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Layoffs’ Toll: At White & Case, a ‘Melancholy Pall’ and Fear of Sick Days

Posted Jun 8, 2009 8:05 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Layoffs are taking a heavy toll on law firm jobs, but the aftermath also leaves psychological scars on the people who remain on the job in an atmosphere of fear and ambiguity.

The New York Times highlights White & Case as something of a case study. The firm has laid off almost 600 people, including 279 lawyers, with the bulk of the pink slips being handed out on March 9. As the news broke, commenters on Above the Law referred to a “bloodbath” and “Armageddon.” Young lawyers at a nearby bar drank tequila and devised a “whack list” containing their guesses of those likely to soon be unemployed, the story says.

Now tensions are rising, camaraderie is waning and some lawyers are so fearful that they don’t want to stay home when they are sick, the Times says, relying on reports from lawyers who want to remain anonymous. Even after the cuts, there is not enough work to do, the story says.

“Months later, the corridors of White & Case are quiet, the happy buzz of business having gradually been replaced by a melancholy pall of diminished billable hours,” the Times says. “Many office doors are shut — not because of meetings, but, as one associate put it, so that ‘the man with the ax’ cannot find the occupants. Type-A partners, once glued to their BlackBerrys, suddenly have time for their spouses and their children; ladder-climbing junior lawyers linger over lunch.”

“People are shellshocked,” one partner told the Times. “If they survived the first two rounds, they’re happy to have a job, but are still very nervous. And if their phones don’t ring, if their work doesn’t come back with a vengeance, they fear they aren’t long for this world.”

In the newspaper’s view, the change is emblematic of a change in law practice. “The gentleman’s profession of the law is becoming a vestige of the past, removed enough from reality to be remembered, like phone booths or fedoras,” the story says.

In big law firms, “the natural order of this world has been set on end by the economic crisis and the possible disappearance of fixtures like the pyramid system (under which associates are thrown en masse at certain cases, fattening the fees), and the billable hour itself (increasingly replaced by flat rates or retainers in a client’s market). The tectonic plates have begun to shift in a nauseating manner, bringing fear, ambiguity and psychological scars.”

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