Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be legal secretaries. We’re hearing scattered and somewhat hard-to-confirm reports of lawyer layoffs at various firms — please email us or text us (646-820-8477) if you have news to share — but efforts to reduce the ranks of secretaries are open and notorious.

If you spin through our staff layoff coverage, you’ll see that numerous law firms have shrunk the size of their secretarial staffs. Some firms have done this the hard way, through layoffs, while others have taken the kinder and gentler route, through buyouts.

Today we can report that two leading law firms have jumped on the “voluntary separation” bandwagon. If you’re a recently displaced legal assistant looking for a new position, don’t bother applying to either of these places — one of which is shedding lawyers, too….

There’s some right-sizing taking place at Kramer Levin. Here’s what we’ve heard, relating to both staff and lawyers:

1. At a meeting on Wednesday, secretaries were informed that 10 of them needed to accept the firm’s early retirement package in order to avoid wider layoffs.

2. Associates and partners are being quietly eased out the door, with some cuts taking place this month.

3. Prior headcount reductions took place at the firm in November and February.

We reached out to the firm. A Kramer Levin spokesperson issued the following statement:

On Wednesday, we did offer a voluntary separation package to a number of secretaries. We did so because, like many law firms, our need for secretaries has been substantially reduced as a result of technology and the work style of our attorneys, who themselves perform a number of functions previously handled by secretaries.

Like any responsible business, we believe it is prudent to manage our expenses, analyze our needs and evaluate performance on an ongoing basis. As a result, there are changes in staff and attorney headcount that regularly occur either through attrition or as part of the normal review process. We are pleased that Kramer Levin had another successful year in 2012, with increases in both revenue and profits.

According to the 2013 Am Law 100 rankings, Kramer Levin had 2012 profits per partner of $1.675 million, a 2.4 percent increase over 2011, and 2012 revenue per lawyer of $995,000, a 3.6 percent increase over 2011. That’s definitely a successful year, especially in the new normal.

Our second firm turned in an even stronger performance. In the latest Am Law 100, Sullivan & Cromwell enjoyed 2012 profits per partner of $3.45 million, a 7.1 percent over 2011, and 2012 revenue per lawyer of $1.525 million, a 4.8 percent increase over 2011. These figures put S&C at #4 in profits per partner, behind Wachtell Lipton, Quinn Emanuel, and Cahill Gordon, and #2 in revenue per lawyer, behind only Wachtell Lipton.

But just because you’re extremely profitable doesn’t mean you should spend money on unnecessary secretarial staffing. After hearing reports of Sullivan & Cromwell wanting to trim bring its attorney/secretary ratio to 4:1 using buyouts, we reached out to S&C for comment. The firm confirmed its voluntary retirement program:

S&C regularly reviews its non-legal staffing levels, in light of technological and other operational changes, to remain competitive. As a result of the latest such review in March, we made voluntary early retirement incentive offers to some staff. Several staff members accepted this offer, and we have received a lot of positive feedback remarking on its voluntary nature and the generosity of the incentives. Our attorney/secretary ratio will be 4:1 after taking into account the voluntary early retirements.

Some lawyers might read about secretarial reductions and think to themselves, “They’re staff. This news doesn’t affect me.”

But staff layoffs remind us that law firms are businesses, not job programs. If an employee’s job can be done more cheaply, whether by technology or by an outside provider, that employee should be worried. And in the age of outsourcing and of Watson, associates at least have cause for concern.

Earlier: Prior ATL coverage of staff layoffs


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