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When Cara Lee Macdonald was hired in July as Broad and Cassel’s first in-house recruiter in Miami, she quickly realized she’d walked into potential trouble. Within months of taking the job as director of professional placement and development, she was faced with the unenviable task of recruiting new associates just when the firm had become the first in South Florida to lay off attorneys in response to the national recession. At that time, Broad and Cassel had furloughed as many as six attorneys and a dozen support staff in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. But Macdonald had already learned one of the great lessons of recent American political and business history: The cover-up gets you into more trouble than the crime. Once word of the layoffs was out, Macdonald’s response was to acknowledge, explain and emphasize the positive. “We were determined to proceed with our normal fall recruiting at the law schools,” she says. Macdonald’s recipe for damage control is sound recruiting technique, says Paula Patton, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, a recruitment professionals trade group based in Washington, D.C. She says firms should resist the temptation to describe layoffs as “just normal attrition” or to claim they were performance-based. “Disguising things just provokes rumor,” Patton says. “Layoffs hit the press or the campus grapevine and take off like mushrooms.” Worst of all is when evasion fails and the truth emerges, poisoning relations with the recruiter’s key audiences. Recruitment officers at law schools hate to be blind-sided, Patton says. As for professional search consultants, she says, “You’ll need them again when business picks up.” Patton advises law firms to respect the sophistication of their recruiting targets. When layoffs happen, “just tell the truth,” she says. “Everyone can understand a business-driven decision.” Macdonald put Broad and Cassel’s layoffs into the best possible light. In talking to law school recruiting coordinators, she framed the job actions as part of an overall strategy for adjusting to a shrinking market. Describing a visit by Miami office managing partner Mike Segal with University of Miami law students last fall, Macdonald recalls that Segal told them straight up, “We did cut back and you’ll be seeing other firms do the same.” She points out that Segal proved to be right. Macdonald believes the firm’s openness put a stop to any “wild rumors” and left her free to talk up the firm’s strengths. She says the firm experienced double-digit growth in both revenue and net income in 2001, had a net gain in number of attorneys, and is “100 percent debt-free.” That kind of transparency isn’t always easy to achieve, says Adolfo Jimenez, hiring partner in the Miami office of Holland & Knight, which has responded to a fall-off in revenues by freezing this year’s round of step raises for associates. Jimenez says Holland had tried to announce the move “as quickly and openly as possible” but that “the firm’s size made the decision-making process slow.” He agrees that the elimination of the lock-step salary system has given the appearance of “a certain amount of instability” and that the delay in breaking the news created a “risk of misinformation.” “We’re reassuring our associates,” Jimenez says, and when it comes time for on-campus recruiting, “we’ll let the grads talk one-on-one with the associates.” In any case, the Holland salary restructuring is “nothing drastic,” Jimenez says, and he doesn’t anticipate any difficulty in recruiting. The firm has 11 summer associates slated for this year and the firm hopes to hire them all, he says. “Based on the numbers, the need will be there.” At Atlas Pearlman in Fort Lauderdale, which recently suffered the loss of two partners focused on corporate and securities litigation — a practice area hit hard by the recession — founding partner Charles Pearlman says he’s trying to be “upbeat and honest.” He acknowledges that the firm’s business is off from last year and says there’s “no point in trying to hang on to partners who aren’t happy.” But Pearlman says the firm’s core practice groups — commercial litigation, and corporate and securities transactions — are unaffected by the departures. The firm is committed to adding at least one attorney to its corporate transaction group, he says, and will hire its usual complement of two summer associates. Janet Masseri, director of career development at Nova Southeastern University’s law school, says the troubled economy hasn’t led to any drop in recruiting efforts on her campus. But she says law firms are focused on summer associates, not full-time hires. “A number of firms have told me their only new permanent associates would be laterals,” Masseri says. She attributes that to the Internet-related explosion in associates’ compensation in 1999 and 2000. “At the present inflated salaries, they’d rather have someone with experience and a client list,” she says. Masseri says the legal community’s economic uncertainty is compromising recruiting efforts in other ways as well. She’s had some cases in which firms have recruited, indicated a strong interest in a candidate, but deferred on hiring commitments for three to six months. In other instances, firms have called back for second interviews, then delayed them for weeks. “Students have loans to pay, families to support,” she says. “Firms dissipate trust by making an offer and then reneging.” But the fact that law firms feel the need to stay engaged in the recruiting process even when they’re feeling an economic squeeze shows that firms have learned an important lesson from the last economic recession, says Pete Peterson, a senior consultant with Hildebrandt International in San Francisco. “In the early ’90s, firms cut with a dull knife,” he says. But when the economy rebounded, “they had to scramble to get back to strength.” It’s hard to remember this when things get tough, Peterson says. But firms should keep on recruiting. “You’ve got to keep the farm club system in place,” he points out.

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