The Case of the Disappearing Lawyers

In normal times, so-called “stealth layoffs”—economically driven firings disguised as normal turnover or as the result of bad performance reviews—can be dangerous for firms. If word of what they’re really doing gets out, the firm gets tagged as both flailing and dishonest, which can impair recruiting efforts when the economy improves. But in times like these, in which so many firms are experiencing slowness and discreetly trimming their ranks, stealth layoffs may be easier to get away with.

 

YET ANOTHER RECENT and mysterious disappearance—one might call it metropolitan downsizing—happened when Dewey & LeBoeuf announced the closing of its Hartford office. On its Web site, Dewey touts the office as “strategically located between New York City and New England,” as well as host to “one of our firm’s premier litigation teams” and the center of the firm’s environmental practice. The office was said to be quite profitable, and its shuttering left some folks scratching their heads. In a statement, the firm attributed the move to “its global strategy to expand the firm’s resources in major capital markets throughout the world.”

What exactly does that mean? Here’s one rumor making the rounds: Dewey closed Hartford at the behest of a consultant, who told the firm that small-market offices would hamper them from truly competing with the Skaddens of the world.

This may make the closing a little less mysterious. (Although the mystery of why law firms so slavishly follow the advice of consultants remains unsolved.)

So are all these disappearances on the DL just a side effect of the instability currently coursing through the financial and legal markets? When times are bad, it seems that lawyers—who generally loathe ambiguity—take the discretion they deploy for their clients and apply it to themselves. Unclear times call for unclear measures.