Attorney and staff layoff horror stories are a staple in the blogosphere these days.
Anonymous posters swap tales of stingy severance payments, trumped-up negative performance reviews and stealth dismissals.
Of course, laid-off workers in any industry are bound to be distressed, bitter and potentially litigious after a job loss — especially given the tight employment market right now. But law firms have a few added reasons to proceed with caution when they part ways with attorneys and legal staffers.
For one thing, law firms generally have far less experience than their corporate counterparts when it comes to showing the door to a sizable group of people. Reductions in force — as law firm leaders often call them — are uncommon in the traditionally stable industry.
At the same time, attorneys are more familiar with their rights than the average laid-off worker, and they have shown an increasing willingness during the past decade to sue their former firms. In fact, employees have filed workplace lawsuits against several firms that dissolved in recent months.
Last, the legal community has a long memory. Layoffs can tarnish a firm’s reputation and hurt recruitment, though experts say that stigma is fading, given that firm layoffs are now widespread. That grim reality was on display during the week of Feb. 9 to 13, when more than 1,000 attorneys and staffers were given their walking papers from at least 10 firms.
Though the process of eliminating law firm jobs does not differ greatly from layoffs in other industries, experts say firms have good reason to make sure they dot every “i” and cross every “t” before cutting jobs.
“The most important thing, frankly, is planning,” said Felice Ekelman, a partner at labor and employment firm Jackson Lewis. “You want to do only one layoff, and you want to do it right.”
Doing it right not only means conducting layoffs in accordance with state and federal labor laws, but it also means treating departing staff and attorneys with dignity and fairness. Such treatment goes a long way in maintaining positive relationships with former employees, and helps bolster the morale of workers who remain at the firm, said several attorneys who counsel companies on workforce reductions.