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Attorneys Filing Into Unemployment Offices

Recession On The Westside: A Special Report

May 19, 1991|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a good ride while it lasted for the young real estate lawyer.

He had a sumptuous office, a $74,000 salary and a Jaguar XJ6. His wife was a model. His career prospects, it seemed, couldn't go anywhere but up.

But that's what they said about the real estate market, too. In March, the prestigious law firm that had hired him out right out of USC Law School in 1989 laid him off.

Now, at 27, about all he has left is the Jag. He's collecting unemployment and living over a friend's garage in Hancock Park. The divorce is in the works.

He asked that his name not be used because he is vying with dozens of other unemployed lawyers for the same few jobs and needs references from his old firm. He's just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of Westside lawyers to fall victim to the recession since last year.

'I'm telling other lawyers how to fill out unemployment forms," he said. "It's crazy."

Make no mistake about it, the "L.A. Law" image was founded on reality. For years, many Westside lawyers really were making money hand over fist, living in beachfront condos and commuting to their smoked-glass high-rises in showy sports cars. For the law firms in Century City, Westwood, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, only the finest would do: Sony TVs, mahogany desks and credenzas, the finest views of the city and the coast.

But the recession has brought much of that to a screeching halt.

In the 1980s, many firms expanded with unbridled gusto. They lavished exorbitant salaries and perquisites on even their first-year associates, and vied for the attention of the cream of the law school crop with expensive catered affairs. High expenses? No problem. They could be passed on to clients, whose appetite for legal services seemed inexhaustible.

But the real estate market started to cool off in 1989, and turned stone cold about the time Iraq invaded Kuwait last August. Suddenly, legions of real estate lawyers had time on their hands.

Then the financial house of cards built by Michael Milken and other junk-bond profiteers collapsed. Suddenly, there was a lot less call for lawyers to handle mergers and acquisitions, securities trading and leveraged buyouts.

And as the recession oozed into other segments of the economy, business after business cut back on expenses and postponed major deals and expansions. The fact is, a sluggish economy generates far less legal business than an aggressively expanding one.

Although most Westside law firms are loath to acknowledge the lean times, nearly all of them have had to adjust to the recession by cutting back on office space and spending, and in many cases, with layoffs of lawyers and support staff.

"This is the most difficult time that the legal community has seen in recent memory," said Gregg Ziskind, a Westside-based legal headhunter.

Business is so bad for Len Strelzin that he had to move his legal placement firm out of a Century City tower in January and into his Brentwood home. "This is the first time I've ever seen lawyers on the unemployment line--ever," he said. "And that includes lawyers with seven or eight years experience."

At least three major firms on the Westside have dissolved recently.

When Wolf & Leo, a once-prominent Century City firm specializing in insurance law, went under at the end of April, 26 lawyers were out on the street without their last paychecks, as were about three dozen secretaries, paralegals and other staffers.

"There was no money left to pay their salaries," said partner Richard Wolf. He said the firm has laid off almost 60 lawyers in the past few years, and that the recession was "an important reason" for firm's demise.

Like many others, Wolf said, the firm had simply grown too fast and spent too lavishly during the good times to stay afloat during the bad.

The high cost of corporate living was one of several reasons another Century City firm, Rosen, Wachtell & Gilbert, dissolved too. "We frankly couldn't cut our overhead fast enough, particularly in our real estate division," said former partner Michael Wachtell.

Wachtell is among the fortunate, however. His specialties--corporate reorganization, loan restructuring and bankruptcy--are in great demand these days, and he has landed at another firm.

Many "boutique" operations, or small specialty law firms, are said to be foundering. For them, the loss of one or two big clients can spell doom in such a shaky economy.

"For years and years and years, we've all gotten away with running very inefficiently, with major overhead," said Cindy Watkins, who was laid off eight months ago from a small Century City firm specializing in real estate law.

Watkins, 33, has landed another job--for less money--at a West Los Angeles firm, but she says there are "millions" of unemployed lawyers, and that they have her sympathies.

Watkins said she realized a recession was coming when the real estate market softened in 1989. For the young Jaguar-driving USC graduate, the realization came later, when he and other young associates at the firm noticed that there was considerably less work to go around.

"All of a sudden, the nice departmental lunches became ham sandwiches and potato salad," he said.

While looking for work, he has taken on a few clients of his own. He says that he's happy, even though he knows he'll probably have to make do with less money and perhaps even find a different line of work.

"There's a lot of disillusioned '80s yuppies realizing the same thing," he said. "They're being forced to."

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