Archive for October, 2008

San Francisco Law Firm Discussion on NPR

Thu, Oct 30, 2008 — 9:00 AM

Out of Practice – Law Firms and the Financial Crisis September saw the demise of a major San Francisco law firm, 118 year-old Heller Ehrman LLP. On Tuesday, San Francisco-based firm Thelen LLP dissolved due to “recessionary pressures.” We discuss these recent collapses and the effects of the global financial crisis on the legal landscape.

Host: Michael Krasny

• Eric Young, reporter for San Francisco Business Times
• Niraj Chokshi, business reporter for The Recorder


Important Benefits Announcement 10/29/08

This was posted on the Heller Ehrman external website.  Can someone clarify whether this means those of us terminated on 10/10/2008 and 10/17/2008 are covered through November?

Update: I wanted to excerpt this from the comments since it seems to be spot on in terms of whether or not you are covered, and in what manner, if you were terminated on 10/10 or 10/17:

1) Health insurance coverage from Heller is provided on a monthly basis, and when employment is terminated (voluntarily or otherwise) you continued to be covered through the end of that calendar month.

Corollary a: Anyone terminated 10/10 or 10/17 would be covered and paid through for 10/31.

(2) For coverage to extend after the calendar month of termination, you must elect for coverage through COBRA. The firm must offer you the option of remaining covered under your current plan, so long as that plan exists.

Corollary b: Any terminated employee, to be covered from 11/1 through 11/30, must elect COBRA. In any event the cost must be borne by the employee.

Corollary c: COBRA coverage through Cigna will no longer be available after 11/30, since the plan won’t exist anymore.

Corollary d: COBRA coverage through Kaiser may continue to be available after 11/30, but Heller might not know when it will expire until 30 days beforehand.

Health Insurance

Coverage provided under our group health insurance plans with Kaiser and CIGNA remains in effect, including COBRA coverage available through those plans. Over the past month we have engaged in extensive negotiations with CIGNA that were complicated by the fact that the firm owes CIGNA a substantial amount of money. Those negotiations resulted in an agreement — reached earlier this afternoon — whereby CIGNA consented to continue health insurance coverage in force for all plan participants but only through November 30, 2008. We do not expect CIGNA to agree to continued coverage on a group basis beyond that date. Termination of the CIGNA plan effective November 30, 2008 will result in termination of COBRA coverage for CIGNA plan participants effective on that date, as well as termination of coverage for the spouses/partners of retired shareholders insured through CIGNA effective on that date.

If you are insured under the CIGNA group health insurance plan you will receive a separate formal communication from the firm announcing the termination of the CIGNA coverage. That communication will also outline health insurance options available to you, including options potentially available to you for converting your CIGNA coverage to an individual policy, as well as options available to you under HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996).

The Kaiser group health insurance plan remains in force. We are not able to predict at this time whether or when that plan might terminate, but under the plan Kaiser is obligated to provide the firm with at least 30 days notice of its intent to terminate coverage. We will promptly advise all Kaiser participants in the event we receive such termination notice.

Retirement Plans

We are pleased to report that the work required to “unfreeze” the Heller Ehrman LLP 401(k) Retirement Savings and Profit Sharing Plan has been completed. You will be able to take a distribution from the Plan beginning Friday, October 31. With the exception of a small Vanguard record-keeping fee ($3.75), no costs or fees associated with the Plan have been assessed against participant accounts.

All participants are required to take a distribution by November 30. If you wish to pay off all or part of a loan before taking a distribution, please visit for the loan payoff form and instructions. You will receive a more formal announcement of this information from the Plan Administrator.

401k Freeze – Important Information

This information is from the link on the Heller Ehrman external website which did not work for some readers.  Some very good news – there are no termination fees to be assessed to the account holders.

Action Required: 401(k) Retirement Savings and Profit Sharing Plan Closing

Dear Plan Participant:

We made you aware earlier this month that the Heller Ehrman LLP 401(k) Plan Retirement Savings & Profit Sharing Plan was frozen to distributions. We are happy to inform you by this letter that the freeze will lift effective October 31, 2008. See “Your Next Steps” section below for how to request a distribution. You should arrange to take a distribution from the plan immediately. You must take a distribution from the plan by November 30, 2008.

You must decide by November 30, 2008, what to do with savings you have accumulated in the plan. This letter outlines the actions you can now take on your account, and provides important information about your distributions options.

Please review your choices carefully. You should also review the enclosed Special Tax Notice to determine the tax impact of the distribution option you choose. Then follow “Your Next Steps” as described near the end of this letter to implement the option you choose. Remember: If you have an outstanding loan, you must repay it in full to avoid taxes on the balance due. See the section of this letter entitled “Your Plan Loan.”

