Dotcom crisis forces Valley law firms to ditch hundreds

Silicon Valley giant Cooley Godward is laying off 86 lawyers in the biggest move yet to result from the collapse of corporate work.

The cutbacks follow months of speculation over which Valley firm would be the first to buckle under the pressure of a disappearing technology market. But figures compiled by local legal publication The Recorder show that other firms have slimmed down less publicly.
The 10 highest-grossing law firms in the Bay Area now have a total of 261 fewer lawyers than they did at the beginning of the year. Most of those reductions have been put down to performance-related changes or normal attrition, unlike Cooley's admission that its move is driven by economics.
Cooley has announced plans to cut 86 lawyers from its ranks and 50 other staff have also been shown the door. The slash will be spread across the firm's eight US offices.
At the same time, rival Valley firm Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich has told all of its lawyers that associate salaries are to be frozen and that any new partnership appointments will be de-layed.
The firm normally sets associate salaries and holds partnership elections in February, then makes the changes retrospectively, from 1 January. Next year the effective date for salary increases and new partners will be 1 July.
Other big firms have been quick to quell speculation that they are going to follow suit on the layoffs.
A spokesman from Brobeck Phleger & Harrison told The Lawyer: “Brobeck has not and will not lay off attorneys or staff due to the economic downturn. Instead, we've trimmed other expenses and more recently offered voluntary sabbaticals and part-time work options to all attorneys.”
He added that the moves were expected to save the firm around $30m (£20.6m).
Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe chairman Ralph Baxter said: “We have no plans for a layoff and I don't anticipate any such action. Having said that, no one ever wants to do that to begin with.
“We're presently managing everything as best we can, and our economic position at
the moment is such that these are just not issues we're considering.”
Baxter said Orrick was in the position to avoid such moves because it has a diverse practice that is roughly one-third corporate, one-third litigation and one-third finance. He said that last year's technology sector work accounted for only 17 per cent of the firm's revenue.
Morrison & Foerster chairman Keith Wetmore and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati chairman Larry Sonsini are also both understood to have reassured associates that their firms are in good shape.
But one partner at a Silicon Valley firm said: “What we're told through friends at other firms is that, despite the head count reductions, they have too many attorneys for the current work flow. This will only get worse when the new associates from law schools start to join in the fall.”
He went on to say that public offerings, M&A transactions and new venture financings were all way down on last year's levels.