Severance Payments

Over the past year or so, we’ve heard a steady trickle of negative news out of Dickstein Shapiro. The trickle has turned into a stream, so it’s now time to share what we’ve learned.

Let’s start with the numbers — grim numbers. Yesterday the Legal Times reported on what it described as Dickstein’s “worst year in more than a decade.” Revenue fell by 20 percent in 2013, and net income dropped even more sharply, by 35 percent. According to the Legal Times, the firm’s 2013 net income of $36 million is the lowest the firm has seen since before 1998, its first year on the Am Law 200.

Chairman James Kelly tried to spin this performance as “restructuring” and “investment,” as the firm focuses on its core practice areas. According to Kelly, “We made a strategic commitment to be a market-leading specialty firm. We decided we’re not going to be everything to everyone.”

“Everything” would appear to include “employer.” Let’s hear about the firm’s headcount cuts — affecting partners, associates, and staff — and check out the severance agreement that one source leaked to us….

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(Plus a leaked severance agreement.)”

Just because a firm is a great place to work doesn’t mean people get to work there forever. Our most recent law firm layoff story involved a firm that has been recognized by Fortune magazine and Crain’s New York Business as a top workplace.

Today’s Biglaw layoff story involves a firm that’s even more impressive. This firm has been recognized as a great place to work by Fortune, Crain’s, and Above the Law. In fact, it topped our list of the 12 top rated firms for 2013.

Which wonderful law firm is parting with some people, and why?

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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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Earlier this year, K&L Gates generated some (generally positive) press by issuing an unusually detailed disclosure of its firm financials. The report reflected a reassuringly conservative financial position, with zero bank debt and limited retirement-plan obligations (a trouble spot for many other law firms).

It looks like K&L Gates is keeping to its conservatism. It’s trimming its headcount in D.C. and Seattle, presumably to reduce expenses….

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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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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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