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Support staff hit hard by ongoing law firm cuts

By: dmc-admin//May 24, 2010//

Support staff hit hard by ongoing law firm cuts

By: dmc-admin//May 24, 2010//

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ImageMilwaukee paralegal John C. Goudie considers himself lucky.

After two layoffs in three years, the 23-year legal veteran found a litigation paralegal position at Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown — a firm that is expanding both in the space it occupies and its number of recent hires. So he feels his job is reasonably safe.

Goudie, vice-president of the Paralegal Association of Wisconsin, said he used his connections to find jobs. After the most recent layoff, he worked on a temporary basis for about three months before landing his present job, so fortunately, he never suffered a complete interruption in income.

He believes paralegals might be particularly vulnerable to layoffs, because new attorneys, also facing a tight market, might be willing to accept associate positions that pay what experienced paralegals can sometimes earn. Some associates have even applied for paralegal jobs.

“I heard of a firm recently advertising for a paralegal and 20 associates applied,” Goudie said.

At the same time, firms are pushing legal secretaries to take on more substantive legal work traditionally done by paralegals, or attorneys are simply doing more tasks that they used to delegate to paralegals.

With 13 lawyers, Goudie’s new firm is considered medium-sized by Wisconsin standards. That’s a demographic that didn’t tend to lay off support staff in high numbers once the economy took its downward spiral, according to Cindy Johnson, president of CareerTrac Professional Group in Brookfield. Johnson said that legal secretaries and paralegals in the state’s biggest, business-oriented law firms have been the hardest-hit in the weak economy.

“The top six all let people go,” said Johnson. “They let go the floaters, the team leaders, the floor supervisors — the ‘luxury’ positions – and they kept the producers.”

Personal injury, foreclosure and bankruptcy and family law remain areas where support staff are needed, Johnson added. However, it’s critical that the candidates she refers have experience in those areas, and therefore some of the staff let go from the biggest firms might not be the best applicants right now.

Staff layoffs often take a backseat to attorney cuts when it comes to attention. But to those now facing unemployment — most of them women — the layoffs are life-changing.

“[Legal secretaries’] earnings really had allowed them to engage in a very middle-class life, including home ownership and sending their children to law school,” said Felice Batlan, an assistant law professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law who wrote a recent paper on the working conditions of legal secretaries.

“With layoffs, all of that is being threatened,” she said.

Batlan’s paper included a nationwide survey of 164 legal secretaries. One survey result in particular shocked her: Nearly 20 percent of respondents had recently lost their jobs.

Many of Batlan’s survey respondents had been legal secretaries for 20 or more years and tended to be middle-aged or older.

“These women are very skilled,” Batlan said. “There’s just no jobs for them to go to.”

The National Association of Legal Secretaries, now known as “NALS … the association for legal professionals,” is addressing the threat many of its members are facing.

NALS President Patricia Infanti, an administrative assistant at a Philadelphia law firm, said she’s heard from many members who’ve lost their jobs. The organization responded by waiving the $98 membership dues for a year for unemployed members.

When law firms feel the crunch of the poor economy, management committees look to support staff positions as one of the first places to trim, Infanti said.

“In the firms’ defense, I believe they honestly try to save money in any way they possibly can before they let staff go,” she said.

Many of the people laid off from the big firms in Wisconsin were given severance packages, Johnson added.

Goudie said that, unlike NALS, the Paralegal Association of Wisconsin isn’t able to waive dues for unemployed members.

“What we’ve seen is a downward spiral in membership for about the past two and a half years. We’re probably at about half of the membership level we were at three years ago. We attribute most of that to the economy. Firms are no longer paying members’ dues or seminars any more, and a lot of former members can’t afford it themselves anymore.”

The group has a job databank, and it’s free for employers to post their listings. In addition, the organization provides an extended network for job seekers. “Many jobs come word-of-mouth; they never hit the paper or job boards,” he said.

Johnson agreed that legal employers aren’t anxious to post their openings these days.

“They don’t want to be bombarded with resumes, nine-tenths of which are coming from people who aren’t qualified for the job. They’re getting blasted and they don’t have time for interviewing.”

She said employers are appreciative of the well-screened candidates recruiters send their way. What they’re looking for, she said, is stability.

“They don’t want job-hoppers,” Johnson said. “They want people who’ve been in their current position for at least four or five years.”

Job-seekers also need to be flexible. Consider the part-time or temporary work that a recruiter may be willing to facilitate, because many times those do turn into full-time jobs with benefits.

Allison Retka of Missouri Lawyers Weekly contributed to this story. Jane Pribek can be reached at [email protected].


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