Logic suggests that when the economy tanks, opportunities for in-house lawyers ought to improve. After all, legal disputes rise when the Dow takes a dive, and who better to tackle this growing workload than cost-efficient staff attorneys? Yet the nation’s in-house bar—however vital its role in hard times—is shrinking at a rate that tracks the widening job losses across corporate America.
The layoffs are less visible and harder to tally than the widely publicized firings at major law firms, but their impact is no less real. On Wall Street alone, hundreds of lawyers’ jobs have disappeared. Some will never come back.
By far the hardest-hit sectors are financial services and real estate, but no industry is immune to a downturn that many economists say may be more than a cyclical dip. They suggest the economy is restructuring on a longer-term path of slower growth.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer cited a “once-in-a-lifetime set of economic conditions” when the Redmond, Wash.-based company announced plans in January to eliminate as many as 5,000 positions over 18 months, the company’s first major cuts. A source close to Microsoft says the cuts are expected to eliminate 50 law department positions, or roughly 5 percent of 1,000 legal jobs worldwide, through attrition and layoffs by the end of June.
When Home Depot eliminated 500 headquarters jobs last year, it was widely reported that more than 17 attorneys were among those let go. The Atlanta-based retailer cut an additional 2,000 support staff jobs in January.
The company would not say how many legal jobs were lost, but spokeswoman Sarah Molinari says, “The legal function is a key component in supporting our business. We certainly feel we have a legal team in place that meets the needs of our stores.”