Earlier this week, we discussed the legal sector’s loss of nearly 9,000 jobs in August. At the time, we wondered if law firm rightsizing could possibly be to blame. On top of that, legal recruiters are saying that “demand for associates no longer exceeds supply,” and that the frenzied hiring we saw last year is simply no more thanks to a slowdown in work. Now, news of law firm hiring freezes and stealth layoffs at top Biglaw firms has come to light, and we’re no longer wondering.
According to a report from the American Lawyer, numerous firms in the Am Law top 50 have implemented austerity measures when it comes to controlling their attorney headcounts. Here are the details:
Cooley has implemented a freeze on hiring associates, sources close to the firm have told The American Lawyer. Leaders at Cooley declined to comment for this story, but a spokesperson denied the existence of an “official hiring freeze” at the firm. …
Meanwhile, sources close to Reed Smith said the global law firm is dealing with profitability gaps between its London office and lower-performing locations, including its oldest office in Pittsburgh, leading the firm to let go of more senior lawyers without significant books.
While Cooley didn’t offer much of a statement other than to deny that an “official hiring freeze” was in effect (something we haven’t heard of from Biglaw in more than a decade), a spokesperson for Reed Smith offered the following: “We continually evaluate all aspects of our business in order to best support our clients and ensure the continued strength of the firm. In the normal course of our business, we routinely make personnel decisions. These decisions are consistent with personnel actions we have taken in the past as we prudently manage our business.” As many of our dedicated readers know, talk like this really smacks of stealth layoffs.
Stealth layoffs are the disturbingly popular method used by Biglaw firms to cull the associate (and partner) herd. For those who might be hearing the term for the first time, stealth layoffs allow firms to cut headcount without confirming that there were any financially based layoffs. Firm frequently couch the reductions in performance review terms that coincidentally happen in the midst of a downturn — whether economic- or demand-related — often making those let go doubt their lawyering skills. By their secretive nature, they can be challenging to confirm in specific numbers, but insiders slowly find out something is amiss.
Now that the cat is out of the bag and we know that firms are trying to manage their attorney ranks, we think we’ll be seeing many more of these stealth layoffs as firms desperately try to avoid the incredibly negative publicity that goes hand in hand with outright layoffs.
Unfortunately, the post-pandemic party seems to be over for Biglaw. We sincerely hope that you’re not a victim of a stealth layoff — or any other kind of layoff, should it come to that. Good luck out there, everyone.
If your firm or organization is reducing the ranks of its lawyers or staff, whether through open layoffs, stealth layoffs, or voluntary buyouts, please don’t hesitate to let us know. Our vast network of tipsters is part of what makes Above the Law thrive. You can email us or text us (646-820-8477).
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Staci Zaretsky is a senior editor at Above the Law, where she’s worked since 2011. She’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to email her with any tips, questions, comments, or critiques. You can follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.