At some point in their legal careers, most attorneys lose their jobs. It happens to attorneys at all levels. While many see this coming, most have no idea how to respond in a way which will protect their futures. The reasons you lose your position can be
Due to forces outside of your immediate control (the financial health of your organization, politics over which you have no control)
Due to forces within your control (having done poor work, upsetting the wrong people, having a bad attitude, not networking with the right people, not having enough hours).
For most attorneys, this is a traumatic life event.
They may have invested years of their lives in a firm or organization that no longer wants them.
They need to deal with the sense of shame around the colleagues, family, and friends that comes from losing a job.
They likely have financial pressures that are exacerbated with the lack of a position.
They will question whether or not they should be an attorney.
Not working—or having a “drop dead date” to leave your current firm—will make it much more difficult for them to find a new position.
While I am not an expert in how to deal with the psychological, financial, and other issues surrounding the loss of a job—I am an expert in how to respond to this event so attorneys can get back on their feet and protect their futures. I’ve been through this process with attorneys countless times throughout my career and want to tell you exactly what to do.
At the outset, it is important to understand the seriousness of the situation you are in. When confronted with traumatic life events, many people try to ignore the seriousness of what is happening to them. There are certain actions attorneys who lose their jobs need to take immediately if their careers are going to survive. Believing everything is okay will not make it so. There are things you need to do immediately.
Losing Your Job Itself
Most attorneys will know they are in trouble before it happens—but not always. A law firm will typically give an attorney a harsh review, or say some frightening stuff to them (“there just is not enough work here for you”) that motivates them to start looking for a job several months before they fire them—but not always. At some point, the law firm will sit the attorney down in a conference room, or one or more attorneys (and often someone from human resources) will come into their office and close the door and give the attorney the bad news. At this point—and in the days that follow—there are several points that you need to negotiate with everything you have.
There is little point in getting angry with the firm at this point. They have already made up their mind. Even if you could change their mind, there is no use doing so. It’s not going to work out, and you need to start thinking about moving on right away. Do not upset the people who are firing you and make them your enemy. You need them in your corner because you are going to need to ask them to do a lot of stuff to help you over the coming days (and possibly weeks). You need to listen to what they have to say and allow them to say it. Unless they have some serious psychological issues, firing you is likely to be extremely difficult for them, and they are not enjoying themselves.
You do not need to agree with everything they are saying to you or their reasons for letting you go, but you need to be very careful. If the law firm thinks you will be adverse to them, they are going to act very differently to you than if things go well.
The tendency of many attorneys getting fired is to tell the firm what they are doing wrong and counter each argument.
Many attorneys who are fired (especially older ones) will consider their legal options—this is never a great idea. These attorneys may believe the termination is wrongful and about things other than their performance—age discrimination, racial discrimination, sex discrimination—and all sorts of other perceived or actual wrongs. I’ve seen some law firms (even very big ones) act quite inappropriately in the past. However, if the law firm thinks you are going to come after them, they are likely not going to help you.
Since most attorneys who are fired will consider their legal options (they are attorneys, after all), it is important to understand this is never a good idea. If you are interested in working for another legal employer again—or another competitive legal position, suing any legal employer is not smart. If you sue a law firm, the law firm will counter that you were fired due to poor performance and will document this in their pleadings. Also, once you sue an employer as an attorney it will become public knowledge, and other employers will avoid you in the future. That said, deciding whether to sue is, of course, a cost-benefit analysis that is individual to each attorney. I’ve never seen this turn out positively for attorneys who proceed down this route. First of all, they almost always lose. Secondly, even if they do win, their odds of getting another position with a comparable employer after a suit like this are slim—but it is not unprecedented.
At a minimum, you should not threaten anything. This can make things go bad quickly.
Most attorneys are paranoid that their superiors and others will say bad things about them after they leave. This almost always will only occur if you have made serious mistakes before leaving, or when losing your job.
Do Not Sign Anything Until You Understand What Is Negotiable
Many law firms will ask you to sign nondisparagement agreement and other similar documents when they let you go. In return, they may give you severance or other pay. They do this because they are attorneys and careful by nature. Before signing anything, you need to understand what is negotiable and what is not.
If the law firm is letting a bunch of people go, not much will be negotiable.
If the law firm is just letting you go—there may be some negotiating room.
