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In a last-ditch effort to avoid layoffs, San Francisco-based Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison is offering to pay underperforming associates in its business and technology group as much as five months’ salary to leave the firm. The so-called “separation incentive program” is open to associates who will have billed less than 1,300 hours by the end of the year. Brobeck expects associates to bill a minimum of 1,950 hours per year. Those who sign up for the program will receive a lump sum equal to their base salary through April 15. They have until Dec. 6 to take the offer. Associates were informed of the program in an e-mail Friday. Partners hand-delivered the memo, along with documents detailing the plan, to eligible associates. The firm declined to say how many of the 265 associates in its business and technology group are eligible for the buyout. But one associate said most of the attorneys in the group will not bill 1,300 hours by the end of the year. The program was announced the day after Brobeck’s new management team took the helm. Firmwide managing partner Richard Parker said the idea had been under discussion for months as a possible alternative to layoffs. “We would like to explore as many alternatives out there before taking a final step,” Parker said, adding that the firm is “hoping to avoid taking a final step.” Parker said the firm has no target number of associates that it would like to take the offer, but he said this was “clearly a plan to separate a large number of people.” He said if associates don’t accept the offer at a “material level,” the firm would again have to consider layoffs. Brobeck does not know how much the buyout will cost the firm. Communications director Allan Whitescarver said those eligible for the program range from first-years to senior associates. But Parker said attorneys that have most recently joined the firm have had the hardest time finding work and developing client relationships. Associate reaction to the offer has been favorable. “I guess it’s relatively positive,” said one associate in the business and technology group. “Given the fact we were expecting to be terminated, people feel pretty good.” “No one’s saying ‘Brobeck is the best,’ ” said another associate. “ But it’s not a bad offer.” Those eligible for the plan are worried they will be “looked upon as second-class Brobeckians,” the associate added. Another associate was more upbeat. “People are surprised,” he said. “It’s an incredibly generous offer when you compare it to what other firms are doing.” Parker, who is based in the firm’s San Diego office, said two associates in his office were notified that they were eligible for the program. He said their reactions were very different. One of them said he “actually thought the partners were crazy not to have done something earlier,” Parker said. “He thought they were more generous than he would have been.” The other associate “had a much more emotional response to it,” Parker said. “Her final comment was ‘my timing [in joining Brobeck] really sucked.’ “ It’s unclear whether Brobeck will be able to head off future layoffs. To date seven San Francisco Bay Area firms have officially cut their associate ranks as a result of the downturn in the economy. Cooley Godward led the way, laying off 86 associates in August. They received up to three months’ salary in severance pay. Cooley Godward did not consider implementing a voluntary program, said Mark Pitchford, the firm’s chief operating officer. “While we looked at a lot of things, we felt the direct and immediate approach was the way to go.” Brobeck’s program “is sort of an interesting approach,” Pitchford said. “The question is, in the current environment how likely are people to accept it given the choices available” outside the firm. In addition to their salary, associates who opt to separate from the firm will receive three months of outplacement assistance plus their share of the firm’s investment pool. Brobeck has been trying to cut costs and avoid layoff during the past year. In August, the firm offered partners and associates the opportunity to take a monthlong sabbatical or work fewer days during the week. Parker said the number of attorneys who participated in this program was “not very significant.” Other cost controls have made it difficult to grow the practice areas still doing well, Parker said. The good intention of protecting everyone “became debilitating,” Parker said. “You can try to hang on as long as possible. Sooner or later, [there are] other realities than loyalties to people.”

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