The Firms

March 23, 2009 5:20 AM

Everything's Louder in Texas, Except the Layoffs

Posted by Nate Raymond

At a time when law firms are more openly announcing and discussing layoff decisions, one group of firms is being particularly mum about job cuts--the Texans.

Layoffs hit the region later than the rest of the country, with news of cuts at firms like Baker Botts, Andrews Kurth, and Gardere Wynne Sewell coming only in the last month. Yet while the firms typically have confirmed that they've conducted layoffs, they've fought to keep the actual number of people affected quiet.

"It's an interesting market where, unlike New York and the West Coast, not everybody's being candid," says Andrews Kurth managing partner Robert Jewell.

That description might be said of his firm, actually. Sibling publication Texas Lawyer reported on March 4 that the firm laid off at least 20 associates several weeks ago; Jewell continues to decline to confirm that figure.

Baker Botts conducted "selective layoffs" of associates and staff, according to a March 12 memo. Yet managing partner Walter Smith is mum on how many people got the axe. "We don't get into numbers," he says. (Above the Law placed the number at 30.)

And Dallas-based Gardere Wynne cited the "privacy of the people impacted" for why it didn't disclose numbers when it announced job cuts March 12. The 300-attorney firm would only say that reports that it laid off 20 attorneys and 40 staff were "incorrect, and the number of people involved in both categories was substantially less." (Managing partner Steven Good did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.)

Industry experts in Texas are at a loss to explain why the firms there are handling cuts in this way. "It's curious they've done it that way," says Stephen Mims, a Houston-based recruiter with Prescott Legal Search. "Seems to me if the taboo has been broken by the national firms, I don't know why they don't follow the leader."

The trend may only apply to lawyers. In February, Winstead disclosed it was laying off 20 staff members in Dallas. But in March, when Texas Lawyer reported online that the firm was laying off lawyers, the firm confirmed the cuts yet declined to provide a number. (Winstead also has canceled its 2009 summer associate program.)

Other Texas-based firms say they haven't announced layoffs but are cutting back. At Bracewell & Giuliani, managing partner Mark Evans says the firm hasn't laid anyone off. But "a few people" were let go because of end-of-the-year evaluations, he says. In September, the 450-lawyer firm increased the number of lawyers assigned to one secretary from two to three, suggesting a decrease in staff over time.

"There are a lot of programs to let people phase out of that, so we haven't done anything dramatic in that regard," Evans says.

Haynes and Boone managing partner Terry Conner says the firm is "still hoping to avoid layoffs." The firm has excess capital, he says, and is banking on an uptick in demand in the second half of the year.

"That said, as we've told lawyers, if the long-term supply and demand factors are negative, then I don't think any law firm can rule out the possibility of layoffs these days," Conner says.

As for the other Texas giant, Vinson & Elkins, a spokesman says the firm has not done any layoffs.

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Don't be fooled by the Texas firms saying they're "not" laying off lawyers. They are. The only twist is that they're going to their assoicates and saying, "The economy is toxic. It's not working out, so we recommend you start looking for a job." Is this better than actually coming right out and laying people off? Who knows but it seems disingenuous.

Bracewell & Guiliani HAVE HAD layoffs. Mark Evan is mistaken when he says no to layoffs, only to describe it as "But "a few people" were let go because of end-of-the-year evaluations."

No layoffs at Vinson & Elkins - are you kidding me?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!? Take a walk through the halls - it's a ghost town! I was one of the ones "not laid off" a year ago. They just had 6 attorneys laid off last week!

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