Until you request a distribution, you can continue to direct your investments in the normal way.

Your Distribution Options

Directly roll over your money to:

  • Another employer’s eligible plan. If the plan permits, you can roll over your plan balance to another employer’s eligible plan. This option will enable you to keep your money tax-deferred.
  • A traditional IRA. You can roll over pretax assets to a traditional IRA. This option will enable you to keep your money tax-deferred.
  • Take your savings in cash as a lump sum. This choice has significant tax implications. Distributions from pre-tax accounts are generally subject to ordinary income taxes and usually a 10% federal penalty tax if you are under age 59½. If you terminated employment with Heller Ehrman in the year you were age 55 or more, the 10% federal penalty tax does not apply to you. The IRS requires that 20% of your distribution be withheld for taxes, though your actual tax liability on the distribution may be more or less than 20%. You should consult your tax advisor regarding the tax implications of electing a lump sum distribution and to determine if you qualify for any of the exemptions from the 10% penalty tax.
  • If you do not make an election by November 30, 2008, your balance will be automatically rolled over to a Vanguard IRA® and invested in Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund. (Please review the enclosed fund fact sheet for more details on this fund.) After your Vanguard IRA is established, you can transfer the assets to an IRA at another financial institution or roll them over to another employer’s eligible plan (if the plan permits).

Plan termination note: Please be aware that the Plan has determined that no plan termination fees will be assessed against participant accounts.

Your Plan Loan

You must repay any outstanding loan balance you have with the plan by the date of your distribution or November 30, 2008, whichever comes first.

If you do not repay the loan by 4 p.m., Eastern time, on November 30, 2008, the unpaid balance will be reported to the IRS as a distribution. Consequently, the taxable portion of this distribution, if any, will be subject to ordinary income taxes and, if you are under age 59½, usually a 10% federal penalty tax. You cannot directly roll over an outstanding loan balance.

To pay off your outstanding loan, download the Loan Payoff form from the 401(k) Plan website ( or the Heller Ehrman website ( Then call a Vanguard Participant Services associate at 800_523-1188 to determine the loan payoff amount and obtain further instructions. Vanguard will not accept personal checks for loan payoffs.

Additional Vanguard Services

Vanguard is much more than a retirement plan provider. We offer brokerage services, financial planning, and more. As you weigh your distribution options and investment decisions, you may want to consider using one or more of these services.

Your Next Steps

To request a direct rollover or a lump-sum distribution, simply log on to your account at or call a Vanguard Participant Services associate at 800-523-1188. To request a final distribution online, you must be a registered user of To register for immediate online account access, you’ll need your plan number (093738). Note: You will not be able to request a distribution for seven days after you register for online account access.


Call Vanguard Participant Services at 800-523-1188 Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Eastern time.

Best wishes in your future endeavors.



Updated 401k Information

It appears that the Heller Ehrman external website has been updated with 401k information; however one of the more important documents, Action Required: 401k Retirement Savings and Profit Sharing Plan Distributions, is not working.  The document downloads but will not open.  If some is able to get the document to open, please copy and paste into a new Word document or into an email and send it to me at and I’ll post it.

401(k) Loan Payoff Instructions

401(k) Loan Payoff Form

401k Retirement Savings and Profit Sharing Plan Distributions

Discussion Forum

A quick note to point out a new discussion forum started by an avid follower of Heller Highwater:

Please check it out!

Heller Drone
Cruise Director 


Buoy oh buoy! Five Things Hellerites Wished They Knew At The Start

[Note from Heller Drone:  your Cruise Director was asked to write a brief post over at Above The Law – a post with advice for our commrades at Thelen and other firms going through or getting ready to go through a dissolution.  Believing that knowledge is power, I was only too happy to oblige.  Below is the text of the post with a link back to the original.]

[Ed Note: This post was written for ATL by “Heller Drone,” who created the blog Heller Highwater in response to a lack of information concerning Heller Ehrman’s dissolution. We asked Heller Drone for helpful advice to offer Thelen associates and staff. Good luck to everybody dealing with these difficult circumstances.]

Being capsized is often something quite jarring and comes upon you suddenly and painfully, say like food poisoning or an episode of The View. And despite the fact that you can see that iceberg in the distance, a soon-to-be ex-staffer of a BigLaw firm can’t always anticipate each and every wave that will buffet his or her lifeboat. Here are words of advice for our colleagues at Thelen and perhaps other firms which are in the process of dissolving:

Get Organized

You don’t necessarily need a blog but it is a nice way of communicating to a large group without hosting a website on your domain, etc. Blogging is a very “turnkey” operation and with platforms such as Blogger or WordPress or Typepad you can be on your way to your first post in less than five minutes. Any stressed and harried soon-to-be unemployed staffer can do it.

