Don’t blame the recession

Bear with me for a moment while I start with a media story. The Washington Post has announced another round of buyouts of writers and editors, including several very senior and respected professionals. Commenting on the impact of the mass exodus is Post writer Howard Kurtz (HT to Rob Hyndman), who notes:

“The talented reporters, editors and photographers walking out the door are part of the heart and soul of a living, breathing organism. How do you replace a Tom Ricks, one of the best Pentagon reporters ever? Or a Sue Schmidt, the investigative reporter who revealed Jack Abramoff‘s dirty dealings? Or Robin Wright, who’s covered the Middle East for a quarter-century? What about battle-scarred editors with deep knowledge and a light touch?

I know, I know. The future is digital. … That’s why The Post (and every other paper on the planet) is beefing up its online presence and why I write a daily blog for the Web site. But — and stop me if you’ve heard this one — newspapers matter. … The economics of the Web, for now, won’t support a staff that can hold public officials accountable across the region and still cover every Nationals game.

Now, if these talented, even legendary professionals are the heart and soul of a great newspaper that does important work, why exactly is the Post is clearing them out? Does a struggling manufacturer discontinue its best products?

Yes, I know newspaper circulation is down, at the Post and elsewhere, and that the web is the future. But good reporting on the web requires the same courage and tenacity demanded by print reporting — and with those qualities not yet in abundance in web journalism, that’s all the more reason the Post should retain its best assets and further strengthen a powerful brand-name advantage that’s the envy of most other newspapers.

“No one yet knows how to monetize web news,” the Post could have said, “but we figure outstanding journalism matters no matter where it appears. We’re going to lean into the wind and reinforce our prize-winning team in the face of change and contraction.” Instead, the message the Post has sent comes down to: “Times are tough, so we’re jettisoning our best and brightest in the hopes that lower costs will restore our profit margins.” That kind of thinking isn’t the Internet’s fault.

This brings me back to the law, because the Post‘s plight reminds me of a number of stories in the legal press about law firms “de-equitizing” partners, cutting associates, and even firing secretaries with the recession setting in.

To my mind, firms that cull talent when times get tough invariably do so for one of two reasons. Either they’re taking advantage of “recession” talk to clear out people who no longer contribute to the required degree, or they’re throwing bodies over the side to maintain profit per equity partner. In neither case is the firm in real financial danger or facing serious questions of whether it can continue to operate; we’re not talking automobile or even newspaper industry levels of desperation. These firms no doubt think they’re being clever, sidestepping responsibility for their actions by blaming “the downturn” or whatever.

But a law firm that blames the economy for layoffs is the same as a newspaper that blames the Internet for buyouts: it sends the message that when the going gets tough, we quit. We’ll pull in our oars (and cast off ballast) when the sea gets choppy. We lack confidence that the team we’ve assembled can weather adverse conditions beyond our control. And by the way, we’ve recently been employing (and generously compensating) several extremely expendable people, some of whom were probably working on your files, valued client.

All of this is to say: there are no conditions in which it’s wise to cite the economy or the marketplace for decisions to fire people. If your firm isn’t facing real hardship, then blaming the recession tells everyone you put profits ahead of people (and lie about it), which potential recruits will remember and clients will wonder about. If you are facing real hardship, announcing layoffs as survival tactics will mark you out as prey for aggressive rivals and damage your status in clients’ eyes.

And if you’re genuinely concerned about the recession but don’t know what to do, learn the lesson the Washington Post missed: lean into the wind, stock up on premium talent, and answer the marketplace’s challenge with conviction and authority.



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