Brobeck fights US corporate slump with unpaid leave

Voluntary breaks and part-time hours will save £1.4m; London office to follow suit

San Francisco giant Brobeck Phleger & Harrison is offering all of its lawyers the chance to take unpaid leave, as it struggles with a lack of corporate work.
The firm has told lawyers that they can either take sabbaticals of up to three months or start working three days a week. The options are offered until the end of the year, and are subject to the approval of each department head. The firm also reserves the right to call lawyers back to work if the business should pick up.
Although the leave is unpaid, the lawyers will not lose any of their other benefits.
Brobeck chairman Tower Snow said: “We, like every other law firm in the US, have over-capacity and softness at the moment in our corporate practice. I think this slow market is likely to continue through to the end of the year, and we are loaded with talent which we want to protect.
“These two options are totally voluntary. They give our people greater control over their work and life balance and also create benefits for the firm.”
The measures are expected to save the firm $2m (£1.4m) during the next five months, with around 10 per cent of the workforce expected to subscribe to the offer.
The firm has already cut around $30m (£21m) off its operating costs this year by cutting things such as overtime, department retreats and flights between offices – all meetings are now done by video conference.
Snow said that the firm's revenues were up on last year as a result of a growth in the number of lawyers and increased business in other practices such as intellectual property, securities litigation and bankruptcy.
Those practice areas are unlikely to let their lawyers participate in the scheme, with the corporate department expected to be the most involved. Snow said that the firm hopes to roll the scheme out to the rest of its staff, but is waiting to see how many lawyers subscribe.
He said that he is confident that the economy will soon begin to recover. “It's a tough market for everybody and a lot of law firms are sharing the pain with their clients, and streamlining their options and positioning themselves for the rebound. I think we're on the bottom and I think we'll start to see things picking up by the first quarter.”
In London, the firm has a joint venture with Boston's Hale and Dorr, named Brobeck Hale and Dorr. Snow said that office is faces similar difficulties and is considering introducing the same unpaid leave scheme.