If you like your comedy dark, track the law firm layoff news. There’s the partner at Pillsbury LLP who, seated on a crowded but quiet commuter train into NewYork City, conducted a loud cellphone conversation with a colleague at the office that revealed planned associate layoffs at the firm, right down to naming the names of pending victims. There’s McDermott Will & Emery in Chicago deciding to eliminate free coffee in the lobby of one floor of the firm’s offices, a move purportedly meant to express congruence with larger cuts but that came across to many observers as, you know, kind of chintzy. There’s the saga of a laid-off associate in the engaging Above The Law serial “Notes from the Breadline,” with updates like this:
The next morning I e-mail the partner to tell him that I’d like to talk to the client, explain my departure, and say goodbye. A few hours later, I have heard nothing in response, so I call him. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” the partner says breezily. “I talked to them already.” I ask him what he said. “I told them that you decided to ‘move along,’ if you know what I mean,” he answers. No, I think, I don’t know what you mean.
But whether firms choose to take the callous route, or seem to be trying to soften the blow (cf. Latham & Watkins’ severance, Simpson Thacher’s pro bono plan) the practical and human reality behind the thousands of layoff notices at big law firms is just plain ugly. I won’t bother trying to update the latest round of notices — suffice to say some of the biggest names in the US and UK legal profession are shedding anywhere from 10% to 20% of their associate workforce and an equivalent or greater number of staff. But when you look behind the rain of numbers, something interesting starts to emerge: the sense that these are just the warm-ups, not the main event.
First of all, cutting associates by the hundreds is not something you do if you expect the economy to turn around soon — otherwise, you’re just paying termination costs to people you’re going to have to rehire in less than a year. Firms understand perfectly well the negative fallout from layoffs, so a bloodletting on this scale indicates two things. One is that there’s no work for these people and none is expected soon, which must reflect what clients are telling firms about their own near-term prospects. The other is that firms don’t expect to need so many associates when things pick up again — partly because the post-recession workload won’t be as heavy, and partly because the good old days of stocking up on associates and riding their billable hours to profit are coming to a swift end. In other words, this isn’t just reducing headcount and expenses — this looks like the start of a fundamental and possibly permanent restructuring of the law firm model.
Secondly, there’s the other shoe that hasn’t yet dropped — partner cuts. With a few exceptions, we haven’t heard the ugly word “de-equitization” spoken much over the last several months. That might be because there won’t be any — that firms are confident that the associate and staff firings will be enough to safeguard profitability and keep the ship afloat, making more drastic moves unnecessary. Or it might be because the associate and staff cuts are the easy place to start, a non-controversial way to improve the bottom line short-term and give everyone a clearer picture of exactly what the profitability situation actually is. Once that picture emerges by early summer, and is overlaid with what the firms’ internal assessments are saying about the subsequent 12 to 18 months, then the second round of personnel explosions should start going off.
Most people would agree that many large law firms overhired, to at least some degree, on staff and associates — that’s why these cuts have come so large and so quickly. But what’s not talked about much is that many law firms are also over-partnered. The Boomer generation has swelled the ranks of law firms partnerships just as it swelled the upper ranks of every business and organization in North America. I think you’d have a hard time maintaining that all those partnerships were equally earned on merit and productivity — or that, if they were up for partnership today, all or most of those lawyers would get serious consideration. Gen-X lawyers have complained for years about how the Boomers took all the best seats at the table largely by virtue of arriving first. I think we’re starting to see the same thought occur, belatedly, to the partners themselves.
Most law firms of any size are riddled with inefficiencies, from how they bill to how they compensate to how they process tasks to how they hire. We’re beginning to see, through the steady rise of flat fees and customized pay and automation and outsourcing, each of these inefficiencies start to be squeezed out of the system. Through all of this, one inefficiency — the composition of partnerships — has been all but sacrosanct. I think we’re a few months and a deepening recession away from seeing that final wall breached.