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Here’s What Law Associates Can Do to Prepare for More Layoffs

Dec. 2, 2022, 9:00 AM

As a legal recruiter, I have been hearing from an increasing number of Big Law associates who are concerned about layoffs as we head into performance review and bonus season.

While some of these associates are worried simply because there is uncertainty in the economy, there are other valid reasons for concern. Either way, here are some questions that all associates should be thinking about right now.

How concerned should you be about the market?

Although the market has undoubtedly slowed, I do not anticipate large-scale layoffs like those we saw during 2008 recession. Such layoffs had a ripple effect on associate recruiting that lasted almost a decade—firms struggled to hire qualified mid-level and senior associates when workflow resumed.

Especially coming off a year like 2021, when demand soared and lateral associate hiring hit a feverish pace, firms are likely to be cautious before making significant cuts.

That said, a handful of firms recently announced associate layoffs. It’s no consolation to those affected, but these layoffs have been widely viewed as a market correction by firms that over-hired in 2021.

Additional firms have conducted stealth layoffs, or reductions that are couched as performance-related. That number is likely to increase as we approach year-end .

Based on my conversations with law firm leaders and partners, most firms are planning to avoid large-scale cuts at this time, but might let go of some under-performing associates and certain associates in slower and/or less strategically important practice areas.

When should you worry about your own job security?

No matter the state of the market, it is critically important for all associates to thoroughly evaluate their careers to make sure they are properly positioned to achieve their future goals. At the risk of oversimplifying, if your billable hours are low, you probably have some reason to pause.

Of course, one’s workflow will ebb and flow even in the best of times, but if there is sustained slowness—as opposed to a sluggish few weeks or a break between matters—it is important to take it seriously.

Whenever associates come to me concerned about their hours, I always ask the same questions: Are the other associates in your group also seeing a slowdown? Have you proactively and consistently asked for work?

Have you asked the partners whether there are any new matters in the pipeline on which you might be staffed? Are you going into the office on a regular basis (a question I only started asking recently)?

In the vast majority of cases, the associate is already being quite proactive, but it is important to do everything you can within your control.

While low billable hours are the strongest signal, there are other factors that might also cause anxiety, such as lack of mentorship and training, poor integration, or challenging personality dynamics.

Especially in the current climate, associates should take all concerns seriously and use the opportunity to holistically assess the situation.

What should you do if you think you are at risk?

Associates who are concerned about job security should not bury their heads in the sand. It is crucial to your career development, even at an early stage.

First, associates should explore all potential avenues to improve the circumstances within their current firms. For example, if you are in a slow practice area, try to ask for work outside your department. Many firms are still busy, especially in countercyclical practices such as bankruptcy and litigation, and are open to repositioning their existing talent or retooling junior associates.

This may not be an ideal long-term solution, but it could offer a Band-Aid for the moment. Additionally, I recommend communicating any concerns to someone at your firm—perhaps a mentor or a partner outside your department—in order to seek specific guidance.

At the same time, associates should absolutely begin the process of exploring other opportunities. The first step is updating your resume to highlight your skill set and recent experience.

It is often helpful to connect with an experienced recruiter who can provide you with resume feedback and market information, as well as guide you through a potential search process.

Some associates ultimately decide to remain at their firms after exploring the market, but most still find tremendous value in the exercise of taking control of their careers. The lateral recruiting process can take several months, so it is best to start early—ideally before any impending timelines.

If, however, you are an unfortunate victim of a layoff, it is acceptable to be up front about your status to a prospective employer. Of course, this is a personal choice, but employers are often quite understanding so long as partner references are willing to speak on your behalf.

It is more complicated when the layoff is characterized as performance-related, but (if firm policy permits) I advise associates to still ask for recommendations in order to overcome any potential stigma. Alternatively, it can be helpful when associates are able to share positive past performance reviews.

This moment provides a valuable opportunity for all associates to look critically at their careers. Do not sit back and be complacent as the industry evolves. On the same note, though, it’s best not to make any rash decisions when emotions are running high.

Especially in uncertain economic times, it is even more important to make sure you are set up for long-term success.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Stephanie Biderman is a partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa who specializes in placing attorneys of all levels into national, international, regional and boutique law firms, and prominent in-house positions.