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Negotiating Unemployment: Hope for Laid Off Lawyers

The last recession is vivid in my own mind because an AmLaw200 /1 law firm laid me off in the Spring of 1992 – a year after the recession’s “official” end in March of 1991.  As the U.S. government’s Monthly Labor Review Online explains in The 1990-91 recession, the “end” of the recession wasn’t much noticed by the labor market which

  • continued to deteriorate long after other economic indicators began to improve and the official ending date of the recession was chosen.
  • resulted in job losses for white-collar workers in general, and workers in the finance, insurance, and real estate industry in greater numbers than at any time in the past
  • created many more unemployed workers who would not be rehired when the economy improved than experienced in downturns.

Those, of course, are just the statistics and no lawyer laid off by AmLaw firms in the past few months is much interested in yesterday.  They are rightly focused upon today and tomorrow.  /2  That’s the focus of this piece — today and tomorrow — even though my 1992 “today and tomorrow” took place more than a decade ago.

Success or Failure

I teach a lot. Sometimes in law schools, sometimes in law firm settings, sometimes for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, and sometimes in business schools.  The young people I teach are understandably concerned with one of life’s “big” questions:


My answer — “sometimes” — may sound glib, but it’s one of the few pieces of genuine wisdom I have to offer from the tail end of the legal career path.  Sometimes you will be successful and sometimes you will fail.  Sometimes your failure will be wholly circumstantial and out of your control – layoffs because of national and international economic calamity, for instance.  Sometimes your success will come because you were in the right place at the right time.  And sometimes it will be the result of persistence, hard work, talent, skill and courage.  Usually, success and failure will be a combination of all of these factors.

So begins my cautionary and hopeful tale.

The fall from a very high perch

The years 1989 through 1992 were among the most “successful” of my legal career if you measure success the way attorneys in the higher echelons of the profession tend to do – by the complexity and size of the cases I was handling; the prominence – both monetarily and reputationally — of my clients; the parties opponent; and, opposing legal counsel; and, my salary – then pegged to an AmLaw 100 standard.

I was really busy and not paying that much attention to the economy.  I’d just bought my first ever sports car.  New.  Hot.  Turbo-charged.  And I’d been living in a newly acquired condominium just below the Sunset Strip for less than a year.  I was single and travelling a lot.  My colleagues were high-flyers and I slip-streamed behind them.  I was also . . well . . drinking a lot.  See Wikipedia, Early 1990s recession (“Like all recessions, the one of the late 1980s and early 1990s had a profound impact on society. Rates of alcoholism and drug abuse increased, as did rates of depression.”)

People were being laid off but I knew their fates were tied to performance rather than the contracting economy.  My father, god rest his soul, had the following to say when I told him how much money I was making:

“I’m worried about you.”


“Because you now have so far to fall.”

Lay Off

The managing partner was a “buddy” of mine.  You know the type.  More than a colleague and less than a friend.  A member of the posse our practice group formed in the firm.  We’d biked 50 miles from Rosarita to Ensenada together.  Drank together.  Danced together.  Talked about who was interested in who together.  The male lawyers in the group had created a quite public “impunity” list of the  women lawyers they could sleep with “without impunity.”  Everyone thought it was funny.

So, like I said.  I wasn’t paying attention.

The managing partner took me to lunch.  We had a couple of drinks.  He told me the firm was laying me off.  I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.  Tears welled up in my eyes.  I had trouble catching my breath.  The firm would pay me three months severence.  They’d hire me a head-hunter.  I could use the office or leave as I chose.  It didn’t have anything to do with my performance.

I was a twelfth year associate with no book of business.  I was making a lot of money with liberal bonuses, and tremendous benefits.  And I was pretty much spending all of it every month.  The new car and the new condo.  An expense-account life-style I’d taken on when not on a business trip.  An attitude.

Sound familiar to anyone?  Next post, unemployment. 


1/  Although the AmLaw 200 did not come into existence until 1999, the firm that laid me off in the Spring of 1992 would likely have been a member.  Most pertinent to this story, that firm was paying its associates AmLaw100 salaries.

2/  According to Law Shucks Layoff Tracker As of February 13, 2009, there have been over 4,376 layoffs since January 1, 2008. There have been 2,614 in calendar 2009 – 1,071 in February alone.


Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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