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Legal Commentary

: Adam Smith, Esq.

The Human Toll


Time for a time-out.

In all the obsessiveness and compulsiveness about the impact that this little economic interregnum we're gamely marching through is having on our firms, our P&L's, and even our personal balance sheets, let us pause for a moment to consider the genuine human toll of layoffs.  The National Law Journal recently put it nicely:

Situation wanted: High-performance type with dashed hopes, loads of law school debt and mortgage acquired at peak of housing boom seeking self-esteem and lost identity following recent layoff from law firm. Willing to adjust once-lofty career aspirations in exchange for doing anything remotely related to the practice of law.

The ad may be fiction, but the scenario has become a reality for hundreds of attorneys who started law school just a few years ago with prospects of six-figure salaries and their pick of where to practice.

Nor should it surprise you to hear that lawyers are especially poor at dealing with layoffs—particularly the "Millenials" who have been raised on a non-stop diet of affirmation and positive reinforcement.  Lawyers' inherent traits work against them following a layoff, no matter how often they're told that it was not "performance" related:

  • As Type A personalities, they're not used to anything short of excelling; a layoff comes as a complete shock and takes time to assimilate psychologically.
  • This is probably the first time in their lives they've been forced to deal with feeilngs of failure.
  • The loss of direction and purpose is profound.
  • Classic lawyers traits—risk aversion, impatience, skepticism—work against a speedy recovery from the body blow of a layoff.
  • Lawyers also are introverts and the enormous insult of a layoff tends to make them even more withdrawn and isolated.

What's going on at a psychological and physical level is the classic "fight or flight" response that kicks in whenever one feels in danger.  While this was a beneficial and even life-saving adaptation on the African savannah, study after study has shown it to be profoundly counterproductive and self-defeating in the canyons of our cities.  The continual low-level anxiety tempts people to make rash decisions, view the world in Manichean terms, and blame themselves for their fate, regardless of their actual responsibility for finding themselves on the street.

What's less widely recognized is the negative impact on those lawyers and staff who remain employed.  As noted in the LA Times in "Layoffs take toll even on survivors:"

"None of the effects are good," said Frank Landy, author of "Work in the 21st Century." An organizational psychologist, Landy specializes in understanding the emotions of work. "Layoffs clearly have emotional and practical consequences for companies and workers."Those consequences are, unfortunately, long-term.

The psychological fallout of surviving a layoff lasts six years, according to the study published by the Institute of Behavioral Science. And the effects of surviving multiple layoffs are cumulative. They add up rather than dissipate.

"It only takes one action of distrust to lose basic confidence in the employer. It's like a romantic relationship. Once the trust has been undermined, it's very, very difficult to recover," Landy said. "There's no data that suggests workers become more resilient. 'I'm a survivor, hear me shout'? It doesn't happen."

The problem, of course, is that even the "survivors" feel their situation is precarious.  They also feel—rightly or wrongly—that their firm has broken a covenant of faith with them.

Lingering distrust is one of the final stops on the emotional misery tour taken by most surviving employees. First, there's the disbelief, anxiety and desperation resulting from the initial layoff announcement. Then comes the sweeping sense of relief when one's job is spared, followed, in rapid succession, by guilt, fear and stress.

In a volatile labor climate that's rapidly shedding existing jobs across all sectors of the economy, and during which any available employment may be likely to bring less pay, that emotional trajectory is only amplified.

The risk is that the survivors are tempted to descend into cynicism.  (If you doubt me, spend not more than 30 seconds [please!] reading comments on "Above The Law.")  The temptations for the cast-off and the survivors alike are all self-destructive:

  • Withdrawal (as noted).
  • Increased alcohol use or drug abuse, especially of painkillers or sleep aids.
  • Shockingly negative thoughts, including suicidal ones.
  • A pessimistic outlook, which in turn engenders negative interactions, which lower expectations, which encourages pessimism.
  • Sloppy and compulsive eating habits, with concomitant weight gain.
  • Neglecting exercise.
  • Sleeping poorly.

And it would be folly to predict anything other than that it will get worse before it gets better.  If you doubt me, just extrapolate the last few months from this chart, courtesy of Above The Law's "Layoff Tracker."  Since the image is small, here are the numbers:

As of March 6, 2009, there have been over 7,241 layoffs (3,045 lawyers / 4,196 staff) since January 1, 2008. There have been 5,408 (2,149 / 3,259) in calendar 2009 - 1,132 (337 / 795) in March.


The only good news may be that there are professional resources available to help.

Primary among them is the ABA's "Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs," which describes the background to its mission as follows:

During this time of career and financial uncertainty, lawyers are experiencing new stress and trauma as a result of the recession and national belt-tightening in the profession. Law firms are finding it necessary to reduce their lawyer and support staff numbers and are in some instances closing firms. The states that have staffed lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) can provide peer support for individuals and referrals to counseling--career, mental, and financial. The lawyers helping lawyers component of LAPs has existed from the beginning and continues to be of critical assistance in times of relapse, stress, and trauma. These volunteers can share a special bond and understanding, which has been found to be true in other professional peer support programs as well.

During an extended recession in the 1980s, researchers at Johns Hopkins University were able to correlate a statistical significance between economic factors, such as joblessness and social harms, with alcoholism and suicide. The data showed that for each one percent rise in unemployment, suicides increased 4.1 percent; homicides, 5.7 percent; deaths from heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, and stress-related disorders, 1.9 percent; and admissions to mental hospitals, 2.3 percent for women and 4.3 percent for men. Although data and intuition imply that unemployment and lack of hope, both common in recession, are correlated to addictive behavior, a cause and effect relationship cannot be automatically implied. The legal profession has previously reached number one in another Johns Hopkins study that ranks professionals in rate of depression and suicide. We are seriously concerned that these numbers will continue to increase.

If you personally have been side-swiped by this unprecedented period, you should know these resources exist and take advantage of them.  If you have escaped the scythe but know someone who hasn't, reach out to them.  They're not lepers.  Time for us to band together as best we can.  This cannot—this will not—go on forever.  Be sure you're battle-ready when the clouds finally begin to part.

Full post as published by Adam Smith, Esq. on March 15, 2009 (boomark / email).

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