Early Briefing: The Legal Squeeze

Banks are not the only businesses tightening their belts.

Washington area law firms are retooling due to a financial crisis that is bringing growing pressure from corporations and a drop in work in mergers and acquisitions, litigation and commercial real estate. At least one global firm with a D.C. office, Heller Ehrman, is closing, and another, Clifford Chance, announced layoffs last week. Some big firms here are becoming bigger through mergers, which are up this year, or by snagging teams of lawyers from their competitors. Others are shifting to more lucrative specialties, such as bankruptcies, foreclosures and regulatory work related to implementing the bailout package, or capping salaries of associates and restructuring.

Some are even - gasp - agreeing to move from hourly fees to fixed rates.

More than 36,000 lawyers work in the Washington region, ranking it behind only the New York City area, according to the Greater Washington Initiative, an economic development organization. More than 60,000 people work in the legal profession in the Washington area, which, per capita, employs more in that sector than any other metropolitan region in the nation. Washington lawyers' heavy reliance on work in government contracts, regulations and technology has protected them from the widespread layoffs occurring in New York, particularly their counterparts involved in mortgage-backed securities.

In other news:

* Staff writer Kim Hart profiles ComScore, the Reston company that measures Web traffic. Advertisers tell her such data will become even more important as marketing budgets shrink in a weakening economy.

*Montgomery County planners are focusing first on White Flint -- or North Bethesda as developers prefer to call it -- as they tackle a multiyear plan to transform Rockville Pike into a string of pedestrian-friendly urban villages connected by a tree-lined boulevard all the way north to Shady Grove. They expect to present a plan for the area to the County Council by next spring.

White Flint is being designed to become the most densely populated new town on the pike and a major center for new office space. Current proposals show the 420-acre area overshadowing downtown Bethesda and Rockville Town Center and dwarfing plans for Shady Grove and Twinbrook.

By Dan Beyers  |  October 20, 2008; 8:31 AM ET  | Category:  Economy Watch
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