Secretaries / Administrative Assistants

Will that plant ever find a new home?

Law firms across the land are running tighter ships these days. Even if your firm breaks the $2 million mark in profits per partner, which is good enough to put it in the top quarter of the Am Law 100, there’s no reason to dilute your PPP unnecessarily.

Consider the venerable law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, one of Biglaw’s most prestigious and profitable firms. Earlier this year, the firm parted ways with its trusts and estates practice, a move that was viewed in some quarters as designed to enhance profit.[1]

First they came for the T&E lawyers. Then they came for the legal secretaries and other support staff….

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Back in 2011, we wondered if on-shore outsourcing was the Biglaw wave of the future. Given the recent cavalcade of “adjustments,” “reductions,” “reorganizations,” and “eliminations” affecting staff headcount at firms across the country, we think our prediction may be coming to pass.

These days, despite news of record numbers in terms of gross revenue, it seems we can’t even make it through one week without news of layoffs coming from within Biglaw’s hallowed halls. In fact, last week brought even more lamentable news from large law firms (on top of the double-digit IT outsourcing at one top firm).

Which Biglaw firm is pink-slipping employees en masse in favor of outsourcing this time?

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Of all the different Biglaw constituencies, legal secretaries have probably suffered the most in terms of recent layoffs. In this technological age, lawyers do their own typing, don’t give dictation as much, and can use voice-recognition software when they do. Shorthand isn’t as valuable a skill as it used to be.

So what should a legal secretary facing a voluntary buyout or an involuntary layoff do with himself? Assuming he’s not ready to take the money and run (or retire), he should find new employment. And that might require obtaining new skills, ones that are in greater demand in 2013.

Some might tell a displaced legal secretary, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Technology.” If technology taketh away jobs, it can also giveth, right?

Well, not so fast. Even techie types are getting laid off, as the latest layoff news demonstrates….

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In our recent look at Texas law firms, the firm of Baker Botts placed sixth out of six surveyed firms. But there are some things cooking down there that could cause the dough to rise.

Perhaps taking advantage of the recent turmoil in the Texas offices of Weil Gotshal, Baker Botts just nabbed a lateral from WGM: Nicolas Barzoukas, an IP litigator in Houston. We don’t yet know whether other attorneys are making the same move, but it’s possible. Neither Baker Botts nor Weil responded to our requests for comment, but we do note that Barzoukas’s bio is gone from Weil’s website. (We’ve posted a cached version at the end of this story.)

So that’s the good news about Baker Botts. Now, on to the bad….

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Earlier this week, we warned you about the layoff train. It’s coming down the track at breakneck speed, and there’s just no stopping it. We told you to watch out if you wanted to survive, but you didn’t believe us, and now yet another firm is facing significant cuts.

Which California-based Biglaw firm is slashing its headcount to “better position the firm for the future”?

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‘The layoff train’s gonna derail Biglaw!’

I’m surprised that anybody’s surprised. You’re going to continue to see it as firms look [to save money] in a slow-growth or no-growth economy. By far and away the biggest savings area is people.

Thomas S. Clay, a principal with Altman Weil, explaining that additional staff layoffs will soon be coming down the pipeline at Biglaw firms nationwide, specifically because nonlawyer staff salaries represent about 40 percent of a firm’s expenses.

You’d probably pack up too if you were in this secretary’s shoes.

Voluntary buyouts for support staff are going viral within Biglaw — and that’s a good thing, at least compared to the alternative of layoffs. As we’ve previously observed, “voluntary retirement programs allow employees to self-select, so that employees who are well-situated to enter unemployment can opt in, while employees who need their jobs badly can keep working.”

Whether you should accept or decline your firm’s buyout depends on many factors. What kind of savings or other assets do you have? How generous is the package being offered? Do you have a spouse who still works? Do you have dependents who rely upon your income?

We heard from one retired legal secretary in response to our recent request for volunteers willing to discuss why they took or didn’t take a buyout. You can see why this secretary entered early retirement, due to an enviable financial position and a delicious package….

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Say hello to ‘Buyout Box,’ which we use in lieu of ‘Layoff Lady’ when covering voluntary retirement programs.

This past spring, McKenna Long & Aldridge made it into the Am Law 100, the nation’s 100 largest law firms by revenue. McKenna achieved this feat by posting an impressive 23 percent jump in gross revenue.

Now that it’s in the big leagues, McKenna is following the lead of other Biglaw firms by trying to get smaller (and more efficient). Like so many other top firms, it seeks to reduce its secretarial staff through voluntary buyouts….

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Would you pack it all in for generous severance?

Many longtime observers of the legal profession argue that it’s not what it once was and that it’s increasingly focused on the bottom line. But even when trying to improve the bottom line, many law firms go about it in a kindler, gentler manner. Traces of Biglaw’s gentility remain.

Today we have news of another firm that’s reducing its ranks — not through layoffs, but through generous voluntary buyout packages….

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“The role of the traditional ‘legal secretary’ is rapidly changing,” one secretary recently told us. “Major law firms are full of career secretaries with 20 to 25 years of service, but younger attorneys don’t need the same assistance. You will see that many firms are adopting a secretarial team/services center model which increases the secretary/attorney ratio from 1:3 to 1:5, 1:6, 1:7 or more. At my former firm, it was 1:10. Honest.”

“Paralegals are in trouble too,” this source added. “First-year associates need something to do. I am ranting now.”

This tipster (and several others) told us about yet another law firm conducting layoffs, which we confirmed with the firm….

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