“You know when we knew a round of layoffs was? It was when they started locking the Coke in the meeting room cabinets. It was a big omen,” I was once told by a paralegal who worked at a prominent Silicon Valley law firm during the dotcom and dotbust.
As she was telling me the details of what happened, I couldn’t help but think of 2009 and 2010. By then, I was in my third year of working in Biglaw. For almost two years, the gossip in my and neighboring law firms revolved around sudden, increasingly frequent departures of numerous legal professionals and reports of cost-cutting measures, such as discontinuation of dinner allowances.
And always in the mix was a lot of fear and anxiety. What if I’m next?, we all thought as we helplessly watched the numbers in our law class dwindle. Surely, if I work extra hard, then I would be spared. This thinking made sense to recent law graduates, who had found success in their own lives by working harder than everyone around them for their entire education and professional careers.
All of this became real to me when the Atrium layoffs were announced. There were a lot of discussions. Many conversations focused on who broke the news first and who saw it coming. There were some nods to the future of the legal field and agreement that this may happen again as legal tech comes to play a more prominent role.
Yet, layoffs are not a blood sport to be enjoyed by spectators. We failed to discuss things that really matter.
Layoffs involve people with families, dreams, and ambitions. There is a distinct lack of humanity when we report that somewhere between 10 and 50 professionals have been affected and then focus on “who reported it first” and “who saw this coming.” It feels too cold, sterile, and inhuman. Hiding behind the numbers and predictions is a tad insensitive.
If you have ever spoken to any legal professional that has been affected by a layoff, you would know how uncomfortable, insecure, and full of anxiety this discussion can be. After all, many lawyers, when laid off, take it as a sign of weakness, incompetence, or shame. Many feel alone and isolated in the process. We do nothing to support or guide. All we offer them is tabloid-quality sentential articles.
Most importantly, critical discussions are missing. For example, how come after years of layoffs, there are very few legal institutions, including law schools or state bars, that have a plan, let alone a good plan, to help lawyers cope, transition, or acquire new skills? Not having a plan for legal layoffs is akin to living in Northern California and not have an emergency plan for earthquakes.
We know that legal layoffs happen; how come we don’t prepare ourselves to deal with them? How come law schools don’t teach you what to do when you know that the partners will be meeting tomorrow to decide whom to cut? How come these institutions have nothing to offer after the unfortunate events happen.
Finally, we know that the legal field is changing. With its new processes and technologies, we know that we are in the midst of a fundamental transformation. We know it will affect all of us. We know that there will be layoffs, restructures, and changes. What do we do as a profession to make sure that we successfully transition together? What do we do to make sure that everyone acquires missing skills? What do we do to make sure that all members of the legal profession are prepared to practice law in the future?
Olga V. Mack is the CEO of Parley Pro, a next-generation contract management company that has pioneered online negotiation technology. Olga embraces legal innovation and had dedicated her career to improving and shaping the future of law. She is convinced that the legal profession will emerge even stronger, more resilient, and more inclusive than before by embracing technology. Olga is also an award-winning general counsel, operations professional, startup advisor, public speaker, adjunct professor, and entrepreneur. Olga founded the Women Serve on Boards movement that advocates for women to participate on corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies. Olga also co-founded SunLaw, an organization dedicated to preparing women in-house attorneys to become general counsels and legal leaders, and WISE to help female law firm partners become rainmakers. She authored Get on Board: Earning Your Ticket to a Corporate Board Seat and Fundamentals of Smart Contract Security. You can email Olga at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @olgavmack.