Most law firms will give you some documents to review and not ask you to sign anything right then and there. If they try and make you sign something right away, you probably should not—but you may. I once saw the following happen:
An attorney had worked in a law firm for 12 years and had a good record in all respects. He believed that he was going to be made a partner in his firm and was told that he would be made a partner the following year. During that time, the law firm hired a powerful partner with several associates from a competing firm. When the year rolled around the powerful partner made one of his associates partner instead of the associate who thought he was going to make partner. The associate was upset. The day after he found out, the powerful partner stopped by his office and asked him to do an assignment that was more appropriate for a first-year associate than him. The attorney was upset and told the partner “I’m upset. I would prefer not to do this right now and do not understand why you are giving this to me.”
Less than an hour later the partner showed up at the attorney’s door.
“I’m going to give you two choices. You can sign this separation agreement, take three months’ severance and leave right now, or you can leave right now, not sign the agreement and not take the check. It’s your choice.’
The attorney signed the agreement, took the check and left.
He was hired by another large law firm not too long after that, made a partner a few years later and is doing well. This attorney did the right thing signing the separation agreement, but the choice is not always that easy. Most law firms will give you more time than this attorney had to sign the agreement.
Do Not Announce You Were Fired to Anyone or Create Any Drama: You Do Not Need to Tell Your Side of the Story
Once you do lose your job, it is not a good idea to announce this to anyone—you want to be as quiet about it as possible. This includes with colleagues and even your friends and other attorneys outside the firm. Your reputation as a skilled, competent, and in demand attorney is important. Despite your need for moral support, nothing all that positive is going to come from telling others about what has happened to you. People will talk, and this will damage your future reputation. Your work colleagues may have other positions in the future where they will be in a position to give you work—in companies, other law firms and so forth—and giving them reasons to doubt your competence and desirability is not necessary. The people that fired you have no reason to spread rumors, and you should keep it that way.
As a general rule, especially in large law firms, attorneys do not speak negatively about those they have worked with in the past—especially senior ones. If you start feeling a need to tell your side of the story, remember the risks involved in this. While you may be worried that others will say bad things about you, in most cases this fear is not justified. It is not considered proper in the legal profession for other attorneys to speak negatively about one another—it makes the people who speak negatively look much worse than it will ever make you.
It is several times easier to get another job when you are employed versus unemployed. If you are unemployed, it becomes much more difficult to find a position. The most important thing you can negotiate with a law firm is keeping your position and staying on their website as long as possible.
Depending on the firm, they will often give the attorney anywhere from 30 days to six months to find a new position. The smaller the law firm, the less time they will give them. Many smaller law firms often just tell people to leave—telling people they are gone on Friday afternoon is common. The majority of larger law firms give attorneys time to find a job. If the law firm is not upset with the attorney, they will give the attorney more—rather than less—time to find a position. If the law firm is upset with the attorney, they will generally give them less time.
It is important to understand that when you lose a position, most everything is negotiable. The amount of time you have in your current job is critical, because the more time you have to find a new job, the better off you will be. Here are the things you need to negotiate:
How long you will be working there. The amount of time you will be working at the firm is important. The law firm may be letting you go due to your performance, or for their financial reasons. In most cases, you want to get at least three months to find a new position. You cannot get a new position with most serious legal employers in a month, or even a few months. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:
If you have less than a year of experience, it will be difficult for you to find a position.
If you have more than seven years of experience, it will be extremely difficult for you to find a position.
If you are in a niche practice area where there are not a lot of openings—trademark, environmental and so forth—it will be very difficult to find a position.
If you are in a small legal market, it will be more difficult to find a position than in a larger one.
If the economy is bad, it will be very difficult to find a position as a corporate attorney. If the economy is good, it may not be too difficult.
If you have had more than two jobs in the past four years, it will be more difficult for you to find a position than if you have more employment stability.
If you are coming from a prestigious law firm, it will be more difficult to find a position with another prestigious law firm than with a less-prestigious one.
It will be easier for you to find a position if you have more business than if you have less business.
All of these points are important to keep in mind. Your ability to find a new position will largely be dependent on a myriad of factors. The more difficult it will be for you to find a position, the more you will need to be concerned about the financial implications of losing your job and also the threat of not having one.
