Even if a recession is not a sure thing, some law firms act as if it’s already here. And in an annual report of the average hours attorneys billed last year, the number has freaked out some firms. The average of hours billed, which is the lowest in 15 years, is under 1600.
Lower demand creates less productivity. No surprise there.
So, layoffs are out there, in stealth mode or otherwise.
Layoffs are no fun. I’ve had one. I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t have some form of layoff anxiety. I did, as I had a sneaking suspicion that my layoff was in the cards due to an acquisition and subsequent management changes. Even the big rainmaker types feel it, for all it takes is one big client to give the relationship lawyer and the firm a shove out the door. Signing bonuses for laterals have taken flight. Where many years of loyalty between client and firm was pretty much expected, that’s not the case anymore. Loyalty is now transactional. It’s now more of a “what have you done for me lately?” environment.
How to handle layoff anxiety? Some tips, courtesy of the website Lifehacker: have a backup plan (just like an emergency fund but only this is a job-related one), talk to a career coach or therapist (don’t bottle up all your feelings), learn some new skills as the more versatile you are, if a layoff does come, you may well be able to land another job sooner rather than later.
Don’t think that you are the “only one”; you are not. If your client is acquired, the adage “a new broom sweeps clean” applies. A layoff for you may prompt rethinking priorities. You don’t want to continue lawyering, but want to transfer the legal knowledge and skills you have gained to use in different ways, in different fields, in different industries. There are many “recovering lawyers” who have found their purposes away from the drudgery that much of law practice entails. You would not be alone in making such a switch.
So, then it really shouldn’t be any surprise about layoffs at Biglaw firms, including associates. Now comes word that one Biglaw firm is upping the RMH (required minimum hours) amid its financial year. How do you preclude awarding a full bonus? By upping the RMH. Not only not nice, but not fair to impose this additional requirement retroactively to the start of the current fiscal year which, for this firm, began last October.
That retroactive requirement certainly does not do anything to mitigate stress levels but can only add to them. A recent study on stressed, lonely, and over-committed lawyers revealed that they can be predictors of suicide risk for our profession — not good news, but not surprising. The report says that lawyers consider suicide (suicide ideation) at an exceedingly high rate.
I don’t think it’s just lawyers in Biglaw who are stressed to the max. Ask a small firm or solo and you may well get the sense that they are just as stressed, lonely, and over-committed, if not more so. While the kind of pressure may vary, pressure is pressure, and lawyers feel it immensely. The report is worth reading, and then sharing with family, friends, and even a therapist. People who love and care about us should understand mental health issues that we face. We reveal client confidences at our peril, but we put ourselves in peril when we don’t have someone to talk to.
And while not upping the RMH (i.e., billables), one Biglaw firm is cutting back on the number of hours that can be applied to pro bono work. Now it’s only a total of 100 hours that can be applied to the 2000-hour billing requirements. Pro bono opportunities are often an enticement to join a Biglaw firm.
As a dinosaur, I don’t understand why peeps are so eager to overshare on social media. As a kid I was taught (probably along with everyone else of similar vintage) that you don’t discuss politics, sex, or religion. That lesson is in history’s dustbin. Oversharing, which is SOP (standard operating procedure) along with nastiness to the nth degree, is antithetical to any concept of personal privacy, which we don’t have anymore. So, I loved the story about clients looking up information on prospective lawyers on social media. We know that potential employers do, but now vetting of lawyers by potential clients includes checking up on prospective lawyers’ coming and goings on social media. Surprised? You shouldn’t be and if you are, that says something about you.
That drunken bachelor party in Cabo where you were too inebriated to stand up? Explain that. The over-the-top golf game that included too much fun at the 19th hole? What was that all about? Explain why those regrettable but unforgettable moments were captured for eternity and for all the world to see. Just like lawyers vetting prospective clients, what goes around comes around.
Stop and think about what you are showing. Do you really want that personal stuff out in the world, especially if you have been laid off and are looking for another job? A trial judge told me many years ago that our reputations are all we have as lawyers and that they follow us for our entire careers. True then and probably even truer now.
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at email@example.com.
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