As part of Above the Law’s 2020 in review each of the editors are throwing together our own list of top stories of 2020. Of course, 2020 was a dumpster fire, so almost all of the stories on my personal list are a reminder of awful.
With that depressing note, here it is: my top stories of 2020.
Lawyers love a good ranking, especially an unexpected one. Law school rankings — at least at the top of the list — tend to be pretty static, the Top 14 law schools have pretty much always been the same. So a new ranking that upends that tradition — well, readers just loved that.
Pepperdine Law dean Paul L. Caron put together what he calls the Princeton Review’s overall law school rankings, ranking schools by giving equal weight to each of the Princeton Review’s most comprehensive rankings: Admissions Selectivity, Academic Experience, Professors: Teaching, Professors: Accessibility, and Career Rating.
So what’s the result? Well, while there are a lot of law schools that we usually see at the top of rankings, there are some surprises. Take, for example, BU and Notre Dame, shooting well above their USNWR ranking and coming in at a tie for 7th.
#9 Law Firm Layoffs Amid COVID-19
The number 9 story comes to us from early in the pandemic, when layoffs or other austerity measures still seemed like a novelty.
New York City-based 50-lawyer firm of Robinson Brog made the difficult decision to layoff staff members amid the global health crisis. As managing partner Roger A. Raimond wrote in an email sent to those remaining at the firm:
[T]he Executive Committee made the decision to trim our roster to curb the potential negative economic effects we face. Although we are all saddened by the reduction of our staff, the decisions were made in an effort to maintain the firm’s long term viability. I speak for the entire Executive Committee when I say that we remain committed to each of you and I am confident that together we will get through these difficult times.
Though it is currently unclear exactly how many employees were impacted by the firm’s decision to “trim [their] roster,” we sympathize with anyone who has to deal with the anxiety of a global health crisis PLUS financial insecurity.
Top 25 Biglaw firm Goodwin Procter also had to make some difficult cuts.
According to Above the Law tipsters, ~50 staff members were laid off by the Biglaw firm. A Goodwin Procter spokesperson confirmed the cuts and provided the following statement:
We recently reviewed the performance and size of our global operations team given the current and anticipated effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the global economy. As a result of our analysis, we made the difficult decision to ask a limited number of our global operations team members to leave the firm. We are providing severance packages, based on tenure, to impacted employees. In addition, we will make continued contribution to healthcare benefits through September 30, 2020 for all affected personnel. Our global operations team continues to play a key role in supporting the firm’s operations, lawyers and clients across the business of law.
And while the firm certainly seems to be doing the best they can by these now former employees, from the tips we’ve received, folks aren’t impressed. One tipster reported being “shocked.”
That wasn’t the end of the cuts at Goodwin.
We knew this was going to start happening. Stealth layoffs are a Biglaw specialty and the economic upheaval surrounding COVID-19 is ripe for them. Above the Law is hearing from multiple insiders at the firm that over the last month or so, Goodwin Procter has been letting associates go. They’ve already laid off staff members, and now it seems it’s cutting some associates from its payroll. As a reminder, the firm made over a billion dollars in gross revenue last year — $1,330,176,000 to be precise — making it 22nd on the most recent Am Law 100.
Particularly prevalent during economic downturns, stealth layoffs allow firms to cut headcount without confirming that there were economic-based layoffs. Rather than signal some perceived weakness, a firm tries to cut overhead without making a splash. So, they’ll give the associates X number of months/weeks to find a new job and the firm may even couch the reductions in performance review terms, making those let go doubt their lawyering skills.
The COVID-19 upheaval impacted everyone, but at Kirkland & Ellis, a partner wanted everyone to know it did not change associates’ billable hours requirement:
The email in question was sent to associates in the Houston office of Kirkland & Ellis by Andy Calder, a partner and member of the firm’s global management committee. The email scolds folks that they need to keep churning out billable hours and that the firm “isn’t a gravy train where you can just chill and be along for the ride” and that “the math is not going to work out well for you at the end of the year.”
Notice, if you will, the complete lack of empathy in the letter — no mention that people who work at the firm might be suffering from COVID-19 or have a loved one hospitalized with the virus, or that in-person school has been canceled and all the parents working for him are likely trying to balance the demands of their children with the demands of this job, or that the isolation caused by the pandemic can exacerbate existing mental health issues. Nope, none of these very real concerns are mentioned, let alone validated in the email. The message — from a member of the management committee — is clear: you are only useful to the firm if you keep on billing. And if you can’t bill because there is a goddamned pandemic going on? Tough shit, figure it out yourself.
