As a journalist, the more dramatic the story is, the better. So the post-Lehman Brothers collapse period of 2009 was great for hacks covering the City. I was associate editor of Legal Week at the time, and every day seemed to bring a new, more dramatic tale of law firm woe – be it in the form of swingeing associate job cuts, frantically deferred trainee start-dates, or initiatives designed to share the pain, like Norton Rose’s four day working week.
As exciting as this all was, the perilous economic state of the world had a downside. At the back of everyone’s mind at Legal Week was the worry that we could be the next ones in line for the chop, as the company that owned us, Incisive Media, was itself in serious trouble – and ended up being placed partially in the hands of RBS…
On one particular day, I remember all the Legal Week staff being gathered together to be told of a redundancy consultation that placed our jobs at risk, then, a few minutes later, having to file a story about the latest round of cuts affecting those poor City lawyers (whose generous redundancy packages were of a different scale to the minimum statutory payments we’d have been in line for) .
By 2010, the convulsions sweeping through the City had calmed – leaving the journalists left at Legal Week with mixed feelings. Incisive Media’s restructuring meant our jobs were safer, but there was less juicy stuff to write about. OK, the ensuing wave of transatlantic mergers between big firms like Lovells and Hogan & Hartson provided fairly interesting new subject matter, as did the Legal Services Act and debates about diversity in the legal profession. But nothing has been as exciting as the post-Lehman panic.
That’s why Friday’s news about associate redundancies at Clifford Chance – the first major junior lawyer job cuts at a top firm for a couple of years – was seized on so enthusiastically by The Lawyer and Legal Week, and, of course, their readers, who lap up this stuff just as much as the journos. “Could this be the beginning of a Eurozone crisis-inspired round of redundancies to match the post-Lehman cull?” I immediately found myself wondering in the tabloid headline-speak that, six years after embarking on a career in journalism, I now use even to articulate my own thoughts to myself.
Disappointingly, the boring old hard facts – which it’s easy to lose sight of at exciting times like this – suggest those corporate carpets will incur only the slightest of bloodstains. According to Clifford Chance managing partner David Bickerton, just 13 jobs out of a total of 1,000 fee earner positions are at risk following Friday’s announcement. By way of comparison, the firm laid off 90 associates from its Canary Wharf office alone in 2009. Of course, it’s worth considering big law firms’ public statements carefully, but in this case, with a Lehman-style meltdown apparently averted in the Eurozone, and magic circle firms like Clifford Chance still generating enormous profits, a re-run of the dramatic job cuts that took place three years ago looks highly unlikely.
So what’s going to happen? Sadly for journalists, the future looks pretty dull, with top law firms’ relative health combining with a sustained period of low growth in debt-ridden Europe to place UK corporate law into a holding pattern. While there may be the odd redundancy here (with some of the shakier mid-tier City outfits looking especially vulnerable), and the odd hire there (some US firms in London view this as a good time to bulk up at the expense of their UK rivals), things seem set to bob along until some big external event that nobody foresees shakes it all up again.
‘Hmmm’, a regular commenter on Legal Week’s website who I have long suspected of being its editor, Alex Novarese, summed the situation up nicely on Friday.