Surreptitious layoffs // News

Ranks of "ghost lawyers" growing as more are told to find other work

By Precedent

On Wednesday May 20th, 2009

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A growing number of lawyers at Toronto firms are quietly being asked to find other work. Often, they are told to continue to come to the office, take home a paycheque, and work on files, but their time is limited. These ghost lawyers are given anywhere from two to six months to seek other employment and make a graceful exit.

“Giving people time to find something else is a humane thing to do,” says Lianne Krakauer, senior HR consultant with PSTG Consulting and former assistant dean of career services at U of T Faculty of Law. She cautions that long notice periods can be hard on both the individual and the organization. “When you have people on their way out, they are not there to contribute to the goals of the organization anymore,” says Krakauer. “It can be quite demoralizing.”

“In the first few weeks, I really did feel like a dead man walking,” says Kordell Fournier, who was recently laid-off from a large Bay Street firm. “You aren’t part of the team anymore, but nobody knows that.”

Krakauer points out that the long notice period can be better than the alternative. “Not having somewhere to go every day can be really difficult,” she says. A firm can support a laid off employee by offering them a desk, a computer to work from, and a reason to get up every day and put on their suit, she says. Efforts made to help the employee land on their feet, such as lightening their workload and helping them make connections, can help to counteract bad morale.

But as an increasing number of individuals join the ranks of the ghost lawyers, the quiet layoffs lead to awkward speculation — both inside and outside the firms. Fournier experienced it first hand: “It’s incredibly awkward to broach the topic, because either a) You’re wrong and you look like a bit of an idiot, or b) You’re right, and they were trying to manage the message and had an expectation of privacy. What little sense of comfort they had left is now gone,” he says.

Keeping layoffs quiet is not only about the lawyers’ reputations; it helps firms manage their own images. “No one wants to be on the radar screen as letting people go,” says Adam Lepofsky, president of the legal recruitment firm RainMaker Group. “But no one is immune from the worst economy in 80 years … every industry is letting people go.”