At some point in their careers, most attorneys get fired or are in danger of getting fired from their law firm jobs.
The reaction you have to losing your job, or needing to find a new one, often determines the quality of the rest of your career. I have seen countless attorneys who get fired—or who worry they are going to get fired—have a variety of positive and negative reactions. If you react in a negative or over-the-top way to being fired (or the threat of this happening), you are only hurting yourself. I have seen many attorneys go off the rails after losing their job or having a negative experience in a law firm, and it never ends well. At work and in life, it is always important to react in a positive way when something negative happens to you.
An Attorney’s Armor
Getting fired, or experiencing the disapproval of a law firm, is very difficult for most attorneys. For the most part, being an attorney is a middle-class profession. Attorneys go to school to get degrees that enable them to work for others. They are dependent on what others think of them. When they are younger, it is generally important for them to please their teachers and get good grades. They learn to impress interviewers, impress the attorneys they are working for, impress judges if they are litigators, impress clients, work hard (and be seen working hard), make sure they are seen in the office (as much as possible), and do nothing whatsoever to mar their reputation.
An attorney's reputation is essential. To most attorneys, there should be absolutely no questions or issues with them being viewed negatively by anyone, especially employers or clients. These attorneys want to impress others and look good all the time. There is nothing wrong with this mindset, but it can be extremely dangerous—especially if you are fired, or believe you are going to be fired. Having the right mindset is critical in terms of not just how you see yourself, but how others see you as well.
Attorneys are expected to look stable, to not show weakness, and to not have any chinks in their armor. I do not quite understand why, but I believe it has something to do with the nature of lawyering and being an attorney. Lawyers must represent other people—regardless of whether or not the person is guilty, or has done something wrong—stand there with a straight face, and do everything possible not to convey the weakness of the person or their case. If an attorney looks weak themselves, they are often seen as unemployable and problematic and not hired. Clients want attorneys representing them who are more in control, more stable, and more put together than they are—the best attorneys should look as competent and formidable as possible.
Even worse than the opinion of other attorneys is the opinion attorneys often have of themselves when something goes wrong. Instead of picking themselves up, they give up and are extremely disappointed in themselves. Many leave the practice of law. Others take government and in-house positions that are completely beneath them. It is sad and completely unnecessary.
So, how bad is it? Is your career doomed? Here is a list of common law firm scenarios and the best ways to handle them.
- You were spoken to harshly about your performance (and perhaps even warned that you are in danger of losing your job or being fired). Young attorneys with less than 18 months of experience are typically spoken to somewhat negatively about their performance because, as a rule, they are not yet trained—this is no reason to overreact. After being reprimanded, they should increase their hours, stop making stupid mistakes, be more thorough, and do other things to improve their performance.
The truth is that law firms do not want to have to hire your replacement unless they really have to—it is too expensive, too much work, and they would prefer to fix a known than hire an unknown one. However, if these warnings start coming with statements that you are a lousy attorney, or it seems clear your reviewers do not like you, it is cause for concern. If you are told it might be a good idea for you to look for a new position, then you are likely in trouble and need to take action.
- You made serious mistakes that have damaged your brand irreparably in the eyes of the law firm. Getting blasted at a party and doing something incredibly inappropriate, lying about something and getting caught, insulting a superior, taking way too much time off, missing major deadlines, getting sued for sexual harassment or malpractice, losing the firm a significant client through incompetence—the list goes on. Perhaps you were careless and rushed during an assignment. You slept in before an important deadline. You have not learned how to turn down work and are not able to focus on the work you already have. You are allowing your personal life to bleed over into your work life. All of these are actions that can damage your brand so severely that you will have to take action. Most law firms will fire you for these sorts of things, or if they do not, they may harm your ability to advance in the future.
When this happens, it can be extremely upsetting to attorneys. Many feel like giving up. Perhaps you are a young attorney and do not know what you are doing yet. You may not be working hard enough or billing enough hours. The law firm may be trying to get you to quit because they do not have enough work. Whatever the reason, it is likely you will need to find a new position—hopefully one where your performance improves.
