Redundancy is a hard blow but it neednt be the end of the story

The downturn has seen many law firm staff particularly assistants being laid off. Corinne McPartland finds out what steps to take if the worst happens

Redundancy is a hard blow  but it neednt be the end of the storyIt really is tough being a commercial lawyer in the current market. As the global credit crisis continues to eat its way through the City, law firms are elbowing out assistants in the biggest round of redundancies ever seen in the legal sector.

At the last count, exclusive research carried out by Lawyer 2Bs sister magazine The Lawyer as part of its dedicated Legal Job Watch webpage showed that there have already been 740 redundancies in the UKs top 200 firms. At the time of going to press that number is expected to have risen further.

There have so far been redundancies at 23 law firms, with the regions being the hardest hit. Newcastle, for instance, has seen redundancies at Dickinson Dees, Muckle and Ward Hadaway, with the latter two firms also deferring some training contracts.

The worst-hit practice area has been real estate, but other departments have also been affected, including technology, media and telecoms (TMT), where DLA Piper laid off five people in London.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is the only magic circle firm to have made lawyers redundant. As first reported on last month (19 September), it laid off up to four associates in its London real estate group.

Under English law an employee can expect to receive one weeks pay, capped at 330, for every full year of service. This amount is on top of the money owed to them in relation to their statutory notice period, which in the case of most assistants is three months.

It has been reported that Birmingham giant Wragge & Co is not only paying three times the statutory minimum to the 30 fee-earners who face the axe, but is also doing its best to find them jobs elsewhere.

Wragges internal recruitment department has turned into a makeshift outplacement team and is assessing the transferable skills the candidates have in order to find them alternative employment.

Reportedly, a local firm in Dubai has been in touch with Wragges and is interested in having a few real estate lawyers out there to fill the ranks.

Darryn Hale, a partner at legal recruitment consultants Taylor Root, claims headhunting from overseas is not uncommon. There are still pockets of opportunity in the property sector in the UK, he said, but weve obviously seen a very significant decrease in people being hired in that particular area.

Were seeing a lot of property lawyers looking overseas for new opportunities, especially in the Middle East.

Recruiters have also seen an increase in firms hiring lawyers on a temporary basis to help deal with increased workloads resulting from the financial downturn.

Temporary lawyers are being taken on to work on default scenarios and also to help out on work created as a result of bank consolidation, added Hale. We think theres likely to be a marked increase in demand for contentious lawyers in private practice over the coming months.

Head of employment at Nabarro Sue Ashtiany has weathered four economic downturns and has advised a number of assistants who have been made redundant.

She stressed that people who are faced with redundancy should make sure they have a colleague or trade union member to accompany them to meetings in order to give advice and take notes on what is being offered.

You can negotiate and ask what other possibilities there are apart from redundancy, such as working part-time or taking unpaid leave during the redundancy period, so that when the market picks up you can go back to your role, said Ashtiany.

Being made redundant is a severe blow for anyone. But it is important to remain calm and to consider carefully all the options. It might be a perfect time to look at other opportunities outside the legal profession.

Alternatively, assistants may decide to take a gap year and ride out the recession. In many cases Ashtiany recommends that assistants do something constructive that will complement their long-term career ambitions, such as learning a new language.

Take a long deep breath and then begin to treat yourself like a professional project, she said. You have to market yourself well and keep in touch with your networks, because they could help you to find another role.

The redundancies in the legal sector have undoubtedly made worrying reading for trainees who are due to qualify in spring 2009. But as one magic circle firm partner counsels, the current climate dictates that, if they want to be kept on by their firms, they will have to move into practice areas such as litigation or insolvency.

I think newly-qualifieds have to be very flexible, said the partner. Theyre also going to have to be willing to relocate and maybe work abroad. Its quite simply a case of keeping your head down and riding the storm.

It is difficult to predict how long the current conditions will last and there is a high possibility that further layoffs will occur. But Ashtiany for one is optimistic that the current downturn will not last too long. After all, firms have invested vast quantities of money in these individuals, so it follows that they should make a genuine effort to hold on to good staff.