Besides a blog, set up some form of networking such as Facebook or better yet LinkedIn. This will allow former staffers to communicate with each other once the firm’s email system is offline.

Know Your Rights as an Employee

Do your research – and if you don’t know where to start enlist a paralegal or associate to assist. Realize that labor laws differ by state and this includes vacation accrual, how to file a wage claim, etc. Make sure you understand clearly anything you are being asked to sign and ask to make a copy of the document, take it home and review it first if possible. Do not sign any of your rights away during what can be a very emotionally trying time.

Start Backing Up Items NOW

While this seems like a no-brainer, time can slip away and you can, and will, be terminated sooner than expected. Hellerites received their WARN Act notice on September 26th and it stated that “there will be work for you” through November 28th. Here it is October 28th and less than a handful of people are still employed at Heller.

Sort through your emails, electronic files, etc. now. If you have a laptop, take it home and back it up to an external drive or to one of many free online services (Lifehacker has an up to date list here (

Otherwise, get a flash drive or some other USB device and backup what you need. When in doubt, keep it.

Get It In Writing

Come on. We’ve all been on the receiving end of those lines of b.s. such as “I’ll call you” or “The check is in the mail” or “I promise it won’t end up on the Internet.” It is nice to trust your soon to be ex-firm and those at the helm of the dissolution. Every statement made verbally should be backed up by an email or a memo. And if it isn’t then ask for it.

Take Care of Number One

That means you. Start by stocking up on prescriptions if possible, make appointments for doctor, dentist and optometrist. Check your flexible spending account rules – you may need to make expenditures before your termination date otherwise you lose that money. Consider eliminating or reducing your 401k contributions (better to have that money in your pocket than tied up in retirement funds, especially given the stock market situation). Save all your pay stubs to calculate accrued vacation. Download any and all HR policies now before they are removed from the firm’s website.

And by all means give yourself time and room to grieve, to be angry, to take it easy, to just daydream, to just take care of yourself. Seek out a job coach or someone who can help you find a new perspective in terms of what you want to do with the rest of your life – both professionally and personally. See this as an opportunity, as the glass being half full. You’ll accomplish more than you realize when all is said and done.

Heller Drone can be reached at Heller Highwater, a website devoted to helping ex-Heller employees reach higher ground.

Watch for the S.S. Thelen

In case you haven’t heard or read the news, it appears that many of our colleagues at another San Francisco law firm, Thelen LLP are in a boat very similar to the S.S. Heller Ehrman:

If you know anyone over there, please send them your good thoughts and tell them about Heller Highwater if they don’t already know about it.  And offer them any help you can – many of us have time on our hands while we search for new landing spots, and it does much for your karma to assist them even if it is only moral support.

Over and out.

Heller Drone

Cruise Director 

Life preserver.jpg
Remember the words of Rev. Frank Scott (Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure):

". . . sitting on our butts is not going to help us either. Maybe by climbing out of here, we can save ourselves. If you've got any sense, you'll come along with us."

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Terms of Service

Heller Highwater (
Last Modified: September 14, 2008

- Don't be a dill weed.

- Treat other people the way you want to be treated.

- Ladies and children first.

- This is a rescue, not a bitch session.

- Help don't harm.

- Save the snarks for the attorneys and Above The Law.

Heller Highwater is not:

- a place to practice viscious and vindictive "whisper down the lane" rumour-mongering;

- a place to bad mouth co-workers;

- a place for diatribes against specific people or specific incidents;

- a place to heap pity on poor Heller Ehrman staff by outsiders;

- a place that discriminates or sets margins noting who is outside and who is inside - we even welcome supportive Heller Ehrman attorneys!;

- meant to further the demise of Heller Ehrman, LLP.

Heller Highwater is:

- a place for support, a place of empowerment, a place of passion;

- a place to learn about job leads, resume preparation, skill building, training, new opportunities, and how to succeed in a new workplace;

- a place to keep up on the latest news as to how Heller Ehrman management intends to treat its support staff as it winds down its operations - will it be every woman for herself? or will it be "let me hold the door for you and is there anything else I can do for you"?

- a place of refuge.

Note: in no way, shape or form is Heller Highwater sanctioned, supported or even recognized, (but it is very likely monitored) by the management of Heller Erhman, LLP. The opinions represented here and on each and every page of Heller Highwater do not constitute the opinions of Heller Ehrman, LLP or its shareholders or its management. In addition, the comments left by visitors do not reflect the opinions of Heller Highwater.