- You have upset the only attorney in the firm who gives you work, and you are in a niche practice area. If there is only one attorney in the firm who traditionally gives you work and you upset them, you may be better off looking for a new job. It is common for law firms to hire associates, counsel, and even partners to work with one attorney in particular—and that attorney may run through a series of attorneys. If you find yourself on this person’s bad side, you should take action.
The universal rule is that approximately one-third of people will not like us, one-third will like us, and the other one-third will not care. If someone does not like you, there is probably not much you can do about it. Move on.
- You have been laid off from a law firm and were given a certain amount of time to search for a new position. If you are laid off, you need to take action quickly. While there are recessions traditionally every eight years or so, law firms also lay people off for a variety of reasons because the work dries up. It may be through no fault of your own. But if this happens, you need to take action.
Just because a law firm does not have enough work does not mean that you should feel bad about yourself. It is not your fault.
- You have been shown the door and let go for reasons unknown. Sometimes law firms just fire people—often for no reason at all. I know of one significant law firm manager who walked into an attorney's office one day and said to her, "This is not a good cultural fit for us." She had no idea what this meant. They just told her they did not like her and asked her to leave.
Attorneys get fired all the time for failing to pass the bar after a few attempts. If this happens, you need to study for and pass the bar and then get on with your career.
You cannot control other people’s reactions to you beyond a certain point. If there is something to learn from being fired, learn it—and then move on.
- You have been told that you are not going to make partner and urged to find a new job. This is very common for senior associates. The law firm will tell them they should start looking, and that is that. It happens to almost every associate who stays in a large law firm beyond six or seven years. The tradeoff for receiving a ridiculously high salary at a large law firm when you are young is being in a position where you are servicing large clients, working long hours, and will likely not be generating any business. Eventually, it costs too much to keep you.
Law firms are businesses and make decisions like these every day. Do not believe the myths—senior associates can find jobs elsewhere. Move on.
- Nothing has been said, but you have a distinct feeling that you are going to lose your position because you have seen it happen to others. It does not always mean that you will lose your position if you see people around you losing their jobs—but you should always ask to get a sense of your security. If you get vague answers or indirect statements, you probably do not have much security and should start looking.
- You have not been getting any work and you know that it is just a matter of time. If you are not getting enough work, you need to understand whether it is a short-term issue or something that is a reflection on you. If other attorneys in situations similar to yours are getting enough work, the firm may not be happy with your work. When this occurs, you should investigate the reasons why or start looking elsewhere.
There are plenty of firms that are very busy and have so much work that they do not have to play favorites. If this is happening, you may just be in a law firm that is a bad cultural fit for you. If this is the case, you should move on.
- You are a partner who had their compensation cut, who was made a non-equity partner, who was only given a few years to build a book and has not succeeded, or a partner who has lost most of their business. Law firm partners lose their jobs all the time. If this happens, you may or may not want to take action. If you can improve your situation where you are, you should.
If you are in a position where you do not have enough work at your existing firm, it may not be your fault. Regardless, in this case, you should do your best to find a new job.
- You will have no work to do after a group leaves for another firm and takes all of your work with them. Attorneys often leave law firms in groups, leaving other attorneys behind with nothing to do. If this happens to you, the law firm may even see you as an “enemy” of sorts since you worked closely with the group that left. If this is the case, you are much better off taking action than remaining where you are.
If a group leaves and does not take you with them, there is not much you can do. Law firms that hire groups typically only want to hire attorneys who bring business with them—there is not much you can do about that either..
React the Right Way
How an attorney reacts to any of these scenarios is critical. Every day, I speak with, work with, and review the resumes of attorneys who have lost, are losing, or believe they are about to lose their jobs. Most attorneys have one of these four reactions when something like this happens:
Reaction #1: The Attorney Picks Themselves Up and Tries Again.
If the attorney has not lost their job but is having a bad experience, they think seriously about staying where they are and fixing the problem—or they leave and look for a new position. If the attorney has lost their job (or is losing their job soon), they start an aggressive, no-holds-barred search for a new position. Other attorneys just apply to a few law firms hoping for the best, but it is always better to keep pushing forward.
