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The Corner Office: The Most Difficult Lay-Off

The Corner Office: The Most Difficult Lay-Off

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In “The Corner Office” we ask Managing Partners across Central and Eastern Europe about their unique roles and responsibilities. The question this time around: What was the most difficult or unpleasant experience you had terminating someone’s employment?”

“Right people are our key and most valued resource. Getting the right people is really hard – as it is to lose them. Although we did our best to grow and keep the next generation lawyers, we faced people leaving our firm as they wanted to pursue other career paths; equally, there were situations where we had to let people go as our views on business differed. This was an issue from an investment perspective as we had invested a lot in their development; however, it was equally problematic from a human perspective as we struggled through the most difficult challenges together. I would not be able to single out one particular case when it was hard to see someone leaving, as in every case there are mixed feelings from both sides. However, the key lesson I learned in the last 15 years is that the legal industry requires an extremely personal approach to cases and clients, but it does not allow for being personal in handling business.”

Vladimir Bojanovic, Managing Partner, Bojanovic Partners, Belgrade

“Our business and personal relationships with colleagues are built on a foundation of trust. When a former colleague began to engage in behavior that did not entirely comply with the firm’s code of ethics, unfortunately the firm had to let him go – he had cracked the foundation of trust between us. The most difficult part of the experience for me surrounded that breach of trust. There is a strong friendship among colleagues here and when a colleague breaches trust, it affects others on a personal level. The disappointment of having a friend and colleague break that trust has a lasting impact, beyond the immediate impact of losing a colleague, and to date has been the most difficult experience of letting someone go.”

Josef Aujezdsky, Partner, Masek, Koci, Aujezdsky, Prague

“I once had to terminate the employment relationship with a secretary of ours. This is of course always a very unpleasant exercise. When I confronted her with my intention, she was so upset that she told me that I should not be surprised if police showed up in my office the next day telling me that she had committed suicide. Although we have not had a lot of contact since then, I am convinced that she is still alive …”

Erwin Hanslik, Managing Partner, Taylor Wessing, Prague

“Running a law firm, sometimes likened to managing a beehive, is inextricably linked with making the most difficult and sometimes unpleasant HR choices, and the decision whether to let someone go commonly boils down to the Managing Partner. That said, we believe in thorough recruitment and every newcomer has been subject to various stages of a meticulous process, assuming thus the status of a long-term investment. Therefore, letting people go is a rather rare phenomenon in our firm, as, having weighed all the pros and cons well in advance, we consider to keep new colleagues around in the long run. To err is human though, and sometimes even the most diligent and scrupulous recruitment process cannot envisage certain post-hiring circumstances. I recall a case of a young and prominent associate who, having ticked all the boxes, seemed well on track to swiftly climb the firm’s ladder. However, for reasons beyond the firm’s grasp, one of the partners just could not see eye to eye with this associate regarding the firm’s work process, and before letting the matter escalate too far, we unfortunately had to part ways. Clipping the wings of a young colleague seemed regrettable and unfortunate at the time, but with decisions as such are part and parcel of being the Managing Partner, I had to keep the firm’s best interests in sight above all.”

Uros Ilic, Managing Partner, ODI Law, Ljubljana

“I recently had an unpleasant experience when we gently let go one of our underperforming associates. We normally have a preliminary talk with an employee and offer to help him or her to find another job within 3-6 months. This associate was lucky to find a job fast. But then I had a call with the associate’s mother (whom I knew from the past), and she was absolutely furious about our decision. She thought we treated her child unfairly and so on. My take-away from this experience is never hire the children of your friends, business partners, or even acquaintances, because you can easily spoil your relationship with them.”

Mykola Stetsenko, Co-Managing Partner, Avellum, Kyiv

“There is no law firm in the market and no managing partner with more than 25 years professional experience like me, who is lucky enough to have never taken belt-tightening and efficiency measures.My most difficult and unpleasant experience in cost cutting started after the severe financial crisis in 2007-2008.  Hardly a law firm successfully survived those years without a package of restructuring measures. In Bulgaria, we laid-off almost one quarter of the lawyers, introduced part-time work and forced vacations, outsourced some support services, etc.  The law firm I worked for at the time altered its partnership structure and introduced a two-tier partnership and extended track to equity partnership.

My personal disappointment is related to the credibility of the decisions regarding the downsizing of people. I firmly believe that the lawyers are the only capital of the law firms. Enormous efforts are necessary for the talent to be found, developed, and retained. In my experience, achievement-oriented lawyers need to see concrete evidence of a law firm’s commitment to them – both in good times and in bad times.  Simplistic categorization of lawyers only as a cost of doing business that needs to be cut in financial crises rather than as an investment in the firm’s capital is dangerous.  It is penny-wise but pound-foolish to save money by cutting several lawyers in order to address a short-term increase of partner distributions. It usually takes years, especially in our small market, to recap your reputation as a desirable employer and to rebuild the same talent.  So the shortsighted cost-cutting by firing talent that is not easy to find again in the market is a painful lesson for me and many law firms.”

Reneta Petkova, Managing Partner, Deloitte Legal, Sofia 

“I believe in yellow cards. If someone is underperforming, he/she needs to be aware of this and the firms need to provide sufficient time for the person to be in a position to turn around his or her performance. The most difficult and unpleasant experience that I had letting someone go was when, following a serious trend of under-performance, we had to pull the trigger and then – following a few days of recovery – the individual came back to me and said that he/she needs to receive ‘no sugar coated,’ but real feedback. This made me feel that the feedback should be much more straight and to the point and that the sooner you address the issues, the better.”

Kostadin Sirleshtov, Managing Partner, CMS, Sofia

“With a combination of our inherent frailty and the highest asset value to law firm, the human element always presents the most important and most delicate challenges to management. Of course, our most vulnerable aspects, as when a critical professional becomes a victim of debilitating alcohol abuse, are the hardest. We encountered a case of severe alcoholism affecting an important, senior-level professional here, and became instantly engaged in the kind of crisis management through which we are more accustomed to dispassionately guiding our corporate clients. Only now, it was us – and a valued member of our professional family was at risk personally, regarding a young and vulnerable family, and possibly exposing the firm and its clients to mistakes. We educated ourselves about approaches, programs, treatments, and family-protective services. Extended calls to experts in the U.S. became our world, leading to offers of help. [These offers] were roundly rejected, as, not-withstanding incontrovertible evidence, our colleague staunchly denied any problem.  Only a parallel focus on the integrity of the firm’s work moved things forward. Frustration over the strict scrutiny [we] imposed on the colleague’s work led to a withdrawal, and subsequent treatment.”

 Tim Pfister, Managing Partner, Knoetzl, Vienna.

This Article was originally published in Issue 6.8 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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