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Legal Commentary

: Adam Smith, Esq.

Layoffs: Substitutes & Complements

When non-lawyers ask what's happening in the world of law these days (i.e., what ATL is covering), our first response is usually one word: layoffs. It's been a dominant theme in our coverage since the fall.

Above The Law (today)

While I might nominate that quote for Understatement Of The Season, I cite it for an entirely different purpose:  Are there any alternatives to layoffs?

Actually, I don't believe there are any "pure" alternatives to layoffs, at least not in the economic sense of "substitutes," for firms under serious financial stress.  But I'd like to suggest there are "complements" (economic sense) to layoffs. 

[Jargon digression:  In economics, "substitutes" are goods or services that people can trade off between without drastic disruption or deprivation, such as coffee and tea, bagels and muffins, or red and white wine.  As you can tell from these examples, there are rarely perfect substitutes—we all have our preferences—but if our favorite is unavailable or exorbitantly expensive, we will make do with the alternative and carry on.  "Complements," by contrast, are goods or services that tend to go together.  Think coffee and sugar, bagels and cream cheese, or red wine and bread.]

In the land of law firm layoffs, it's all too easy to understand why so many firms are resorting to them in this unprecedented environment. 

Forgive me if what follows strikes you as simplistic (good for you if it does!), but I find myself explaining this to people with a frequency that suggests it's not widely understood.  Consider hypothetical BigLaw firm in 2008 and 2009:

2009 (no layoffs)
2009 (10% layoffs)
Associate & Staff Compensation & Benefits
All Other Expenses
Profits (% margin)
$350,000,000 (35%)
$200,000,000) (20%)
$255,000,000 (30%)
Profit Decrease (2009 vs. 2008)

Obviously, these numbers are simplistic and you can quibble with the details and assumptions, but the message is powerful:  Law firm P&L's are highly leveraged. In the good times, this is your best friend:  Every additional dollar of revenue drops almost intact to the bottom line.  But in the bad times, this is your worst enemy.  A 1% drop in revenue can--all else equal--lead to a 3% drop in profits.

What, then, to do?  As the famous advice has it, "Follow the money."  The money, in this case, is associate and staff compensation.  Together they are to a law firm's expenses as Social Security and Medicare are to the federal government's budget:  Enormous.  If you need to cut a lot of expense at a law firm, you don't have many alternatives but to look there.  (I'm assuming all your office leases are long-term and not readily renegotiable, especially in this environment.)

The bad news, of course, is that cutting associates and staff used to be viewed as being as untouchable as trimming Social Security and Medicare would be. But not any more. If we've learned nothing else from the drumbeat of layoffs in the US and the UK, it is that there is no stigma attached to them today.

While we're at it, let's not limit the casualties to associates and staff. Everybody ought to share the pain, including equity and (if you have them) non-equity partners. It cannot be true that every single person in category X (say, partner) is irrebuttably indispensable while everyone in category Y (non-equity) is subject to scrutiny. Note to those keeping score at home: Cutting partner ranks will also distribute the diminished profits over a smaller pool, making the hit to your PPP less, percentage-wise, than the hit to your total P.

So if the base case for the inevitability of resorting to layoffs has been made, how can we do it more intelligently? How can we be more intelligent and less reactive, more scalpel and less meat-axe, more humane and less brutal?

Let's go back to "complements."

I suggest there are a variety of techniques you can employ, not as "substitutes" for layoffs, but to enhance their cost-saving impact and trigger other savings. Let me add that, with some degree of consternation, I don't see very many firms implementing these "complements." If this column has no other purpose, it's to change that myopic behavior.

  • Reduced hours for reduced pay. Forgive me, but this strikes me as blisteringly obvious. We've heard bellyaching throughout the boom years about "work/life balance" and so forth, usually to imperceptible effect, but now we have an opportunity we can embrace with gusto. Of course, the reaction of associates invited to partake of this bonanza may suddenly be less than enthusiastic. "Be careful what you wish for?" Still, you should think about it.

  • Sabbaticals. Whether paid, unpaid, or inbetween, consider granting (requiring?) people to take a period of time off. Don't permit them to do nothing, however; make sure the expectation is that they will do something related to broadening themselves, learning, professional or cultural or emotional or even artistic development. You might be surprised at the new imaginations they'll return with. And in the meantime you'll have economized while maintaining loyalty.

  • Shared jobs. As with our first suggestion, this is one that was oft requested and rarely honored during the boom: "Impractical and unworkable." "Clients won't stand for it." "Shirking by another name." "How entitled do they think they are?" Permit me to suggest the world has changed. Think about this again.

  • Salary freezes. Been there, done that, and how shocked are you that the reaction has been so placid? Which brings me to:

  • Salary cuts. I don't know if you read it here first, but it matters not where you did. Economists famously and widely insist that wages are "sticky downwards," which is their awkward formulation of the highly common-sensical notion that people hate to see their pay (at the same employer) actually drop. But these are not ordinary times, and there are ample reasons to think that people would be surprisingly amenable to this revolutionary concept:
    • Today, a job--almost any job, much less a highly respectable one at BigLaw--beats no job. Enough said.
    • There's value in shared sacrifice. Taking a hit, collectively and communally, to preserve the firm's community, is not a hard stretch or leap of the imagination for people today.
    • Dollars go farther than they did 18 months ago. Have you noticed that housing has gotten cheaper? That cars can't be given away? That "70% off" is the minimum required to get people off the street and in the door? That everyone is suddenly very very negotiable on price?

I'm not suggesting my list is exhaustive; it's meant to be suggestive and (we can always hope) creative.

Now's the time to innovate. Given what a straight-line extrapolation of current reality would look like, somebody better.

Full post as published by Adam Smith, Esq. on February 20, 2009 (boomark / email).

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