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The New York Times looks at the red tide of layoffs that are shrinking Big Law firms rapidly.

The New York Times looks at the red tide of layoffs that are shrinking Big Law firms rapidly. 4

After months of anxious planning, it was time for Hugh Verrier (pictured) to finally press send.

In his two years as chairman of White & Case, the venerable Wall Street law firm, Mr. Verrier had already laid off 70 young lawyers and shuttered offices in Bangkok, Dresden and Milan. He had watched top partners flee to competitors and suffered a depressive 2008 holiday party at Cipriani’s, which had half the budget of the prior year’s $500,000 event — a Neroesque fete at the United Nations with fireworks and a band.

Now Mr. Verrier, who had worked exclusively at the century-old firm since leaving Harvard Law School in 1982, sat in his office high above 44th Street and Avenue of the Americas, considering the e-mail message he was about to send. It announced that 200 more lawyers would lose their jobs, nearly 1 in 10 at the firm over all — and not just young associates with everything in front of them, but some million-dollar-a-year ones like himself, the ones with twin mortgages, kids in private school and no Plan B.

“I greatly regret having to take these actions,” Mr. Verrier wrote, making a nod to the “deterioration of the global economy” and the need to slash expenses in recessionary times. Then he dropped the bomb: “a reduction in the number of our partners commensurate with current and anticipated needs.”

The reaction was swift and frantic. Partners who were staying scurried to protect their favorite workers; résumés were burnished and beamed out to recruiters.

As the victims were informed at private meetings with supervisors, a group of young lawyers downed tequila at a nearby tavern and morbidly scratched a “whack list” on a legal pad with guesses as to who was getting the ax.

Within nine hours of that March 9 message, 231 comments — several, it appeared, from within the firm itself — were posted on the popular lawyers’ blog abovethelaw.com. They ranged from the apocalyptic (“Armageddon!!!”) to the ghoulish (“Is anyone handing out towels for this bloodbath?”), to the disturbed (“AHHHHH!”).

Months later, the corridors of White & Case are quiet, the happy buzz of business having gradually been replaced by a melancholy pall of diminished billable hours. Many office doors are shut — not because of meetings, but, as one associate put it, so that “the man with the ax” cannot find the occupants. Type-A partners, once glued to their BlackBerrys, suddenly have time for their spouses and their children; ladder-climbing junior lawyers linger over lunch.

“People are shellshocked,” said one top partner at the firm who, like many of its current and former lawyers, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “If they survived the first two rounds, they’re happy to have a job, but are still very nervous. And if their phones don’t ring, if their work doesn’t come back with a vengeance, they fear they aren’t long for this world.”

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