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San Francisco-based Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison laid off 16 employees from its Concord, Calif., Technology Center last week, saying it was cutting support staff working on mass tort litigation that was winding down or had already ended. The announcement came just two days after Brobeck chairman Tower Snow Jr. told the firm in a videoconference that no one would be laid off at the firm because of the economic slowdown. Though firm managers acknowledge the timing may seem unfortunate, they contend Snow’s statement remains true: The support staff shown the door were part of an auxiliary staff they consider outside the regular firm workforce. They also said the layoffs were based not on the slowing economy, but on the fact that staffers laid off had analyzed medical records on a trio of mass tort cases. “Their skill sets were so tailored to these clients’ needs that we couldn’t find other positions that would be a fit,” said Allan Whitescarver, Brobeck’s director of communications. But some of the former workers say they were surprised by the firings — especially given Snow’s statement. “The severance checks were dated March 28,” the day of Snow’s announcement, said Donna Dennis, who was among those laid off on Friday. Dennis also bristled at the idea that workers could not be retrained for other jobs: “I think that’s a cop-out,” Dennis said. “Everyone was adaptable.” Another former staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said several of those laid off had already been moved between departments and learned other skills. “Some people started as file clerks and worked up to computer programmers and administrative assistants,” she said. Brobeck employs 1,200 non-lawyers in support staff positions firmwide. The Concord facility manages documents for mass tort litigation and employed 50 people until Friday’s layoffs. “We’ve always run it as auxiliary support to our legal practice,” firmwide managing partner James Burns Jr. said. “What’s happening now is nothing different or new. [We're] reacting to the evolution of that business and those cases. “This has nothing to do with the stock market or the tech market.” The layoffs, however, come at a time when San Francisco Bay Area firms — including Brobeck — have acknowledged they are looking to trim costs because of the slowing economy. The firm has cut practice group retreats for lawyers — at a savings of roughly $3 million a year. It’s also calling on lawyers to stage more video conferences and cut down on visiting other firm offices or flying to other cities for CLE classes. “We’ve told our paralegal staff and associates we will do everything to protect positions and not lay people off,” Burns said. But Burns says in Concord’s case, “their skill sets were so narrowly focused, it’s a different situation.” Gera Vaz, firmwide human resources director, said Brobeck gave Concord employees two weeks’ severance pay for each year of service, provided insurance coverage through the end of April, and paid for outplacement counselors to help the employees “so they knew they could land safely.”

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