The Mean Economy: Even law firms hit hard by recession

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MARLTON, N.J. — Terri A. Doring never expected her middle-class life to be threatened by prolonged joblessness. She always had plenty of work, got paid well and had good job prospects during her long career as a legal secretary at well-regarded law firms here.

All that has changed since the Great Recession. As corporations slashed their spending and staffs in the deepest downturn since the 1930s, they left no stone unturned. Once-plum legal jobs and prize contracts got jettisoned along with rank-and-file workers, and many American lawyers, perhaps for the first time, found out what it was like to be without a job.

Ms. Doring lost her job in 2009 along with 52 other people at the Cozen O’Connor law firm in Philadelphia, and she is now on the verge of losing much of what remains of her middle-class life in this suburb outside Philadelphia. Unable to find steady work and scrambling to make mortgage payments, she must either find a tenant or try to sell her town house to prevent a takeover by the bank.

Ms. Doring has taken whatever temporary or freelance legal work is available, while earning a little cash by house-sitting for vacationing neighbors. After 60 unproductive interviews for work in the legal field, she considered a career switch to medicine, but was told by hospital administrators that she would face a substantial cut in salary. Now, she is interviewing for jobs in child care.

A generous severance package and 99 weeks of unemployment benefits carried Ms. Doring through until February 2011. Then she spent sleepless nights before dipping into her retirement funds and cashing in a bond inheritance from her father to make ends meet. She eats only one meal a day to save money. She sold off some jewelry and applied for food stamps, but was turned down because she had not exhausted her retirement savings.

“I am still shocked that I did everything right and find myself on the brink of destitution,” she said. She tears up when she thinks about how quickly her life has unraveled.

“It’s very difficult. It leaves you with emotions — anger, depression, insomnia,” she said. Then a look of anguish comes across her face and she adds, “It’ll kill me if I lose the house.”

After working hundreds of overtime hours over 11 years at the Cozen law firm and honing her skills at the prestigious Pepper Hamilton law firm before that, Ms. Doring didn’t expect to get swept up in a mass layoff.

“I was proud to work there, and I was rewarded with a yearly bonus,” she said. In discussion groups with other middle-class job seekers, she finds that many like her subsist on cereal and eggs and make once-unimaginable economies just to scrape by.

“Every day, it gets scarier. What’s going to happen to all of us?” she asked.

Ms. Doring’s neighborhood is sprinkled with good restaurants and popular bars. Dinner out is no longer an option, and a trip to the nearby Jersey Shore to take her ailing sister on vacation, as she once did, is out of the question. For Ms. Doring, such luxuries have become “a memory from when we were part of the rich working class.”

Older workers shunned

Ms. Doring said she thinks her age makes it more difficult to find a job. She is 57 and finds many doors closed as employers prefer not to take on people who have high salary requirements and possible health concerns. Ms. Doring has not had health insurance for a long time, and recently developed a stress-related rash that had to go untreated.

“I have an excellent career record. It all comes down to age discrimination,” she said, adding that she wishes she lived in “a new country where expertise is valued.”

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