Voluntary Layoffs

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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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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Would you pack it all in if offered a lot of money?

This isn’t your father’s Davis Polk. The venerable firm, known for uber-white shoes and super-blue-chip clients, is changing.

(Let’s hope the firm maintains its commitment to hotness in hiring. Someone has to care about beauty in Biglaw, right?)

Under managing partner Tom Reid, DPW has become energized, entrepreneurial, and expansionary. Since Reid took the reins two years ago, the firm has pushed into new areas and gone on a lateral partner hiring spree — a sign that DPW is no longer waiting for work to come its way, but seeking out business more actively.

So maybe it shouldn’t be shocking to learn that DPW, given this growing focus on the bottom line, is following the trend of offering buyouts to reduce the ranks of support staff….

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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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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….

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In round one of our Above the Law March Madness bracket, aimed at finding the law firm with the brightest future, Davis Polk is up against (and currently beating) Latham & Watkins. I actually found that to be a pretty rough opening match-up; both Davis and Latham strike me as firms that should be in the Sweet 16, and maybe even the Elite Eight.

Thanks to its top talent, superb brand, and global footprint, Latham has a bright future as a firm. Of course, working there can be like riding a roller-coaster: it expands like crazy and mints money during good times, then conducts massive layoffs during bad times. But if you can stomach the ups and downs, LW can be a great place to work.

Alas, not everyone at the firm will get to keep working there….

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* In case you missed this yesterday during the Cravath bonus-mania-palooza, David Kappos, the director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, announced that he’d be stepping down from his position in January 2013. [Blog of Legal Times]

* And speaking of bonuses, somebody’s not probably getting one this year, because here come the lawsuits: Hewlett-Packard just got slapped with a securities class action suit as a result of the company’s allegedly fraudulent Autonomy acquisition. [Reuters]

* Will Penn State’s former general counsel be able to testify against Gary Schultz and Tim Curley in post-Sandusky criminal proceedings? Considering she’s “a key witness,” she better be. [Corporate Counsel]

* Of course Vermont Law School is considering offering voluntary staff buyouts, the school has a freakin’ $3.3M budget shortfall. In other news, they’ll be upping LL.M. programs to make up the cash. [National Law Journal]

* Paul Ceglia, the man who claims he owns half of Facebook, has been indicted on federal wire and mail fraud charges. He’ll appear in court this Wednesday, but who knows if he’ll have a lawyer by then. [Bloomberg]

* Jay Jaffe, law firm public relations pioneer, RIP. [PRWeek]

As we mentioned over Thanksgiving weekend, the number of people taking the October LSAT is at the lowest point since 1999.

It seems that people are finally, belatedly, getting the message. Going to law school is not a safe bet.

At least not for students. For faculty, teaching at a law school is one of the safest jobs you can have. The only people who lose their jobs at law schools are deans who anger the U.S. News gods, and even then those deans can usually still hang on as professors.

But the economics of running a law school might be turning. One law school has decided to downsize….

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