Buried in this NYTimes article about the massive layoffs at White & Case, and the general reductions at big corporate law firms, is this critical fact:

That wall [i.e., the slowdown of work after Lehman Brothers’ collapse] was especially hard because — remarkably like such ventures as the Mafia or the ice-cream vendor — many large firms operate on a cash-in-hand basis, with insufficient reserves to weather a slump.

With Wall Street in a meltdown, Big Law suddenly found it not just indecorous but impossible to pay young lawyers six months out of law school $160,000 a year to stare at their hands. (Indeed, after offering jobs to dozens of third-year law students last fall, White & Case told 60 percent of them they would have to wait a year to start.)

That’s an insult to ice-cream vendors, who at least recognize the seasonal nature of their product.

Law students and young lawyers, burn that fact into your brain and never forget it: big corporate law firms are transient, risky businesses. Your first sign of a problem may be a friend texting you "sorry to hear about your firm."

Indeed, it’s often worse than cash-in-hand, with many firms going deeply into short-term debt at the end of the year to fund the bonuses, debt which they then pay down throughout the year.

Don’t let the big buildings, fancy summer associateship, corporate clients, or even decades-old names fool you. To the extent these firms remain extant these days, it is by swiftly firing people just like you.