Biglaw, Cellphones, Layoffs, Partner Issues, Rudeness

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to New York
(Or: Pillsbury associates, brace yourselves.)

Acela Business Class Amtrak.jpgLaw firm partners need to watch more Gossip Girl. If they did, they’d learn the perils of talking about private matters in public places. In the age of BlackBerrys, texting, and cameraphones, it’s ridiculously easy for tipsters to leak details of overheard conversations and not-so-secret rendezvous to their favorite online gossip girl (or boy — XOXO, Lat).

Last year, we wrote about a Thelen partner who was overheard discussing her firm’s layoffs on the subway. Last night, we received this information, from a law student traveling from D.C. to New York:

This afternoon I boarded a train from Washington bound for Penn Station…. I, along with all of the other passengers, were sitting quietly when the man directly behind me decided to make a phone call using his bluetooth. He was talking so loudly that I think most people in the car were able to hear him.

His conversation, though he stressed how necessary it was to be kept secret (ah, the irony), detailed the current plans of Pillsbury to lay off somewhere in the range of 15-20 attorneys from four offices by the end of March, including a few senior associates with low billable hours and two or three first-year associates. I wouldn’t have believed it except for the fact that he identified himself to the call as Bob Robbins, who I learned is the leader of the firm’s Corporate & Securities practice section, and was talking to Rick Donaldson, who I learned was COO. What’s more, he was NAMING NAMES over the phone!

After we expressed skepticism over this wild story, including the tipster’s ability to catch the names of both Robbins and Donaldson, we received this response:

Robert Robbins Bob Robbins Pillsbury Winthrop.jpgI agree it’s pretty wild. I wasn’t trying to overhear, but I had no choice because of the proximity. The name “Robbins” I remembered because he said it so damn loud. I went to their website, and the picture [at right] was an exact match. He was big enough to fit almost two chairs.

“Donaldson” I didn’t remember as clearly. I remembered that it began with a “Do” and thought it was “Dotson,” but there was no “Dotson” on the site — just “Donaldson.” Also, he called him “Rick” a few times.

Says our source, in explaining the decision to tip off ATL:

Before today, I have never even considered posting on this website, but I was so mortified by my experience…. I’ve heard of attorneys being reprimanded for discussing client matters in an elevator. Where does airing your own firm’s dirty laundry on an express train fit on the list? I don’t know if there is a way that you can independently verify this, but if so, please do.

Partial verification, after the jump.

Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP logo layoff firing.jpgBack when we posted the tale of the loose-lipped Thelen partner, we received some skeptical responses. While nobody disputed the wisdom of our advice, routinely given to incoming law firm associates — don’t have private discussions in public places — a few readers said they found the Thelen subway story improbable. [FN1]

So this time around, we decided to do some extra fact-checking. See below. (“Jen Everest” is one of our online alter egos.)

From: Jennifer Everest []
Sent: Thursday, February 19, 2009 12:49 AM
To: Robert Robbins
Subject: Acela – DC to NY

Were you by any chance on an Amtrak train from Washington to New York earlier this evening (Wednesday night)?


From: Robert B. Robbins
Subject: RE: Acela – DC to NY
Date: Thursday, February 19, 2009, 12:52 AM

I was on the 2:00 train this afternoon. Do I know you? Did you find something I had left?

Why yes, Bob. Your discretion.

After getting all Food Lion on his ass, we decided to be more respectable. We emailed Rob Robbins from our Above the Law email account, disclosed our ATL affiliation, and offered him the chance to comment on our tipster’s tale. We haven’t heard back from him.

Here’s some additional corroboration. Pillsbury’s revenues and profits were down last year, and the firm has already confessed to trimming headcount through “performance-based” dismissals. Performance-based dismissals and/or “stealth” layoffs are often followed by “official,” openly acknowledged layoffs. So the news that Pillsbury might be contemplating additional headcount reductions should not be shocking.

If you’re a senior associate at Pillsbury Winthrop with low billable hours, you might want to start dusting off the old résumé. Good luck.

Update: The firm has issued a statement to The Recorder, confirming that layoffs are on the way and “apologiz[ing] for the unfortunate manner in which our deliberations about reductions have become public.”

Further Update: In internal meetings, the firm has questioned various aspects of this account (but not the overall gist of it). One of their quibbles: they deny that Robbins was talking to Rick Donaldson.

[FN1] We wonder if indiscretion is infectious. After the Thelen dissolution, Pillsbury picked up a bunch of Thelen partners. Did it pick up some bad habits, too?

P.S. When it comes to younger members of the legal profession, like law students or summer associates, we sometimes keep them anonymous (on the theory that they’re like juveniles in the criminal justice system; their youthful indiscretions shouldn’t haunt them forever, or at least before they’re admitted to practice).

But partners, practice heads and COOs, of Am Law 100 and Vault 100 law firms, are a different story entirely. They are distinguished, longstanding members of the profession. They are big boys and girls, with big paychecks (and often big egos), who can handle a little publicity every now and then.

Further Further Update: A follow-up post appears here.

Pillsbury Manages Level Year [The Recorder]
Pillsbury Confirms Loudmouth’s Layoff Gaffe [Legal Pad / The Recorder via Am Law Daily]

Earlier: ATL Practice Pointer: Don’t Discuss Private Matters in Public Places (Or: A Thelen partner’s reaction to ATL layoff coverage)

(hidden for your protection)

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