Six reflections on the high-level RIF at Merrill Lynch’s legal department

At least six senior legal roles at Merrill Lynch have been axed as part of the investment bank’s global restructuring. As reported on The Lawyer.com, an associate general counsel, the “general counsel of litigation and employment,””co-head of global litigation,” and three other senior lawyers have been terminated and will leave imminently. The reductions follow Bank of America’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch in late September. Merrill’s vice chairman and general counsel Rosemary Berkery remains in her position. That news triggered a half-dozen thoughts (See my post of Jan. 16, 2009: layoffs after mergers with 9 references.).

One way to proceed with post-merger layoffs is to choose the best lawyer from the two companies to fill a position. Thus, which lawyer will most capably handle litigation, or employment, or international operations. Unless the general counsel who makes those decisions takes a fair amount of time to make those assessments with sufficient knowledge of the contenders in the other company, it is very likely that lawyers he or she knows will be selected (See my post of Jan. 30, 2009: balanced mix at Bank of NY – Mellon.).

Another observation is that these terminations took place four months after announcement of the acquisition. I do not know whether internally people knew much sooner, nor if there have been layoffs already in the legal department(s), but four months is a long time for people to hang fire.

Third, my impression is that usually one of the general counsel leaves almost immediately. Merrill’s Berkery, however, has other responsibilities and with such a large department, her knowledge of the lawyers and legal issues may have saved her job.

I favor one big cut, where everyone is released at once who will be let go, so that others can exhale and get on with life and work. Perhaps these positions are merely the top ones of a larger group, but the news report does not mention more widespread redundancies.

We also do not know whether one or more of the lawyers let go were offered positions in Charlotte, the headquarters of Bank of America, and chose not to relocate. A choice is better than a pink slip.

My sixth observation is that sizeable layoffs, especially among high-ranking lawyers, can not escape unnoticed. Word gets out.

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