Biglaw, Law Firm Mergers, Layoffs, Severance, Staff Layoffs

Staff Layoff Watch: Are More Cuts Coming to Fulbright?
(And could a merger be in the works?)

The law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski is a leader in many fields — at least 31 of them, according to the latest Chambers rankings. In addition to recognizing Fulbright as a leading firm in 31 categories, the influential Chambers guide also named 99 Fulbright lawyers as leading individuals in their practice areas.

Fulbright excels in other areas well — for example, social media. It is one of the few major law firms that knows how to use Twitter.

Alas, these days the firm is also a leader in a less appealing arena: staff layoffs. Last October, the firm laid off at least a dozen employees.

And now it seems that more reductions might be on the way. Could Fulbright be trying to slim itself down in advance of a merger with another firm?

We’ve been hearing rumblings about reductions at Fulbright for the past few weeks. Late last month, the firm announced a “voluntary severance plan” (i.e., voluntary layoffs). From one source at the firm:

Fulbright & Jaworski is gearing up for another layoff. Every non exempt worker firm wide has been offered a TERRIBLE severance package. Here’s an excerpt from their recent email:

“In order to advance our operating efficiencies and thereby lower our overhead-cost profile, we are offering a voluntary severance program for certain staff positions. Our lawyers are working more efficiently than ever and that leaves us in the position of having excess staff resources in the areas addressed by this program. Thus, we seek to find those interested in accepting voluntary severance in order to reach a higher lawyers-to-secretaries staffing ratio and to reduce our workforce in other areas where we have overcapacity resulting from technology advances and other operating efficiencies. These steps will help to strengthen our firm and enhance our competitive position.”

You can read the full memo, which executive director James Dixon sent out on June 29, on the next page. If you’re thinking about instituting a voluntary severance program at your firm, you might be able to learn from the document. (Fulbright did not respond to our request for comment, so the memo will have to speak for itself.)

What happens if there aren’t enough takers for the “voluntary” plan? One Fulbright staffer predicts involuntary layoffs:

The end of June, all domestic secretaries, receptionists, billing clerks and section clerks in offices over 25 employees were given voluntary severance packages which offered 10 weeks pay for 15-20 years, 8 week for 10-15, etc….

Since first-years will start the end of September, layoffs are expected sometime between August 17 and September 15. To have to worry about this for more than 6-8 weeks is just mean. It is affecting the health of employees, not to mention the morale. Nationwide, 400 layoffs are expected.

According to one of our Fulbright sources, the firm plans to lay off 22 accounting personnel at the end of August. A different tipster informed us that some of the layoffs in Accounting have already begun:

[In early July,] five long term employees of the Houston Accounting Department were declared “redundant” and given involuntary layoffs.

What could be motivating the reductions, both the ones from last fall and the voluntary (and perhaps involuntary) cuts of the future? One source suggested it’s the urge to merge:

Will this make them look more attractive for a merger? Will this boost partners’ units? Will this save them from financial woes?

Over the past few months, there has been definite chatter about Fulbright merging with another firm. Back in February, we mentioned merger talks between Fulbright and Pillsbury Winthrop (talks that were subsequently taken off the fast track, apparently due to issues regarding an unfunded retirement plan at Fulbright). More recently, Fulbright has been mentioned as a possible merger partner for the U.K.-based firm of Norton Rose.

There’s nothing like a possible wedding to induce the shedding of extra pounds. Unfortunately, one firm’s excess weight is another person’s livelihood. Good luck to support staffers at Fulbright — both those who take the voluntary severance deal, and those who turn it down and stick around.

(You can check out the full memo about the voluntary severance plan, as well as links to various news stories, on the next page.)

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