A few months ago, one of the public relations staff at Linklaters invited me to have lunch with him in the firm’s canteen. Now, I know that if I was a client, or even a journalist of greater rank, my PR acquaintance would have probably deemed me worthy of a trip to a restaurant on the expenses account. But, hey, times are tough, so I didn’t hold it against him. And in any case, I was curious to see what a Biglaw canteen looked like.
To my surprise, it looked a lot like a school canteen. A super-deluxe school canteen, you understand, with all sorts of fancy food options, and tasteful decor, and wholesome-looking — if oddly mature — students. Having finished my generous portion of chicken curry, side salad and smoothie, I relaxed back in my chair and, looking around me, wondered how those Linklaters people stayed so slim. Then I remembered the on-site gym I’d read about somewhere, which, I assume, nestles alongside the on-site doctor, dentist, physiotherapist and dry-cleaners, deep within Linklaters’ lovely womb-like central London offices.
In that moment, I wanted to never leave. It all just felt so… safe. But was it?
That’s part of the appeal of Biglaw firms: they allow their employees to remain institutionalised forever. School, university, law school, Biglaw. Unlike in the real world, there are no hierarchy-busting Mark Zuckerberg-style rises to the top. Nor are there frightening tales of failure. As long as Biglaw associates toe the line and do the hours, they move up the pay scale, notch by notch, year by year, nourished by subsidised salads and smoothies, until they become partners. At which point they live happily ever after.
Well, that’s how it used to be. As we discovered in 2009, sometimes hard-working lawyers lose their jobs for very little reason at all these days — even at Linklaters. Don’t be fooled by the Garden of Eden-class facilities. Or understand that to maintain them during a recession requires ruthlessness. And like a five-star hotel manager faced with a guest whose credit card has expired, Linklaters’s managing partner, Simon Davies, can be ruthless when required.
In 2009, Davies slashed 50 partners and 200 associates, in one of the most brutal culls of the post-financial crisis recession. At the time, the consensus was that he was acting harshly, but wisely, in order to shore up the foundations for another period of growth. However, in the wake of last week’s announcement that Linklaters is to ask another 30-35 equity partners (roughly 8% of its partnership) to leave — the first major U.K. Biglaw redundancy programme of this stage of the economic crisis –- opinions are being re-formulated. Now, the buzzword is “paradigm shift.”
The majority of the cuts will be in Linklaters’s under-performing U.K. office, where revenue fell by 4% last year. With takings up in Asia and the Americas, the firm — founded in London 1838 as Dods & Linklater — seems to see its future outside crumbling Europe.
For many of the partners who are laid off, it will be their first taste of life outside the school-university-law firm bubble. And unlike last time around, when mid-tier law firms snapped up some of the culled Linklaters attorneys, it may be tougher for those in this batch to find a route back into Biglaw. What will they do?
Given their vast earnings (average profit per equity partner at Linklaters is £1.225m ($1.92m)), some will doubtless opt for early retirement. Others will work their contacts in other parts of the City to get them in-house lawyer roles. A handful will do something totally different. But for all of them, like prisoners released into society after serving life sentences, the real world is going to be a mighty shock.
What they won’t get is sympathy from other lawyers. The comments on the stories reporting the job cuts in the U.K.’s main legal mags, The Lawyer and Legal Week, were full of schadenfreude. One associate wrote:
“Considering how greedy the average partner in a Magic Circle firm is and how happily they have shafted associates over the years, sympathy is limited. Frankly, these men (and they are mostly men) are very very lucky. They were part of a golden generation where it was possible for complete mediocrities to get enormously rich simply for working long hours, no more. Even if these guys never work again they have in most cases already made enough money to never need to work again — were it not that they have developed expensive tastes.”
Charles Allen Jones, the senior partner of Linklaters during the 90s, was known for his catchphrase “Biff on!” Even I, an Englishman, am not sure exactly what Allen Jones meant by this. Perhaps it was a reference to the work of the in-house physiotherapist? I suspect, though, that it was a way of imploring tired, bored lawyers to keep trundling along without thinking too much.
And then what? Linklaters’s soon-to-be-laid-off partners are about to find out.
Alex Aldridge is Above the Law’s U.K. correspondent. He also writes a weekly column for The Guardian and is the Editor of Legal Cheek. Previously Alex was Associate Editor of Legal Week, having begun his career with The Times. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexAldridgeUK or email him at email@example.com.