Consider the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, and his list of spectacular failures:
- Amazon purchased a shopping comparison site, Junglee, and lost over $170 million. Amazon did not realize when it purchased the website that it is was not a good idea to send customers to other sites to make purchases instead of keeping them on Amazon. They eventually shuttered the site.
- Amazon purchased a 50 percent stake in Pets.com and contributed a $50 million round of financing. The company went out of business in 2002.
- Amazon invested $60 million in Kozmo.com. This company went out of business within a few years.
- Amazon purchased the daily deals site Living Social for $175 million and invested another $56 million in the site. The company lost over $231 million when it failed.
- Amazon purchased the company Quidsi for $545 million in 2010. This was the parent company of Diapers.com, Sopa.com, Wag.com, BeautyBar.com, Casa.com, and YoYo.com. Amazon shut this company down in 2017, saying it could never be profitable.
- More recently, Amazon launched the Fire Phone, one of its biggest product failures. Initially for sale for $199, the company could not sell the phones and eventually slashed the price to 99 cents. Amazon lost $170 million.
- Some other costly mistakes of Amazon and Bezos that cost the company hundreds of millions include:
- Amazon Spark – An Instagram-like shopping platform.
- Amazon Storywriter – A way for writers to create scripts for Amazon Studios.
- Amazon Pop-Up Stores – Amazon started and then closed 87 pop-up stores.
- Amazon Dash Buttons – These were buttons that people could push to reorder things whenever they wanted more.
- Amazon Tap – This was the first Amazon Echo device and a mobile version of the product.
- Amazon Pick-Up – This was a way for consumers to order things and pick them up at an Amazon locker within minutes. The service was closed at the end of 2018.
- Amazon Tickets – This service originally launched in the UK in 2015, with plans to open domestically. It was closed in 2018.
- Endless.com – Amazon started this online fashion retailer in 2007 and closed it in 2012.
- MyHabit.com – This was Amazon's flash sale site that opened in 2016 and closed a short time later.
- Amazon Webstore – This was a platform where small businesses could set up their own retail stores. Amazon closed this site in 2015.
- Amazon Destinations – This was a hotel booking site that Amazon started in April 2015 and shut down in October of the same year.
- Amazon Local – This was a daily deals site similar to Groupon that shut down in 2015.
- Amazon Wallet – This product allowed people to store loyalty and retail gift cards. It closed in 2015, just six months after starting.
- Amazon Askville – This service, similar to Yahoo Answers and Google Answers, shut down in 2013.
- Amazon Auction – This was Amazon’s answer to eBay. It started in 1999 and closed a few years later.
- Bezos recently got divorced, costing him more than half of his fortune and exposing his personal life in a National Enquirer article. In another January 2019 article, a "friend" of Bezos’ lover, Lauren Sanchez, stated that "Bezos is seriously stupid if he is thinking of marrying her. He's already seriously stupid for giving up half his fortune for her."
Bezos has made an incredible number of bad mistakes—both personally and financially. Despite all of his failures, he persists and does not give up. He realizes that failure teaches him lessons that will make him more successful in the future. The more you fail, the more likely it is that you will not make the same mistake again. Too many people give up after making mistakes and refuse to learn from them. Imagine if Bezos had given up when something bad happened to him?
Learn from Your Mistakes
The best weapon in your arsenal is resilience. If you are resilient and able to push through when negative things happen, you are far more likely to succeed. Losing your job, or being under the threat of losing your job, does not mean you have to quit the practice of law, go in-house, take a position that is beneath you, become a contract attorney, or otherwise—these are all things that traumatized attorneys do regularly. You are human and you will make mistakes. Bad things are going to happen to you. Like Bezos, if you learn from your mistakes and realize they are par for the course, you will serve yourself well.
Here is one of my favorite passages from the book Think and Grow Rich:
Darby's uncle had gone West to Colorado during the gold rush days and eventually came across gold ore. In need of mining machinery to dig up more gold, Darby's uncle returned home to Maryland to secure financing for the machinery. While there, he also was able to enlist Darby's help. Once financing was secured, Darby and his uncle returned to Colorado to work the mine.
