Of late I have encountered a great deal of confusion about what should be expected of an outplacement professional, even among some human resources professionals and other traditional purchasers of outplacement services. Much of this is due to the proliferation of firms that hold themselves out as outplacement providers. Since “outplacement” (also, and perhaps more accurately, referred to as “career transition”) is not a regulated profession, it is easy for individuals to open shop and to hold themselves out as qualified. Whether your firm is offering an individual outplacement services or that individual is purchasing these services on his or her own, that individual and firm should consider these important factors:

Psychological Education/Training: A career transition professional should be trained to address the psychological ramifications of losing a job, particularly in a recessionary environment. Fear of not being able to pay the bills, failure, reputational damage, shame, confusion, and being unsettled can exacerbate existing psychological issues. Many attorneys I have seen were already in therapy and on medication before they were terminated. Therefore, having the training and skills to identify and discuss the signs of suicide, depression, and clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders is of the utmost importance. An experienced career transition provider can mitigate these negative feelings by knowing the proper steps to take to help the terminated attorney move ahead with their lives.

Career Counseling/Assessment: Often the career transitioning attorney presents to the outplacement professional that he or she wants one thing and then soon comes to realize that he or she really wants to change settings by moving in-house or to the government, to change legal specialties, to start his or her own business, to return to school, or to do something completely different. The outplacement professional must be able to assist the career transitioning attorney to regroup and then make an appropriate transition. Depending upon the attorney’s needs, the outplacement professional should also be able to offer career assessments that address aptitudes, skills, interests, values, and professional developmental needs and to select personality tools related to careers. Some of these assessments require the outplacement professional to be certified in the instruments her or she is administering.

Job Search Skills: The outplacement professional must be able to assist the transitioning attorney with different aspects of his or her job search, including: preparation of a “reason for looking/leaving statement,” references, resume development (both for remaining in the law or leaving it); networking skills, compiling lists of employment targets, finding information about recruiters, development of a personal marketing plan, interview preparation, preparation of cover letters, and finding information about career and job resources.

There has been a recent trend, due to the mass lay-offs in the legal community and the dearth of new legal jobs opportunities, for legal placement firms to open outplacement divisions. True enough, a core objective of “outplacement” and “placement” is to help the attorney transition to new employment opportunities; however, the roles, objectives and perspectives of these two functions can be quite different from one another. There is an inherent conflict of interest in the same firm playing the primary placement and outplacement functions. For instance, I often refer outplaced attorneys to multiple recruiters depending upon his or her needs and interests.

Placement firms have specialties too. One must take care to ensure that the well-being of the most vulnerable person in the career transition process – the transitioning attorney – is not compromised. The guiding principle must be: What is in the best interest of the outplaced attorney?

Experience: Experience is critically important. You should select an outplacement counselor who has many years of experience addressing the concerns of outplaced attorney as well as detailed knowledge of the business of law and alternative career paths that draw on legal training. Many outplaced attorneys grew up and have families in other countries. An understanding of cross-cultural issues is of paramount importance in helping those individuals address a whole range of issues, including, among others, immigration concerns, feelings of shame, and pressures to provide financial support to relatives living abroad.

In sum, the outplacement process, especially as it relates to big law firm lawyers, is a very delicate one. It requires the ability to balance loyalties to the outplaced attorney and the law firm that has terminated him or her, sensitivity to a range of psychological, emotional, financial, and career needs, and an understanding of the marketplace for present and former lawyers.

The absence of regulation has enabled some firms without the necessary skills, training and experience to hold themselves out as career transition specialists. Until that regulation comes, candidates and firms alike should be very careful to ensure that the outplacement firms they select are qualified.

Written by Sheryl Odentz president of Progress in Work LLC, a career management firm for attorneys.  She can be reached at sodentz@progressinwork.com or www.progressinwork.com.