The U.S. legal sector cut 1,700 jobs in the first weeks of the coronavirus impact on the economy as law firms and other employers scrambled to adjust to a worsening business climate.
The figures reported by the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday captures a period between the middle of February to the middle of March, just as Covid-19 began to hit American markets and business. The estimate is based on employer reporting on how many full-time and hourly employees are on their payrolls on the 12th of each month.
“Legal is usually a lagging indicator,” said James G. Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, a group of legal career professionals. “The March numbers don’t go through March 31 and would not reflect the most recent reductions in force.”
The pandemic has devastated the economy overall, and pushed many law firms to make tough decisions about their futures that have increasingly included cuts in pay, layoffs, and furloughs.
Arent Fox, Baker Donelson, Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft, Goldberg Segalla, Reed Smith, and Womble Bond Dickinson announced this week cost-cutting measures to pull back on expenses as law firms face an uncertain future. E-discovery company, DISCO, has also cut staff.
Legal services chalked up relatively few losses in the first coronavirus-fueled snapshot of employment compared to professional and business services, which saw a reduction of 52,000 positions in a range of services, including legal, accounting, bookkeeping and advertising.
Law firms in the Great Recession pared around 18,000 jobs in 2008, and 41,000 in 2009. But the industry has rebounded in the past decade.
“Legal services data doesn’t fluctuate that much, especially compared to some of the other non-farm sectors,” said Stephen Crestol, a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist.
But, he cautioned, “since most of the stay-in-place closures occurred around mid-March, it’s hard to say exactly what the numbers are.”