Initially, things were going well. The first remnants of gold they discovered were shipped to a smelter, and the returns provided a promise that they could have one of Colorado's richest mines. A few more gold discoveries like the first could clear Darby and his uncle of all their debt and leave them very rich.
Needless to say, they were hopeful as they continued to drill.
Then the unbelievable happened. The vein of gold ore they had been successfully drilling just disappeared. Confident they would find more gold Darby and his uncle continued to drill, day after day, with no luck.
Every day of drilling drove them both deeper into debt, and until finally, they both decided to QUIT! They sold the drilling machinery to a nearby junkman and returned home.
The junkman wasn’t convinced that their mine had no gold, so he hired a mining engineer to get an expert opinion before breaking down all of the drilling machinery to be sold. The engineer’s findings were shocking! He found that the vein of gold ore that Darby and his uncle had been seeking was just three feet from where they had stopped drilling!
The junkman decided to continue drilling and that is exactly where the gold was found!
This sort of thing happens all the time. People who stay in the game and keep drilling succeed. Those who give up do not. You should not give up—ever. No matter what happens to you, think about how far you have come (going to law school, taking the bar, becoming an attorney, and all the time you put in). Do not get “psyched out” by others who may lead you to believe that you should quit. That is their problem, not yours.
- I know of several attorneys who have been fired from multiple positions that are now partners in major law firms.
- I know of attorneys who have failed the bar multiple times, been unemployed for years, and then found new positions with major law firms.
- I know of attorneys who have been sued for malpractice at their current law firm, lost, and are still there doing well.
- I know of attorneys who have been fired for not having enough business, went to new law firms, and built up huge books of business there.
- I know of attorneys fired for substance abuse and other issues who now have jobs with major law firms.
But I have also seen far too many great attorneys give up when bad things happen to them. I've seen partners, associates, and others give up at the first sign of major resistance in their careers—and leave the practice of law completely. This is the last thing in the world you want to do. If you quit or do something beneath you in response to a negative experience, then you are letting the firm or the people who were involved win. Do not let others define you. Take the negative feedback and turn it into fuel, get angry, and use it to power yourself forward.
If you are under threat of getting fired from a law firm, instead of just looking for a new position and checking out, perhaps you can drastically improve your performance to save your job and become a star in your firm. You may want to find a new firm where you can be a star, but it is usually best to fix your situation at your existing firm when possible.
If you do not believe it makes sense to stay where you are, you need to search for a new position aggressively. Contact us or visit LawCrossing, which consolidates every open position in the legal market, to find a new job. You need to do an aggressive search to find a new position when you lose your job.
Reaction #2: The Attorney Doesn’t Accept Any Responsibility.
One sign of the most mature and emotionally well-developed people is that they learn lessons from everything that happens to them. You are going to fail. Everyone fails and experiences setbacks and makes mistakes. Sometimes these may have been your mistakes, and other times, they are not. A willingness to learn from your mistakes teaches you how to approach interviews and what is essential in your next position.
One of the biggest problems with many attorneys is that they have massive egos. These egos have often made them successful or were developed by the success they have had. However, these egos also tend to make them believe they are right, and the firm and anyone else who has a problem with them are wrong. To protect their egos, these attorneys will develop all sorts of rationalizations about why the other party is crazy, and why they are in the right. You need to set aside your and ask yourself what you could have done differently.
In my dealings in the business world, I regularly run across sociopaths and others who happily steal money from others with no compunction whatsoever. Recently I was dealing with an accountant who I paid $45,000 to do some work for me. He had not done the work and was refusing to do the job. I got mad at him for not doing the work, and he responded by telling me to "&%$# off!" and that he was not going to do the job just because I got mad at him. Moreover, he has refused to return my money. This is sociopathic behavior. He is justifying ripping me off and keeping my money because I got mad at him for not doing what he was paid to do—but he caused my anger by not doing the work in the first place. People play games like this to justify bad behavior all the time. I was watching a true crime show the other night. In the show, they were talking about a woman cheating on her husband. Both the woman and the announcer of the program were justifying her behavior because the husband lost his job. This makes zero sense. The woman was at fault and looking for a reason to blame her husband for something that was under her control, not his. Blaming others for problems that you created is completely wrong.
