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Top City firms are being forced to relocate assistants out of their corporate departments as M&A work dries up.
Linklaters & Alliance has already dispersed four solicitors into financial services regulation and complex derivatives and plans to move more.
Other firms are preparing to follow suit. Norton Rose's deputy head of personnel Brendan Monaghan said his firm began negotiating action at the partner's conference in October.
"If chargeable hours drop to an unacceptable low and people are twiddling their thumbs, we will have to think about redeploying staff," he said.
Linklaters head of corporate David Cheyne said the transfer will relieve staffing problems.
Linklaters - will others follow suit?
"The mainstream corporate department is not as busy as it was last year, so we have moved people to where the pressure is more intense," he said. "I have not said to a corporate assistant, 'You are going to work in litigation', that is what I consider a different move."
Richard Marsh, senior partner at Taylor Joynson Garrett, also believes corporate assistants should be flexible. "A lot of their work crosses disciplines," he said.
Although the firm has not implemented a transfer system, he said most of its lawyers could easily enter another area.
The economic slowdown has hit US firms the hardest. Shearman & Sterling has reacted to the prospect of a severe drop in profits by slashing a massive 10 per cent of its US corporate lawyers. The cuts are the first among the big New York players, but follows several extensive layoffs at West Coast technology law firms. Venture Law Group and Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian both shed staff in October. And in August, Cooley Godward slashed 86 associates and Fenwick & West laid off 32 associates.