How long the law firm will allow you to be on the website and use voicemail. Regardless of whether or not you are on the law firm’s payroll, it is very important that the law firm allows you to use their voicemail and keep you on the site as long as possible. Once you are off the site, other law firms and employers will presume you were fired and will be much less likely to hire you. You typically want to negotiate as much time as you can. There are ethical considerations that many law firms have related to allowing an attorney to stay on the website. For example, they may not want you to look like a current employee because this would be misleading to other attorneys in the firm and the public (especially if you are practicing law and doing work for clients after leaving the firm). Notwithstanding these concerns, the majority of law firms will negotiate this to some extent and allow you to have a public persona of working there even if you are not. How much time do law firms give? At the most extreme level, I have seen some law firms give a year. Typically, most law firms will allow you to use voicemail and be on the website between one and three months after you leave. The better terms you leave on, the more likely they are to allow you to do this. Law firms have also been known to extend this period as well. For example, if you leave your firm and they keep you on the website for eight weeks and this period is coming to an end, they may agree to extend this if you call them and tell them you are interviewing with a few firms and getting close to another position.
Regardless of Whether or Not You Are Still Working, You Need to Do Certain Things as Quickly as Possible
The more time that goes by where you are not working, the more difficult it will be for you to get another position. If you lose your job, you need to find a position as quickly as possible, and this means taking drastic, quick, and decisive action to do so. You need to apply to as many places as possible, as quickly as possible, and as widely as possible. This is not advice people want to hear. It is what is necessary, though. Massive, broad, and decisive action is required.
You need to apply to as many employers as possible. There is no sense not getting your materials out there far and wide—regardless of whether or not an employer has openings. The only thing that can happen is the employer can say no. Law firms are businesses. They hire people when they can make money billing for much more than they are paying you. If a law firm has enough work, it may make business sense for them to hire you. Law firms often do not realize the “business opportunity” you represent until you show up and they see that you are someone they can hire. If the law firm does work in your practice area and is a place you can see yourself working, you should apply there. This does not just mean applying to open positions. You need to apply to law firms and employers regardless of whether or not they have openings.
Job boards only have employers with openings. These are good places to look for openings, but you should be applying to every employer you can find that at which you can see yourself working.
Most legal recruiters will not send you to firms unless the employer has an opening—or they have a good relationship with the employer. If this is the case, go ahead and apply on your own. Research firms and apply to ones that have openings.
This may seem to be contrarian advice—but it works. I have gotten thousands of people jobs this way and quickly. This is the most sensible and smartest way to get a position. You need to market yourself aggressively. If you do not take this action due to pride, laziness—or whatever—you are going to be much more likely to have an extended period of unemployment than if you do.
Do businesses send you spam email, letters in the mail and so forth all the time? Why do you think they do this? They do it because IT WORKS. They market to people because people buy things this way. You are a product/service that is no different than the products and services other people are trying to sell you. The wider you market your service and the more aggressively and smarter you do so, the more likely you will be to get hired. You need to market yourself. Under marketing is the single greatest reason that attorneys do not get positions quickly.
I am telling you this information because I care and want you to get a job. I am telling you that you need to get out there because it works. This is something you need to do to get a position, and you need to move immediately.
You need to apply in as many markets as possible. This means you need to try and get a position in markets all over the country—not just where you are currently working. Just as you are better off marketing yourself to more rather than fewer employers, you are better off marketing yourself to more markets rather than fewer markets. Moving quickly and decisively is extremely important. When marketing yourself to other markets, here are some important facts to keep in mind:
You should always apply to the market you were raised in if possible. If you are an associate, you should always apply to markets you grew up in—if you are more senior, to markets where your parents are living. The “cover story” that you want to return to your home market always works very well when you are looking for a new position. Law firms are receptive to people returning to their home market to be near family, and this always works very well.
You should apply to any market you have a connection in. If you have a connection in other markets, you should apply there. This means places you may have attended school, where you have family living, a significant other and so forth. These are all plausible reasons for relocating somewhere. You want to get applications out to these markets as quickly as possible.
It is often easier to get a position in other markets than it is the one where you are working. I have a much easier time placing relocating attorneys than I do those who are currently working in a given market.
If an attorney is relocating, there is likely to be less suspicion that they are not getting along with attorneys in their firm, not doing good work, or having other problems. If the attorney is trying to get a position in their market, there is always a suspicion that the attorney may have been fired or have other issues that need to be overcome.
If an attorney is highly skilled in a specialty, there may be more openings in other markets than in their own. It may be easier for the attorney to get a position in another market than their own.
You need to move as fast as possible. You should not delay any of these. Once you are not working at the firm, it will become much more difficult to get a position. If you have lost your position, it will be more difficult for you get a position the more time goes by. You should not under any circumstances delay. You need to move quickly.
You need to network as much as possible. There is nothing wrong with telling people you are looking for a new position. People get new positions all the time. Calling people you have worked for in the past and asking around for leads is quite important. The more contacts you have and people you know the more helpful it will be.
