The Layoff Code
February 5, 2009 by Legal Tease
You may not be aware of it, but you have the same problem I do: Them. We see Them every day—in the firm’s dining room, in the hallways, in the elevator banks. Even if we don’t realize it, They’re all around us. Hell, some of Them are us. They’re a constant reminder of our BigLaw mortality, a reminder that no matter how much of a superstar you may think you are at your firm, you’re always just a few billable hours away from joining Their ranks: victims of stealth layoffs. And no, I can’t figure out how to act around Them, either.
I knew the state of the firm was changing for the worse when I started getting calls from colleagues a few weeks ago that started with either “Am I on speaker?” or “Hey, close your door” and then weren’t followed, as they usually are, by a blow-by-blow of some drunken interoffice sexcapade from the night before, or a horror story about some partner’s raging social ineptitude.
No, these calls were different. These calls were about, say, that fourth-year two floors down—the one I always thought was smart and funny and always seemed busy. Who, you mean Stu? Yeah, Stu; I heard he’s one of Them. NO! Really? Stu? That’s what I heard. But it can’t be Stu—everyone loves him, his reviews are great. I mean, I assume. I know, but I heard it from, like, four different people. Have you talked to him? Go ask him—ask him if he’s heard about stealth layoffs. See how he acts. Already did. He just kind of said “I know” and acted totally normal. Shit, maybe he’s not laid off, then? Maybe. Why would people say that he was, then? I don’t know. I mean, goddammit, Stu?! He had way more hours than I did last year. If they’re getting rid of him, then…
And so it goes.
Worse than calls like these, though, is the realization that someone down the hall is more likely than not having the same conversation about me. And you. None of us are immune from speculation. In the past couple of weeks, every time I’ve run into associates I haven’t seen in a while, I can tell that they’re trying to gauge if I’m one of Them. I can feel them trying to get a read on my body language, searching my face for any twitches that might reveal my employment status.
The worst part? You can’t even have a bad day anymore—or at least wear it on your face. Now, if you’re having a really crap day for whatever reason and are just skulking around the office like a murderer, no one assumes it’s because you’ve been up all night on a filing deadline or because you had a blow-out with your girlfriend after clocking another 300-hour month; they assume it’s because you’ve started your firm-issued secret three-month countdown to unemployment. That’s how bad things have become in BigLaw—we’re not only losing our bonuses, our raises, our jobs; we’re even losing our right to be openly miserable around our peers.
So, what do you do? What do you do when you’re cornered with someone you think may be one of Them—or worse, cornered with someone who thinks you’re one of Them? Is there some kind of layoff code? Are you supposed to just stare at the floor and avoid eye contact? Or do you toss out an overly casual “So…all OK with you?” and see if they bite—and then make sure to work in that things are “great!” on your end? Or do you sniff around more aggressively, ask if they know anyone who’s been given the stealth boot, and then scan their faces for signs of recognition? Or does that just make you come off like a bigger douchebag than if you’d come right out and asked them point blank in the first place?
At the end of the day, it looks like the etiquette will only be dictated by how we perceive Them. So, what do we think, then? Is being one of Them a source of embarrassment, of failure, or is it actually some kind of latter-day badge of BigLaw honor? It is possible that being a victim of a stealth layoff bloodbath is the new BigLaw status symbol? Are you more of a real BigLaw associate if you’ve experienced all three prongs of the BigLaw depression-recession trifecta: frozen salary, no bonus, stealth layoff? Then again, if being one of Them is some sort of perverse symbol of BigLaw honor, how are we supposed to deal with the few laid-off associates at every firm who would’ve been laid off in any economy, by virtue of the simple fact that they…just kind of suck? Is it fair to lump them in with Them? Where do you—how can you—draw the line? What do you do?
Well, after being stuck in the coffee machine room with Stu the other day, I found the answer—I cracked the code. Stu walked in, smiled and said a frustratingly not-at-all-suspicious hello, went about his business, tossed off a “See ya later,” and left. No facial twitches. No glint of recognition. The only awkwardness in the room was coming, in fact, from yours truly, standing there frozen like an idiot, clutching my burnt coffee and trying to keep my face as neutral as possible. Because as soon as I was face-to-face with Stu, with one of Them, I realized that it doesn’t make a difference who’s joined their ranks and who hasn’t. Whether “Them” includes Stu, or that guy down the hall, or your first supervisor, or your best friend at the firm, it doesn’t matter—because when it comes to stealth layoffs, there’s a code all right, but it has nothing to do with Them. It has to do with keeping your head down, getting your free coffee while you still can, and realizing that when it comes to working in BigLaw, the safest place you can be is sitting smack in the middle of a headhunter’s office. But, hey, don’t take my word for it. Just ask Them.