Jay Jaffe. Dewey Ballantine learned the hard way that bad news has a way of getting out. “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 by a certain date. (These associates, Jassy says, were told they could stay for three months and receive help finding a new job, or leave right away with four months’ salary.) 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.” Jassy asserts that other firms have probably made the same sort of year-end cuts, but Dewey was singled out. “You have an e-mail floating around. It’s tangible evidence,” he sighs. Morale at the firm plummeted. After the news hit, according to a Dewey associate who asked not to be identified, the firm’s hiring partner hosted two meetings for associates. The more senior associates were assured that the firm intends to keep them all. Dewey partners insist that things are now back to normal — “it’s part of life at a big firm, unfortunately,” says hiring partner Sean Moran — but the associate says the taint lingers. “The major flaw,” says this associate, “is that partners are not open and honest” about bonuses, retention, and promotions. 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 the layoffs came at the end of that month, they were announced at three separate Los Angeles meetings — one for partners, one for associates, and the third for staff. (Those being laid off were told in private meetings.) The firm issued a press release. “The experience was unpleasant, but I feel very strongly that secrets and trying to hide are silly,” says Harriet Welch, managing partner of the Los Angeles office. After a difficult transition, she says, morale among the survivors has improved: “[The layoffs] caused [the partners] to open their eyes and say, ‘This is my partnership. I care about it and my people.’ “ If you have to fire people, that’s not a bad way to come out of it.

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