You Need to Decide on a Good Explanation for Why You Lost Your Job
There are many explanations you can give for why you lost your position. Ideally, you will be looking for a position while still on the firm’s website and can tell people you simply are looking for a new position and leave it at that. If this does not occur and you are unemployed, you will need a good explanation for why you are looking for a position and unemployed.
The best explanations for why you are looking for a position involve forces beyond your control—i.e., that you did not do anything wrong. These explanations include the following classes of explanations:
A. “The Lack of Work Explanation”
Partners left taking business (and all of your work) with them. This happens a lot. I like this one—puts the situation completely outside your control.
A major case settled, and all work left. This sort of thing is quite common as well. This happens in large law firms all the time and firms let lots of people go when this happens.
The partner you were working for retired and there is no more work. This is also a good one—it happens rarely but does happen.
The economy. This also works as well.
These are the most common explanations. The problem with these is that each has its issues. For example, if partners left taking work with them why didn’t they bring you with them? If work slowed down, the firm surely did not let every attorney go—why you? What is it about you that made you less desirable than those who were not let go?
Many attorneys will say they left their employers due to the environment being toxic. The problem with this explanation is that most legal environments are toxic—almost all are to some extent. If you left one environment because it was toxic, the odds are you would leave another for the same reasons. Law firms do not like this explanation because it makes it look like you do not have thick skin.
These are common explanations used quite often, but they often do not work that well. The reason for this is that if you put your health at issue, law firms will be worried you will get sick again and that they are hiring a liability. If you put someone else’s health at issue, they will be worried that you will leave again and will not be sufficiently committed to the law firm above all else.
You got sick. This is a good explanation but does not explain why you are not returning to the firm.
You needed to take care of someone who was sick. This is a good explanation but does not explain why you are not returning to the firm.
If your performance as an attorney was so good, the odds are you would have returned to the firm and would have been welcomed back. The attorney who gives this explanation often then will discuss the fact that they are not returning to the firm because they want to investigate other options before doing so, the people that they were working for are now gone and so forth. This is palatable to many law firms and can work.
This is an increasingly common reason that attorneys have been using lately. In most cases, they left the firms they were in due to illnesses that were caused by the stress of being in the law firms—and returning to the law firm is something that will likely reactivate their stresses.
D. “The Needed Time for Self-Reflection, Wanted to Try Something Else Explanation”
Where all else fails, this can also be a good explanation.
You quit and want to take some time off. This does not explain why you are not returning to the firm. It does not explain why you took time off—if you left once you may leave again. Still, this is better than saying you were fired.
You quit and wanted to try something else (writing a book, running a business). Law firms do not like this one either. They believe that if you do this one time, you will do it again. This also does not explain why you are not returning to your old firm.
The problem with these explanations is that they each suggest a lack of commitment. This is not something that law firms like to hear about. If you had a lack of commitment before, the odds are you will have it again. Also, most law firms have plenty of applicants for each position.
E. “They Did Not Like the Work, Wanted Different Work Explanation”
This is a very common one as well. Attorneys will often tell other law firms that they did not like the work they were being given or wanted different types of work. This is not a good explanation. Law firms are businesses and make money based on people doing the work they are given. If there is a danger you will quit your next employer if you are not happy with the work you are given, this will not go over well. You can say the firm “ran out of work,” but not that you did not like the work. This does not go over well.
The real explanation for why you left may involve you having lost your job for incompetence, missing too much work, substance abuse, sexual harassment, getting arrested for something, low hours, talking badly about your supervisors and others—or all sorts of other negative behavior. You may have made a mistake and learned your lesson. Are these reasons better than those above? You need to be very careful about disclosing any of these sorts of reasons for why you lost your job if there is no public record of these reasons. If there is a public record, then you need to be very open with it—make sure your problems are fixed—and hope an employer will take mercy on you (and someone eventually will).
The point is that if you are completely transparent, there are certain explanations for why you are looking for a position that simply will not be well-received by most employers. If you bring these up in your job search, people will close the door quickly.
Whatever reason you lost your job, it is important to remember that attorneys are expected to be advocates for others—and themselves. You need to be an advocate for yourself when looking for a job and frame your reasons for looking for a position in the way that makes your “case” look as strong as possible. Lawyers are expected to be strong advocates for their clients—but even stronger advocates for themselves. Your ability to be an advocate when the chips are down is when your lawyerly skills are most important. The attorney who loses his or her position must be fast, decisive, and make the right decisions to “win their case” and find a new position.