And what of the discarded lawyer?

In the dark days of early 2008, when it seemed like the magnitude of the then financial meltdown was neither accepted nor understood by many in the industry, my firm took the decision to downsize

We had, in early 2007, responded to client demand and created a residential plot sales team.  From having over two thousand transactions lined up for that team in 2008, sales fell off a cliff and we were faced with practically none.

I remember speaking to lawyers in other firms who, whilst making sympathetic noises, were not quite managing to hide their feelings of schadenfreude.  Perhaps too honest for my own good, I wasn’t prepared to hide what we were doing in the usual lawyer “doublespeak” of voluntary redundancy/reassignment/performance management or whatever words you choose to describe letting people go.

By the end of 2008, however, not only were firms more honest about having to make redundancies, some of them were openly congratulating themselves on being businesslike, commercial and operating effectively in the brutal world of realpolitik.  The waves of redundancies came thick and fast.

And so here we may be again.  The economic news couldn’t be more terrifying and faced with the prospect of another 2008 or indeed worse, it seems to me that a lot of firms are getting in early.  Some are making quiet redundancies, some are doing the “performance management” routine and some are just, frankly shooting people in the head.  And it’s rapidly getting worse.

I’m coming across horror stories from some law firms which seem to make no commercial sense.  Partners with very healthy followings and vast amounts of experience “let go” without warning or discussion; swathes of senior assistants cut-off, just at that crucial partnership point and before they have developed any significant following enabling them to move easily; quiet conspiracies of former friends in those firms, deciding to keep their heads below the parapet rather than challenge senior management decisions.  A culture of fear, where the real need to put your family first militates against making yourself stand out in any way.

I could give you many examples of well respected and consistently successful lawyers, simply shot in the head at short notice, notwithstanding vast contributions (financial and otherwise) to their firms. 

So what do I think is going on?  At the most basic level, firms are striving to maintain profits by getting rid of some of the more experienced and expensive lawyers.  Nothing new there.  They often seem to prefer the “quick and dirty” solution to any other, hoping, in some cases that they can keep some of that lawyer’s clients, getting the work done by juniors and indeed often taking over the relationships themselves.  Forget the blood sweat and tears that the lawyers put into the relationship.  Forget the very personal relationships that those lawyers have cultivated with their clients.  That counts for nothing.  Cynical?  Do you really think so?

Forgive me for wondering, but if this were not a cynical move, then why would firms not approach it in a different way?  Why not just talk to the lawyers like adults, about adjusting their remuneration or changing the nature of their role?  Why is it, that rather than have the “let’s see what we can do to make it work” conversation, they find it easier to have the “it’s not working, so you have to go” conversation?  And don’t call me naive, I know all the employment law rules.  

So what is it? Fear?  Embarrassment?  Panic? Greed? All of the above?  Often, they can’t have the conversation because there is actually nothing really wrong with the lawyer’s performance.  It seems to me that many firms go for what they perceive to be the easy targets.  The ones who don’t, won’t, or indeed can’t make waves.  Whereas the sacred cows, the ones at the top of the political tree, those in the “inner circle” – they all seem to survive, regardless of performance.  And I’m not talking here simply of financial performance.

And what of the discarded lawyer?  Left firstly in disbelief and then mostly in anger, they could often mount a challenge, but what’s the point?  Sue and you’re headline news and a legal leper. Once a firm has rejected you, there’s no return.  The personal trust, that quasi-familial relationship you have with your colleagues and partners, often built up over decades, just disappears.  And it’s like family or a bad marriage – you may have absolutely hated some of them, but at least they were your colleagues to hate, for better or for worse and (you tell yourself) there are always going to be people in a firm who you don’t get on with.  However you dress it up though, it’s personal.  And some people never get over it.

I think this sometimes inexplicable behaviour in larger firms is part of lawyer lack of self-awareness and often plain ruthlessness– I’ve sat in meetings where partners who have themselves very modest performance / following/contributions on any measure are quite happy to sit in harsh judgement over lawyers who have far greater and more impressive followings than they have ever managed to cultivate, totally blind to the fact of their own place in the food chain. Were they to judge themselves on their own criteria, their own remuneration would look very different.   These judging partners are often extremely well remunerated but are responsible for very little, lucky enough to be part of the political elite within their firms and safe –at least for now. 

And for now, it’s all about maintaining bucks, not fairness.  Short-term rather than long-term strategy, knee-jerking your way into maintaining or, indeed, increasing profits.  It’s not going to get easier and this strategy is, in my view, unsustainable.  A law firm is not a socialist nirvana, but neither should it be a plutocratic dictatorship.  When times get better, the oppressed may well become the oppressors and firms will get further away from the collegiate atmosphere of blessed memory.  So we keep our friends close and our enemies closer and make sure that our clients are loyal only to us, so that we can be mobile.  More empire-building whilst paying lip-service to language of partnership.  Not a long-term growth strategy for any firm in my view.

And in a smaller firm like mine, where you have to look people in the eye, it really doesn’t work this way.  We can’t afford to be myopic and to throw away our investment in time and people by making short-term panic-led decisions.  We have to be more flexible.  We can’t hide behind committees and management-speak and neither would we want to.  We do have the conversation.  We do try to make things work.  We don’t jettison lawyers at the first hurdle.  The law is a business but its capital is its people and we want to spend wisely

Nicky Richmond, managing partner, Brecher