Praying for a Recession

Calgary Alberta

THE LAST WORD: Praying for a Recession

Lexpert, April 2008

By Marzena Czarnecka

In Alberta, my cousin is praying for a recession.

He’s not some hard-nosed hedge fund manager or ultra-cynical investor looking to pick up some bargain basement prices (if he were, there are still plenty of income trusts to choose from).

Nah. He’s just a humble human resources manager with the itch to fire some people.

He is not a cold-blooded SOB. (Well, maybe a little. He’s related to me, after all.) He’s just feeling the pains of Alberta’s labour crunch rather acutely. And he’s not alone. Every human resources manager in Alberta’s in the same boat, pressured from on-high to come up with better and more effective recruitment and retention strategies.

Retention, of course, is the biggie. One of the reasons “help wanted” signs are a permanent fixture in many Alberta establishments is because employers can’t count on the person they hired yesterday showing up to work tomorrow. They might have found another job. Or overslept. Or just not felt like coming into work that day.

What to do to make ‘em stay and work? Alberta HR people are giving people bonuses for… doing their jobs semi-adequately — coming in to work more or less on time, not actively abusing customers, that sort of thing.

It’s giving the poor managers ulcers. And as they look at these mediocre performers – and really, really, really want to give them the boot – from on high comes the call: increase retention. Keep them. Don’t let them quit. Do whatever it takes to make them happy.

They’re trying. But, frankly, their hearts just aren’t in it. And there’s a reason for that.

“We’re trying to retain people we shouldn’t have hired in the first place,” the cold-blooded SOB that shares a bloodline with me says. “When the economy’s bad, you have to let good people go, and that’s awful. There’s a magical time when things are just right, when things are chugging along fine and you can hire the best people and pay them well, and hire the pretty good people, and pay them OK. And then there are times, like now, where everyone in town is hiring people who just shouldn’t have jobs.”

Ouch.

Law firms are exempt from that, right? They might have to work a little hard to keep their assistants, tech people and what-not, but their billers and breadwinners – partners and associates – they’re all top-notch, stellar people, just like all their promotional materials say?

Um…well…

“I have a list too,” confesses one Calgary lawyer when I recount the woes of Calgary’s HR managers to him. “Oh, yes, I have a list too,” he repeats. “It’s not that I’m a cold-hearted SOB,” he says quickly. “Really. It’s just that…” he falters. Looks away.

The recruitment and retention question for law firms is, of course, huge. It’s not even second to the client question — it precedes the client question. As every law firm tells prospective students, associates and partners, its only asset is its people. When its people suck – even at the lowest rungs – the law firm sucks.

It is that simple. Oh, the firm might get by on the reputation of things past for a year or two, but not much more.

So is the general labour crunch increasing the overall suckiness of Calgary law firms? Don’t you want to know? I did. Here’s the scoop.

The good news is that the top people are all too busy to even contemplate a move. The market is most mobile during a lull, when it’s fairly easy to port clients…and even easier to become dissatisfied with one’s share of a dwindling profit pie.

The better news is that the top old people are being chased by a hefty bulge of want-to-be-topper-than-the-old-guy-who-hogs-all-the-credit-on-the-file-but-does-hardly-any-of-the-work young people. A bunch of them don’t suck.

The bad news: pretty much every law firm out there has a list. The same list my cousin and his HR kin compile in secret. A list of folks that are going to get ushered out as soon as there is a lull. They might not call it lay-offs or firings – or they might, the profession can be cold-blooded – but they’ll do it. In the past, many have done so reluctantly, going out of their way to find new “homes” for those who did not cut it within.

This time around…I don’t know. At least some of them are a wee bit cranky and tired of being accommodating and giving love, reassurance and what-not to people they, in their hearts of hearts, wish they had not hired in the first place.

Cold-blooded SOBs.

Marzena Czarnecka is a freelance writer based in Calgary and somewhat reptilian herself. However, she is not praying for a recession.

• Thomson Reuters article record

2012 PS: I wrote and filed this in February 2008. Published in April 2008. By September 2008, the world was ending. So I guess it’s all my fault.