|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JULY 2009|
If you’ve been laid off, fear you might be or are new to law and struggling to find your first job, you aren’t alone.
By May, Oregon had seen pink slips handed out in some firms from large to small. Some lawyers were finding themselves suddenly solo, when such a practice setting was not in their plans.
Even lawyers who officially weren’t laid off felt nudged out and took other jobs, such as in government agencies. A fair number of associates were feeling underemployed, too: not enough hours or worrying about whether they will remain, whether they can generate work and whether partners can or will generate work for them.
A recent Altman Weil national survey of firms with 50 or more attorneys found that in the previous six months, personnel reductions occurred broadly across the industry, owing to the recession.
Forty-six percent of all law firms surveyed had reduced support staff positions; 33 percent cut paralegals, 32 percent reduced their associate ranks, 24 percent cut nonequity partners, and 19 percent cut equity partners.
When asked if further reductions were likely or possible in the remainder of 2009, significant percentages indicated that more cuts may be on the horizon.
Thirty-two percent of law firms said they may make additional staff cuts; 29 percent may cut paralegals; 24 percent may cut associates; 20 percent may cut nonequity partners; and 10 percent may make cuts in their equity partner ranks.
The Bar and PLF Respond
This year, under the direction of Oregon State Bar President Gerry Gaydos, the OSB has launched an economy-related assistance program for members. As part of that initiative the bar’s website offers “Economic Resources for Members” with links to numerous resources available from the OSB and the Professional Liability Fund. (See sidebar.)
Also new on the site is a member discussion forum, with the first topic being, “How has the new economy affected you?”
“The economic downturn has significantly impacted lawyers throughout the state,” Gaydos says. “The thought (behind the initiative) was to examine what the bar is currently doing and (ask): ‘Can the bar assist lawyers who are having economic difficulties?’ ”
Gaydos adds: “The PLF has some great services,” and the OSB wants to raise members’ awareness of those programs and their free availability, particularly the Practice Management Advisor Program and OAAP programs to help lawyers experiencing stress from the economic downturn.
Mike Long, attorney counselor with the OAAP, observes that firms and corporations are handling the current recession differently from the recession in the early 2000s. At that time, some lawyers became of counsel rather than being given the pink slip.
“In 2002-2003, it was done in a more indirect way, rather than, ‘We’re laying you off.’ ”
Historically, Oregon has seen lawyers laid off before, such as in the wake of large bank mergers, for example.
The OAAP sponsors Lawyers in Transition, a confidential, structured support group with a 20-year history. It meets every Thursday for attorneys contemplating making changes in their careers or who are actively in career transition. It also sees lawyers who have lost jobs, as well as new lawyers who have just passed the bar and are seeking their first jobs.
In addition, the OAAP also sponsors an evening workshop focused on helping lawyers perform a self-assessment that determines which areas of law, or other types of jobs, to pursue.
The OAAP also provides OSB members with mental health support and crisis intervention. It currently is sponsoring group meetings related to the economic climate, according to Shari R. Gregory, OAAP assistant director and an attorney counselor.
This fall, for example, the OAAP will host a half-day seminar addressing finances, with local money coach Brian Farr. The OAAP also is counseling counseling members about “careern issues” related to finding jobs, she says.
That’s not all: “During hard times, relationships break up. So in the fall, I’m starting a divorce-support group,” Gregory adds.
Individuals who normally are not prone to anxiety may be feeling anxious now, while those who typically experience anxiety are feeling it more than usual, she says.
The mental health program is not necessarily seeing increased volume, but more severity. “What we are seeing is more acute problems,” Gregory says. “People are coming in with more fears and more anxiety. We’re putting on a lot more crisis intervention and stress management programs.”
The Practice Management Advisor Program can help any lawyer in private practice and firms of all sizes, with numerous free resources as well as in-person practical advice for starting up, running or closing a practice, says Barbara Fishleder, PLF director of personal and practice management assistance and executive director of the OAAP.
