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Robert Trigaux

Holland & Knight cuts part of national law trend



Exitsign Wake up and good morning. Law firms historically tend to be more immune to economic downturns than many businesses. But not this week. Not this recession.

Holland & Knight -- a major player in the Tampa Bay area and one of the nation's larger law firms -- said Thursday that it will eliminate 70 jobs of about 1,150 lawyers and 173 support positions for a total of 243 layoffs. The firm called the measure "a restructuring" that included reassigning lawyers to places with increasing demand. Said an H&K spokeswoman:

"As we looked at the uncertainties with the economic downturn, our measures were prudent and called for, and respond to client demand over the long term."

Holland & Knight did not specify where the cuts will be made but said the hits would affect 21 offices. But the law firm is clearly Florida-centric. Eight of its 18 U.S. offices are in Florida, including Tampa where the firm's Web site lists 75 attorneys here including well know names like (former congressman and gubernatorial candidate) Jim Davis, "Trey" Baldy, (Tampa Bay Rays counsel) John Higgins, (former governor) Bob Martinez and Jim Shimberg.

Not that Holland & Knight was alone. Just on Thursday, almost 800 associates and legal staff nationwide returned home jobless after eight firms conducted mass layoffs, citing an unprecedented downturn in demand, according to a report in the National Law Journal. The story quotes legal consultant Peter Zeughauser:

"There will be more (layoffs). Materially more. I'm aware of some big ones coming up."

Not to be flip, but check out this list -- called Body Count --  of law firms that cut staff on Thursday. Like many parts of the U.S. economy, the acceleration of the recession in recent months is forcing more draconian cuts. Adds the National Law Journal comment from consultant Zeughauser:

"Everything hit a wall in the last quarter of 2008. Now firms are retrenching. Firms are full. They gorged on associates and now are told they need a quintuple bypass. Nobody saw this coming."

Stevensonberghkmngpartner Holland & Knight's cuts, coming after it posted another year of disappointing financial results, were announced to the firm Thursday evening in an e-mail from managing partner Steven Sonberg, the National Law Journal reported. In the e-mail, Sonberg (in photo) said management had been working for months to analyze the firm's operations and revise its 2009 budget based on the "adverse effects of the current economic downturn." Wrote Sonberg:

"The firm is taking additional steps to address market conditions. We are looking at all aspects of our firm's operations as part of our plan to improve efficiency."

Sonberg, based in South Florida and whose one-year anniversary as managing partner is March 17, said the decisions were very difficult. "But we felt that they were necessary to meet our clients' changing needs and expectations," said Sonberg responding to an e-mail from Florida's Daily Business Review. (Photo courtesy of Holland & Knight.)

Employees being laid off will be given severance pay, continued health care benefits and placement services, Sonberg said. Other elements of the plan include attorney reassignments to higher-demand practice areas, a reorganization of staff functions, and undisclosed modifications to partner, associate and staff compensation systems.

Holland & Knight's layoffs were announced two days after the firm released its annual financial results showing revenue dropped 1 percent to $606 million last year on top of a dip of 0.2 percent in 2007, according to the American Lawyer. Profit per equity partner dropped 3 percent to $678,337.

The revenue decline was the worst among Florida’s five largest law firms last year.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:24am]


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