Legal Secretaries

“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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Firms generally celebrate when they make lateral hires. They trumpet the new arrivals with press releases, invoking themes of growth, expansion, and an enhanced ability to serve clients.

For folks who are already at a firm, however, could lateral hiring have a downside? Could it possibly result in layoffs of existing employees?

Our latest layoff story raises this possibility….

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We almost made it, but not quite. We almost experienced a week, albeit a shortened one, without layoff news. (Our last layoff story came out before the long holiday weekend.)

The latest cuts are significant, into the double digits. Let’s find out which firm is reducing headcount and by how much….

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In the dark days of 2009, we had frequent occasion to discuss the difference between “layoffs” and “performance-based dismissals.” Layoffs are generally understood as economically motivated, large-scale reductions in headcount, while performance-based dismissals involve specific individuals being asked to leave for cause. (Some see this as the difference being getting laid-off versus getting fired, although I’ve sometimes heard layoffs referred to as firings.)

The distinction can be a fine one. Unless cuts are made based on factors like seniority or practice area, layoffs often target weaker performers, so they can look a lot like performance-based terminations. There’s no bright-line cutoff, in numerical terms, for what constitutes a round of layoffs. And you can’t let firm characterization control, since many firms find it in their reputational interest to deny layoffs (unless the cuts are so large as to be undeniable; see, e.g., last week’s Weil Gotshal layoffs).

Today we bring you a story that captures this ambiguity. Several lawyers and staffers, totaling a number believed to be in the double digits, have been asked to leave a firm — but the firm denies that it’s conducting “layoffs.” We’ll present the facts and let you be the judge….

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Are legal secretaries the buggy-whip makers of Biglaw? If you lose your job as a legal secretary, is it worth it trying to find a new secretarial position, or should you get new training and try to switch fields?

The latter option might be better, at least if you are still early enough in your career. Check out this interesting (but depressing) article from the Wall Street Journal, Why Legal Secretaries Can’t Find Jobs. One of the secretaries mentioned in the article is still looking for a new permanent position some four years after he was Lathamed.

And, sadly, the layoffs of legal secretaries show no sign of abating. On the heels of the Weil Gotshal layoffs — in which 60 associates and 110 staffers, including 60 legal secretaries, lost their jobs — we have more cuts to report….

(Note the UPDATE after the jump.)

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One of the more amusing law firm nicknames belongs to Weil Gotshal & Manges. As we noted a few years ago, some refer to the firm as “We’ll Getcha & Mangle Ya.”

Alas, the nickname is less funny in the wake of yesterday’s big layoff news. The firm announced it will be cutting 60 associates and 110 staffers from the payroll. Despite the generous six-month severance for associates, some probably feel like their legal careers have been mangled. The firm also plans to reduce the compensation of about 10 percent of its partners (roughly 30 out of 300, some income and some equity partners).

Let’s take a closer look at the layoffs and try to make sense of them….

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The Layoff Lady gets around…

At the end of May, my colleague David Lat wondered, “Are layoffs becoming daily news in Biglaw once again?” Given recent events — in particular, the reckoning at Weil — we think it’s now fair to answer that question with a resounding yes.

Today, we’ve got news that a Biglaw shop known for its strict dress code and its fervent recruiting of Supreme Court clerks has decided to conduct a second round of layoffs, mere months after serving a slew of staffers with their walking papers…

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Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Fisher, the major affirmative action case, turned out to be something of a dud, the big legal story of the day is the news out of Weil Gotshal. The firm is conducting large layoffs of both attorneys and staff, as well as reducing partner pay.

Thus far, many of our recent layoff stories have involved staff layoffs, especially secretarial layoffs; relatively small numbers of affected individuals; and firms not in the tippy-top tier of Biglaw. So that’s what makes the Weil news so notable — and so frightening.

Weil is an elite firm, in both profits and prestige. The cuts it just announced affect lawyers, not just staff, and reach into the triple digits….

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We have previously discussed the advantages of voluntary buyouts over layoffs, especially stealth layoffs. 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.

Imagine you’re a legal secretary at one firm who’s married to a high-earning partner at a different firm. You work to keep yourself busy, especially since your kids are all grown, but you don’t need your job that badly. You might take a buyout package and retire a few years early so that one of your fellow secretaries, a single mother with two young kids, can put food on the table.

Voluntary programs are so much better than layoffs — which is why we were happy to hear that rumors of secretarial layoffs at one firm actually turned out to refer to a buyout program. A program with rather generous terms, in fact….

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On yesterday’s post about layoffs at a major international law firm, one of my favorite commenters, “Successful Troll,” took note of our stock photo for such stories: “I feel sorry for the pretty blond woman in the picture. It seems she keeps going from firm to firm being laid off — probably 20 times already this year.”

It was funny, but also depressing. How much longer can layoffs, especially staff layoffs and “stealth” layoffs of lawyers, go on? Who is left to be laid off? Where are laid-off employees of law firms supposed to look for new jobs, in an environment in which it seems that all firms, including some very elite ones, are cutting headcount?

For now, these questions remain unanswered. Today we have more layoff news for you….

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