For attorneys who are just setting up a practice, the program is offering timely assistance. Fishleder says plenty of attorneys choose to go into sole practice as their first choice, but “others go into it because they can’t get hired in this economy. A consistent trend we see is that, when there is a down economy, more lawyers end up being sole practitioners as their second choice, because firms aren’t hiring or are deferring hiring.”
The Practice Management Advisor Program offers hundreds of practice aids that can be downloaded by members at no cost. Accessing the PLF’s practice aids can save lawyers time and anguish, Fishleder says. “We get lots of positive feedback about our practice aids, including the most common comment: ‘I wish I had taken advantage of these resources sooner!’ ”
The PLF has three practice management advisors, all of whom have extensive experience in the legal community and have worked in their current capacity for many years.
“They are an incredible resource,” Fishleder says. “If you are an Oregon lawyer, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel or do it on your own.” Rather than paying a costly consultant, lawyers can take advantage of the practice management advisors’ knowledge of community resources, specialized office arrangements and financially creative opportunities that make practice feasible when money is tight.
OSB Sections Also Help Members
Attorneys in small firms (defined as five or fewer) or sole practices comprise the majority of the bar. Between 350 and 400 lawyers belong to the Sole & Small Firm Practitioners Section, according to W. Scott Phinney, chairman of the section. The section focuses on giving attorneys practical advice, whether the economy is up or down, Phinney says.
“We try to let our members know what they can access to make their lives easier,” he says. For example, the section, which continues to grow in numbers, offers low-cost services and continuing legal education, such as a CLE program in May on technology for the small office, which was attended by more than 200 people.
“One of the things we talked about in the seminar is how to advise clients in a challenging economy,” he says.
Some section members have been affected negatively by the economic downturn, such as those who handle real estate or business transactions. Even those not hurt as much are being paid more slowly by clients.
“It looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s hard to tell how long the tunnel is,” Phinney observes.
M. David Daniel, who taught clinical law at Willamette University for 17 years, has been a sole practitioner in Salem for the past three years. He handles a wide variety of cases, including estate planning and probate, family law, civil trials and appeals.
Even though he taught law students for years how to develop a business plan, figure their overhead expenses, and other aspects of setting up and running a practice, he found that actually going out and doing it is challenging.
“I tell you, it’s surprising what you don’t know and what you have to figure out,” Daniel says. “Sometimes it’s really hard to be a sole practitioner.” He is glad he made the leap, though, and says many colleagues assisted him. “Folks were very helpful. Attorneys are a pretty good bunch.”
He has noted a change in recent law graduates. “A lot more of my students were hanging out their own shingles than in the past. That’s a tough way to go, to open your own office when you’re new to law. Some attorneys are suffering. Some are wondering if their practices are going to survive. Others are doing very well. Mine keeps growing.”
Many members of the OSB’s Law Practice Management Section are in firms of 10 or fewer lawyers, and “the economy is not hurting these firms as much as large firms,” observes Dawna Mason, who chairs the section and has been administrator of the firm Farleigh Wada Witt for 27 years.
Her firm, with 21 lawyers and financial institutions as its largest client base, has added attorneys and is doing an increasing amount of contract work, much of it that would have gone to larger firms in a prosperous economy, she contends.
“There definitely is an upside (to the economy). There’s a shift. People prepared for that shift have benefited.”
Some section members’ firms are able to offer discount rates and flat fees “a lot easier than the larger firms,” and that flexibility gives the smaller firms an advantage when clients are becoming more circumspect about spending for legal services, Mason says.
She has been surprised at the local attorney layoffs. Over the past few months, “I’ve seen e-mails that say, ‘I have this really great person. Do any of you have a position?’ ” Mason says the laid off include support staff, management and lawyers.
“That was a shocker when I see attorneys on there. It hasn’t been customary. What I find unique about that is the legal community is trying to pull together. Basically, they are helping themselves through.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2009 Cliff Collins