Jones Day had an… interesting 2020. There was the New York Times article blowing up Jones Day (and Porter Wright) over their election litigation representations. Then there was Jones Day’s anemic response to the controversy. The Lincoln Project also promised to spend $500,000 on an ad campaign going after them — and, importantly, their clients — over the representation. But the MeidasTouch PAC actually beat them to the punch by releasing a Jones Day attack video first. All the while, other Biglaw firms have been fleeing the election litigation like rats from a ship.
But the top Jones Day story was about an internal email expressing disappointment at the firm over their representation of the GOP in election litigation.
It’s pretty clear that the harm this representation is causing Jones Day goes deeper than those on the outside. Let’s not forget, “Pile On Jones Day” week got started because internal sources at Jones Day that were upset with the firm’s involvement in election litigation spoke with the New York Times. So we *know* there are people inside the giant Biglaw firm that are upset about… everything the firm’s doing right now. But this is one of the first quasi-public (send something to an entire office and it’s bound to get out) statements anyone from Jones Day has made on the subject, and it comes from an associate.
Thus far, partners at the firm have been conspicuously quiet, though I suspect they aren’t as sanguine behind closed doors. Because if I had a sizable book of business and portable clients and the firm’s pursuit of a pet right-wing legal theory was threatening to unleash this PR nightmare on them, well, I’d think long and hard about how to best serve my own clients.
From the moment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s unfortunate passing, Court watchers knew the Trump administration planned on installing Amy Coney Barrett in her seat. Barrett’s retrograde jurisprudence is the final step in the religious right’s takeover of the Court.
Here’s the thing — this is a really, really big deal. It’s not just because as someone with a uterus, it is impossible for me not to oppose the approaching erosion of reproductive freedom. But this is only the tip of the iceberg — one the right has been priming the public for since Coney Barrett was one year old. There will surely be other marginalized groups that see their hard won rights take a hit as a very particular sort of conservative philosophy keeps tightening its grip on American jurisprudence. You shouldn’t need your own rights on the chopping block to see the problem with empowering this jurisprudence.
This is one of the more awkward columns I’ve ever had to write. Above the Law is known for being irreverent and snarky, so a heartfelt post about a personal friend feels a little strange. But also strange is not acknowledging that a prominent figure in the legal world is currently hospitalized with the coronavirus. That’s right: David Lat, who founded Above the Law in 2006, has been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Fortunately Lat made a recovery and is back to his regular duties as an Above the Law columnist. But his harrowing experience was a reminder of just how dangerous COVID-19 can be.
Associate layoffs are, generally speaking, a firm’s cost-cutting measure of last resort. So, when a Biglaw firm starts cutting attorneys from the payroll, we take note.
According to multiple sources at the firm, Womble Bond Dickinson announced on Friday afternoon a series of cost-cutting measures. That includes associate layoffs, employee furloughs, and cuts to lawyer compensation for those left at the firm. As a tipster reports:
FYI Womble Bind Dickinson made an announcement this afternoon about layoffs and furloughs to associates and staff. They also announced a 10 percent pay reduction for anyone making over $100k and a lower percentage reduction in the $50k to $100k range and the below $50k range. Announcement was made via conference call. No memo sent out to anyone yet
It’s starting to feel a lot like 2009 up in here.
My top Above the Law story of 2020 documented exactly how Biglaw responded to the unrest caused by the murder of George Floyd.
It is not an unfair criticism of Biglaw to say they are disconnected from the society they ostensibly serve. They frequently operate in a world of high finance and bet the company litigation that feels removed from the everyday lives of so many. But that’s the thing about 2020, it has a knack for bringing the problems of the world right to your front door.
So in the wake of protests against racism sparked by the death of George Floyd under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin, how is Biglaw responding? Every firm will have it owns response from the concrete (donating resources and pro bono hours) to the symbolic (expressing outrage) to the silent (the work never stops in Biglaw). Above the Law is committed to documenting the reactions of all the Biglaw firms.
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, and host of The Jabot podcast. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).