Take Responsibility So You Can Fix the Problem
Whatever went wrong in your last position, it is crucial that you understand and take responsibility for what you could have done differently, so you do not make the same errors again.
Here are some common mistakes that you may need to take responsibility for:
- You may have chosen the wrong law firm to work for. Just as you have lots of options in the dating world, you have lots of options in the law firm world if you do your search correctly. You should be working with a group of people who will support you and the sort of firm that will advance your career. I have noticed that attorneys who work in mid-sized markets, small markets, and smaller law firms rarely leave the practice of law. In contrast, attorneys who work in large markets leave the practice of law quite frequently. If you are going to work in a major market for a large firm, you are more likely to experience adversity than if you work in a smaller market.
- You could have performed better. If you were laid off from a firm, the odds are not everyone was laid off. What could you have done to form better relationships with the people who had control over your career? You could have worked more hours. You could have done better work. If you are a more senior attorney, you could have brought in more business. All of these are lessons that you need to take—and fix—the next time around.
- You don’t learn your lesson. Many attorneys who make severe mistakes in their jobs never learn the lessons from those mistakes. Instead, they make the same mistakes over and over again. The attorney who loses their job for being careless has the same issues at the next employer. The attorney who does not bill enough hours loses their next position for the same reason as well. Regardless of why you lose your job, you need to figure out what you did and learn a lesson from it.
Reaction #3: The Attorney Believes They Must Need a Different Practice Setting and Focuses Only on In-House Jobs, Government Jobs, Smaller Law Firms (if they are Coming from a Large Law Firm), or Contract Attorney Jobs.
Attorneys in this position tend to think that a different practice setting will be the answer, but generally it is not. Every law firm and every practice area inside every law firm is different. Sometimes it can take a few moves before you find the ideal firm for you.
You need to ask yourself if a different practice setting is really going to take care of the issues that created your problems in the first place. The issues you experienced inside of one law firm will not repeat themselves if you choose the right law firm next time, or work in a law firm that is more conducive to what you need.
There are real dangers of going in-house or leaving a large law firm early in your career. In general, it is extremely difficult to ever go back to a large law firm if you go in-house or work in a smaller law firm. Many in-house positions are even less stable than law firm jobs.
The solution to the issues you are currently experiencing in your law firm may be fixed simply by moving law firms.
When you move law firms, you have all sorts of choices.
- You can move to a similar law firm in your market. This may be all you need to do. You need to find a law firm that has a healthier climate for you—whether that means more business, a better cultural fit, or more opportunity.
- You can move to a larger or smaller law firm. A larger or smaller firm may be the answer. Smaller firms tend not to require as many hours—but keep in mind that some still do.
- You can move to a law firm in a different market. Different markets have different cultures and demands. Smaller markets typically do not require as many hours as larger markets.
Reaction #4: The Attorney Chooses to Leave the Practice of Law Completely.
If an attorney loses their position or has a negative experience, they often choose to leave the practice of law entirely. This is the most extreme reaction and it happens far more than it should. Just because you had a bad experience at one firm does not mean you should consider leaving the practice of law.
It is common for attorneys to have horrible experiences working for major New York law firms. They work very long hours, are relentlessly criticized, and often fired—or they are under constant threat of losing their positions. Instead of realizing they have valuable experience in the most brutal and demanding of legal environments, these attorneys often make the mistake of quitting and leaving the practice of law completely. I have seen this occur more times than I can count. It happens to some of the most talented attorneys you can imagine—graduates of top law schools who did very well there.
