Staff Attorneys / Discovery Attorneys, Staff Layoffs, Yolanda Young

Covington & Burling Staff Attorneys: An Endangered Species?

staff attorney contract attorney doc review.jpgIn March, we reported that Skadden was essentially canceling its staff attorney program. We reported:

Only staff attorneys that were “integral” to ongoing matters have been kept on. And there is no word on whether those people will have any job security after their matters wrap up.

It appears that Covington & Burling is also undergoing a major reduction of its staff attorney program.
Tipsters (including some recently laid off staff attorneys) report that firm management has decided to effectively discontinue its staff attorney program. The firm has been letting go of staff attorneys at the rate of a couple per week over the last few weeks. As we understand it, as staff attorneys finish up their active matters, they are being let go.
Our sources tell us that the decision was made by firm management some weeks back. At the time the decision was made, the staff attorney manager was out of the office on vacation. When she came back, she allegedly told Covington’s staff attorneys that they should start circulating their resumes.
In some cases, laid off staff attorneys are being given a one week severance option. One week, if they sign a form promising not to sue the firm over the circumstances of their termination. Some Covington personnel that spoke to Above the Law believed that clause is proof that Covington decided to move out staff attorneys as a response to the lawsuit filed by former-Covington Staff Attorney Yolanda Young.
After the jump, we have statements from Covington & Burling, and Yolanda Young.

Covington Burling LLP logo Abovethelaw Above the Law blog.JPGBack in March, we reported that Yolanda Young filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against Covington. The firm fired back with a response stating that none of Young’s claims had any merit.
Some of our sources worried that the staff attorneys currently at Covington were paying the price for Young’s lawsuit. But the firm denies that this is the case. Covington spokespeople provided Above the Law with the following statement about the firm’s staff attorney program:

We do not plan to discontinue the staff attorney program, and we will continue to retain staff attorneys on an as-needed basis. The number of staff attorneys we employ has always fluctuated with the document review projects that clients have asked us to perform. As competitive marketplace alternatives to the staff attorney model have increased, we have fewer projects and have released staff attorneys we are unable to assign. The decreased demand for staff attorneys has nothing to do with the lawsuit filed by Yolanda Young.
We offered either one or two weeks of severance, depending on length of service, in exchange for a release.

That sounds like Covington is turning its staff attorneys into contract attorneys. But it is pretty hard for a firm to carry around extra capacity in these difficult economic times.
When we spoke with Yolanda Young, she was not surprised that the ax is falling on Covington’s staff attorneys:

I am not surprised that this is happening. It clearly shows that [Covington] knows they have problems with the program, some of which I raised in my lawsuit. It is incredibly disappointing that rather than try to make the program fair and treat employees with respect, they are choosing to terminate attorneys in this clandestine manner. … And it is especially disheartening that they are asking people to waive their civil liberties on their way out of the door.

She added that she could put disgruntled (former) Covington staff attorneys in touch with a good lawyer.
Skadden and Covington are two firms that have not fired associate attorneys during this economic crisis. But there has been a well documented slow down in the demand for legal services. Firms like these could be in a situation where somebody has to go, and it appears that staff attorneys have drawn the short straw. Associates often ask partners to take a pay cut in order to avoid having to fire associates. Are there any associates out there willing to take a pay cut so that the firm can keep on its staff attorneys?
Good luck, displaced Covington staff attorneys.
Earlier: Staff Layoff Watch: The Bell Tolls for Skadden Staff
Covington and Its ‘Staff Attorney Ghetto’?

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