Ed. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email (at firstname.lastname@example.org), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
Cliff does not understand why attorney layoffs — mine or anyone else’s — are, well, newsworthy. This comes to light when I show him what I think is a fairly remarkable story about a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop who, in a display of consummate indiscretion, broadcasted the firm’s layoff plans to his fellow passengers on the Washington-to-New York Acela train (via loud cell-phone conversation).
“Pretty fucked up, huh?” I say. He shrugs. Crickets chirp. “I don’t know,” he finally answers. “I don’t get it. I don’t get the whole thing.” I try to explain why I think the story is remarkable. First, there is the obvious matter of the partner’s imprudence, and the thoughtlessness of announcing personnel decisions that will affect people’s lives — people like me — to the passengers on the 2:00 train. Second, I tell him, putting aside the fact that widespread job losses are the foremost indicator of what feels like our profession’s implosion, they are often fashioned as “stealth layoffs.” Pillsbury had already engaged in some stealth layoffs, and although it is not clear that the partner’s unofficial press release (in the form of poor volume modulation) thwarted the firm’s plans for another, the possibility gives the story a “gotcha” quality.
But, it turns out, while the term “stealth layoff” may be part of every lawyer’s lexicon at the moment, it does not have universal currency. “What are ‘stealth layoffs’?” Cliff wants to know. Growing exasperated, I try to explain the pernicious “enhanced performance review,” and its insidious corollary, the “performance-based dismissal.” My indignation is not contagious: Cliff remains unmoved. “These are private companies,” he says. “I don’t see why they have an obligation to announce anything about who they choose to fire, or why.”
People get fired, he says: it sucks, but why should we expect law firms to act any differently than any other employer? Cliff has worked in advertising for the better part of two decades, where, apparently, things work differently; when he was working at big ad agencies, he tells me, people were fired all the time. In fact, firings usually coincided with payday, so if you got a paycheck you knew that you were safe for a little while longer.
Once, years ago, when he was working at one such agency, someone from management went around and put stickers on the doors of selected offices. Everyone who got a sticker assumed that they were going to be canned, so that later, when they were herded into a conference room, they were prepared for the ax to fall. Instead, they were told that they “were the future of the company,” but that everyone else was being told to pack up and leave. The chosen ones were then sequestered in the conference room until the unfortunate ones, who hadn’t made the cut, were shepherded out of the building. No one had any warning of what was about to happen, much less an expectation that they would get three months of severance.
I understand what Cliff is saying. “But,” I remind him, “you told me that the last few times you were fired, they escorted you out as you threw things down the hall and yelled obscenities.” I also recall him saying, at some point, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re still going into the office. I would be walking in with a can of gasoline.”
“I didn’t say that it doesn’t suck,” he concedes. “I just don’t understand why everyone thinks that these law firms owe them something.”
Is Roxana’s significant other being insufficiently understanding? Read her reflections on lawyers’ love lives, after the jump.