When an attorney receives a notice of termination, it can be both psychologically and financially devastating. Some are so overwhelmed by this news that they deny their reality rather than take the steps necessary to secure suitable future employment.
This state of denial can be so profound that they may go as far as to convince themselves that their termination notice was only a warning. They can continue to mire themselves in work for the firm that has just terminated them to reaffirm their professional competence and ignore their top priority of searching for and securing a new position.
Overwhelmed by feelings of fear and shame and confused about what to do next, terminated attorneys can become paralyzed or “stuck.”
If ever you find yourself in this unfortunate position, here are some tips for moving ahead:
- Put yourself first.
- Gather references now from trusted allies. Don’t worry about partners who are still expecting stellar work from you. They have their own agendas, which possibly do not include your future employment. Your number one job is to find a new one. Billable hours for a firm that has terminated you should no longer be your priority.
- Do not be afraid to turn away work, because you want a good reference. Most law firms tell their partners to try not to give demanding assignments to their departing attorneys. Your firm’s human resources officer will tell you your first priority will be to find a new job. Nevertheless, some partners continue to give you work because they need the help. Furthermore, they may not realize the drain on your time. If you cannot look for a job because you are continuing to do work for your firm, speak up. If you think that your firm is going to ask you back, think twice. That rarely happens. It may give you additional time before you have to leave, but that will depend on your firm and the particular circumstances.
- If you are given a “soft date” instead of a “hard date” by which you must leave, don’t wait – start looking immediately. Your “drop dead” departure date will come eventually. Give yourself ample time while you have it.
- Analyze your own thoughts and feeling about your termination. Are you upset? Depressed? Embarrassed? Stuck in slow motion? While these feeling are very real, find someone to speak with who can help validate them, like a friend, partner, or psychological professional. However, never let yourself get swallowed into this process. There is a prize at the end of your journey and that prize is to secure a new position. Don’t ever lose sight of it.
- Secure a legal recruiter who will help you find a new position. They can be a font of knowledge, but they may not be looking for someone with your qualifications. You may not have enough experience for the jobs listed with them. Or you may have too much. In-house opportunities are limited and recruiters do not place in the government or public service.
- Don’t rely exclusively on that legal recruiter to do all the work. Every day that is wasted waiting for the phone to ring for another interview is just that, a day wasted
- Seek help with networking if you need it! This skill is essential when looking for a job. Most jobs are found through networking, so you need this skill. King George VI of Britain, who was depicted in the recent movie, The King’s Speech, sought help from a speech therapist to get rid of his stutter since he had to give public speeches — a job requirement to be the king. The legal acumen that enabled you to excel in law school or as a practitioner may not be the same skill set needed to secure an interview or land a job. If you are anxious about speaking to people about your situation or have tremendous social anxiety that is hindering you from moving forward, get help. If seeking help was good enough for a king, then it is good enough for you. Plus, it can make or break your success in finding a new position.
- Seek out the aid of an outplacement professional or coach who specializes in the legal profession. These people can be an invaluable tool in your tool belt for success. Remember, it’s been a while since you had to update your resume, hone your interviewing skills, and be at the top of your self-promotion game.
- Sharpen your self-promotion skills. Modesty may be a virtue in most of life, but it tends not to be in job hunting. Match your skills and qualifications with prospective employers’ needs. Channel the inner law school graduate who was hungry and excited about the prospect of joining a new firm and become that person again. It’s your own excitement and exuberance coupled with the knowledge that you’ve acquired in your present position that will catch the eye of your future employer
- Create a plan of action. Be as specific as possible about target organizations and specific people whom you want to contact. Set up deadlines for yourself.
- Use every method of job search including: networking, legal recruiters, answering advertisements, and direct outreach to target people and places.
- If you don’t want to practice law anymore and are confused about this, seek the help of a career counselor. (See The International Association of Career Professionals, www. acpinternational.org). A career counselor can help you determine alternative career paths by helping you to identify your aptitudes, skills, interests, personal style, values and more. Career assessment tools are often used to aid in the self exploration process, such as The Highland Ability Battery for aptitudes and talents and The Birkman Method, a personality instrument to help people understand their own interests, behaviors, and underlying motivators which are all crucial when trying to select the right career.
- Don’t forget that you are a highly respected attorney. Although it may not feel that way at the moment, you are a winner. You would never have overcome all of the obstacles you have otherwise. There are plenty of law schools churning out new law school graduates every year and each of them is as dedicated to finding a position as you were when you first started. Remember that you carry with you years of experience. It’s up to you to show your new employer that you are its best choice. In order to sell yourself effectively (after all you are a product), you must believe in your product as you once did.
A note for more senior terminated attorneys: Age can be approached as an asset or liability. You must treat it as an asset. Perhaps the most memorable and effective example of this occurred in the second Presidential debate between Reagan and Mondale, October 21, 1984.
Second Presidential Reagan-Mondale, October 21, 1984
Question 9 – The President’s Age
TREWHITT [the debate moderator]: Mr. President, I want to raise an issue that I think has been lurking out there for 2 or 3 weeks and cast it specifically in national security terms. You already are the oldest President in history [Reagan was 73]. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale [Mondale was 56]. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cubin missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?
REAGAN: Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience. [Laughter and applause] If I still have time, I might add, Mr. Trewhitt, I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, that said, “If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.”
- Be realistic. You may not earn as much money. Come to terms with that and move on
- Capitalize on your considerable assets, including your experience, your huge network, your perspective and maturity.
- Understand that you have an historical knowledge base that is a valuable commodity.
- Make use of a retained legal search specialist. They have higher-level job openings than most contingency legal recruiters.
In conclusion, being terminated in the legal profession, or any profession, can be devastating, but it is up to the astute attorney to look at the termination as a beginning and not THE END. It is the end of that particular work situation. Understand the psychological factors, seek out help if needed, and be your own advocate in any way that you can. Stop acting irrationally by delaying: take the necessary action steps to get a new job! It is your choice how you will land. Hopefully the tools above will make that landing as smooth as possible.
Written by Sheryl A. Odentz president of Progress in Work LLC, a career management firm for attorneys. She can be reached at email@example.com or www.progressinwork.com. This article was published in the March 2011 issue of The New York City Bar’s — The Lawyers Connect E-Newsletter.