Attorney cuts at Dechert have continued with an additional 10 staff attorneys being laid off Wednesday.

The firm would only confirm that 10 staff attorneys were let go for economic reasons. As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 76 people listed on the firm’s Web site under the “staff attorney” category with some being referred to as senior staff attorneys.

These layoffs are the latest in a number of cuts made by the firm. Most recently, Dechert laid off 19 attorneys across its U.S. offices Feb. 12. That group included associates and counsel. The cuts were done on a day that soon came to be known as “Black Thursday” as several firms collectively laid off hundreds of staff and attorneys.

Dechert’s other run-in with attorney cuts came back in March 2008 when it laid off 13 associates in the finance and real estate department. Those attorneys were quickly offered temporary assignments in other practice groups, and some accepted the offer.

The majority of Dechert’s layoffs in 2008 were focused on staff, with 72 positions cut in December in the United States and another 15 in London.

The going rate for severance packages for Dechert attorneys has reportedly been three months’ severance, six months of paid medical benefits and transition placement support. A spokeswoman for Dechert said the staff attorneys would be receiving “separation packages.”

A Future for Staff Attorneys

Whether staff attorneys are easy targets for layoffs isn’t a black-and-white issue, recruiter Robert Nourian of Coleman Nourian said.

Staff attorneys are generally non-partner track attorneys who are earning less than their partner-track counterparts. They are often used on matters for which a firm would like to provide services to clients but couldn’t justify charging typical firm rates for that work, he said.

In order to find ways to handle that work in a cost-effective manner, firms will hire highly qualified attorneys who don’t necessarily want to work partner-track hours, he said. Whether staff attorneys would be the first cuts in a tough economy depends on where the work is. Those attorneys are used more on the litigation side than on corporate matters but are doing work associated more closely with a typical associate rather than the document review work done by contract attorneys.

“If the work is slowing down in a practice group that has staff attorneys, then, yes, it’s probably an easy target,” Nourian said. “But I don’t know that it’s the natural selection.”

It might make more sense, particularly in this economy, to keep the attorneys who are charging out at a lesser rate and drawing a lesser salary. The matters they are handling may require it, he said.

The use of staff attorneys has been an ever-growing trend in large, commercial law firms over the past few years, Nourian said. And despite any temporary temptation to cut those attorneys, he said he thinks they will become all the more popular in the long run as firms look to meet client demands for cost savings.

Staff attorneys may also be the solution for firms that are increasingly limiting the number of attorneys who make it to the equity partner tier. Instead of having to make tough decisions about who would move up or out, firms can have a tier of attorneys who have no expectation of making partner. •