Women Lawyers May Be At Risk During the Recession

law.JPGby Anna Collins, Esq. (Portland, Maine)

On February 12, 2009, just a few days before Valentine’s Day, the legal industry experienced what some have labeled “Black Thursday” – more than 700 jobs were cut at major law firms that day with another 400 confirmed the next day by Am Law Daily. Anyone who still doubts the legal profession is feeling the recession, can glance at the sobering layoff statistics committed to keeping a focus on those who are “in, or refugees from BigLaw.”

So, who exactly are the refugees? As the New York Times reported earlier this month, 82 percent of the job losses in the overall labor market have been experienced by men, who are heavily represented in impacted industries like manufacturing and construction. In order to determine whether a similar trend is developing in law, we chatted with several experts in the employment and human resources field. Their observations highlight the possibility that women lawyers may actually be the ones more at risk during the recession.At first glance, the layoffs in the legal field mirror those in the overall labor market.

Steven Lynch, Managing Partner at Lucas Group in Atlanta, notes that the legal practices most affected have been “finance, real estate, and general corporate practice.” Since these practice areas are still somewhat dominated by men, some might conclude women lawyers are not particularly at risk. In fact, Steven Lynch, who has been placing attorneys for more than 7 years, has not seen gender being a blatant factor in layoffs. “We are not really seeing law firms or corporate law departments discriminating based on gender,” he explains “what we are seeing is that the attorneys are chosen to be let go based on their profitability to the firm or lack thereof. Those that bill less hours or bill at a lower hourly rate are the first to go regardless of gender.”

Yet, Leila S. Narvid of Payne & Fears, LLP in San Francisco, has found that women lawyers, both in-house and in private practice, are often more at risk than men in a recession because “among the first industries to be hit by economic downturn are women-dominated industries such as retail, hospitality, and service.”

While he does not see blatant discrimination, Steven Lunch acknowledges that women may be at risk. When asked about the latest figures from the National Association for Law Placement, which show that 74% of part time attorney are women, Lynch agrees that “to the extent that women are more likely to be working part time or billing less hours due to their return to the work place after starting a family, they are most certainly at risk in a recession.”

Lynch also believes that because of their low rank and position on the totem pole, the common denominator from firm to firm appears to be that the less tenured lawyers are likely to be laid off in the first round, after administrative staff. “The ‘last in, first out’ mentality has certainly applied during the current downturn,” he says “That said, we have seen examples of under-performing equity partners, counsel-level and non-equity partners also being shown the door, again based on profitability determinations.” Gender becomes part of the picture, Lynch concludes, when one considers the fact that women are less likely to be equity partners. “There are less women than men who are equity partners,” Lynch explains “so the women who are at the non-equity partner or below, are certainly lower on the totem pole and therefore at risk.”

While the recession may place some women lawyers at risk, there are actions women can take to mitigate that risk. Leila Narvid believes, for example, that it serves women lawyers well to have a diversified client base. “For associates who receive work from partners, it is important to take the initiative to work with partners who have clients in the more stable industries, which right now are clean technology, life sciences, and biotechnology,” she explains. Recognizing that women who bill less hours might be at risk, Narvid recommends that women who work part-time or flex-time “remind the partners, in subtle ways, of the value they bring to the firm.”

Matt Rosen, Human Resources Director at Schiller International University, actually believes that women lawyers who work part-time or flex-time may be able to weather the recession better, since firms will find their employment to be an asset during a time when cost cutting is necessary. The trick is to make the asset obvious to the employer. While women who work part-time and flex-time are unfortunately often looked over as not being ‘go-getters,’ Leila Narvid believes attorneys can work against this stereotype by becoming involved in networking opportunities and business development forums for women. She has also found that the more one shows investment and interest in a firm’s well-being and business development endeavors, “the more one is viewed as an asset to the firm, even if she does not work full time.”

The recession may also bring new opportunities for women lawyers. Rosen believes, for example, that women lawyers may do quite well in the recession, especially considering how well they are represented in fields that are likely to be “really hot” during a recession, such as labor and employment law. Steven Lynch confirms that labor and employment has continued to be a busy practice area with few layoffs. “It is likely to stay busy,” he explains. “As companies restructure and adjust to the recession,” he continues “the demand increases for legal counsel pertaining to personnel and compensation decisions and the inevitable litigation that follows.”

Yet, he does not believe there will be additional hiring in the immediate future, “unless lawyers have the type of portable business that makes them attractive to firms seeking extra revenue.” As law firms continue to sharpen their focus on profitability, it is clear that women would be wise to start shifting the aim of their practice accordingly. During a crisis, after all, it is those who take action that end up being rewarded. Some even become heroes.