Recently I was working with the graduate of a top law school who was let go from a major New York law firm after working there for only six months. He had been working for a junior partner and felt the junior partner was driving up the bill by having him do unnecessary work—when the legal answer was already clear. He brought this to the junior partner's attention but instead of being grateful for the advice, he ended up firing the attorney. Because this attorney had such little experience, he had a difficult time finding a new position in the limited amount of time the law firm gave him to get a position. At one point during my representation of him, he mentioned that he was so depressed about the situation he was considering suicide. This seemed like an over-the-top reaction to something that I did not even really consider a mistake. When he did not have a new position after the four weeks the law firm gave him to find a job, he ended up quitting and stopped responding to emails, phone calls, and texts. He is not practicing law to this day. This makes no sense—none of it was really his fault. He just did not play the game as well as he could have.
Before you consider leaving the practice of law, it is always a good idea to remember how far you came to become an attorney, how hard you worked, and how difficult it was. You also need to know that once you leave, your odds of ever getting another position are going to be quite slim.
What I Would Do if I Was Fired, or in Danger of Losing My Job at My Firm
I’ve been in the legal placement business for over 20 years. I’ve seen countless attorneys lose their jobs—and most attorneys do not take the right actions.
As a preliminary matter, it is important to understand that it is much easier to find a position when you are employed rather than unemployed. Once you are unemployed, it is much more difficult to find a position. Whatever your personal situation may be, the biggest mistake attorneys make when their career is in danger is under marketing themselves. If you are in danger of losing your job or have already lost your job, you need to apply everywhere you possibly can.
When I am finding firms for my candidates, I will look at positions that are open and also research firms that have strong practice areas that match what my candidate does. I also contact firms without openings to see if they have any interest in my candidate. I will make an aggressive and concerted effort to get my candidate to consider other markets around the United States, rather than just looking in their home market. I will also try to get my candidate to look at law firms of all sizes. This is how you get a job—and you need to take actions like these when you are trying to find a position.
I recently represented a partner with a huge book of business who had two months to find a new position, due to a mistake he made that became public and was written about in the papers. I told him that because of this publicity, he would need to look at several firms in several markets. He refused. Although I was able to get him some interviews in his market with the limited number of firms he allowed me to apply him to, he was never able to find a position because he would not consider other markets or firms outside his market. This was a huge mistake because when the two months were over, he did not have a job. And then, because he was so disappointed in himself, he ended up leaving the practice of law altogether—another mistake.
I am working with all sorts of attorneys right now who refused to look at 1) other markets, 2) law firms unless they have an opening, and 3) law firms of a specific size (large or small) because they have some very definite beliefs about the city they should be working in, the size of law firm they should be working in, and how to conduct a job search. Many of these attorneys do not find positions.
These examples come to mind:
- A life sciences patent attorney in Milwaukee with ten years of experience and no business who is losing a job. The attorney has applied without luck to the few possible positions. There are not a lot of positions for this type of attorney in Milwaukee—or even in the United States. This attorney is only going to get a position with another law firm if they look at other markets.
- A corporate attorney in a very niche specialty in New York City who is only interested in working for the most prestigious law firms and has lost his job. This attorney also needs to look at other markets or smaller law firms. New York has too many people in this attorney’s practice area who are employed and looking for jobs. Most law firms with openings are going to hire someone who is currently employed rather than unemployed. This attorney needs to either market themselves as a generalist corporate attorney to smaller law firms in their market, or look at other markets where the law firms cannot easily find attorneys with those niche skills.
Regardless of your situation, I can tell you from experience that the best way to get a position is to market yourself as broadly as possible. Law firms are businesses and if they have the work—or think hiring you will give them the work—they may hire you. A law firm does not need to have an official opening to hire you. If they have a possible need that you can fill, they will hire you if they see your background and like you after meeting you.
LawCrossing offers many resources to help you find a new job:
- You can find countless positions on LawCrossing by signing up here.
- LawCrossing also has an archive feature where all of the old jobs on the site—millions of them—are available, so you can search to find firms that have had openings for someone like you in the past.
- If you want someone else to do the work for you, from searching to applying, try the LawCrossing Concierge service.
- And, of course, I also recommend submitting your resume to BCG Attorney Search to see if we can help you.
About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.
About BCG Attorney Search
BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.