Associates

‘You’re History.’ Now What?

Be creative, persistent in your search for the next job

Posted Jan 1, 2009 6:20 AM CDT
By Hindi Greenberg

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Photo by Polka Dot Images/Jupiter

White-shoe law firms Heller Ehrman and Thelen dissolve, leaving hundreds of lawyers to fend for themselves in an extremely competitive legal market. White & Case lays off 70 associates; Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft fires more than 130. Dechert gives performance-related notice to an undisclosed number of associates. What do you do if you are one of those laid-off or fired lawyers?

First, take a deep breath.

Law firms’ and corporations’ supposed rationale for terminating their lawyers will differ greatly, depending upon whether you speak to management or read the law blogs. Although some firms are candid and say that staffing cuts have been caused by lack of business or internal issues caused by volatile financial markets, others insist the dismissals are performance-based and not motivated by budgetary issues.

If you’re given notice by your employer, does it matter to you whether you’ve been downsized or fired? It should, since the story you tell during your next interview will be influenced by the reasons you are no longer working for that employer.

For example, if you are a Heller Ehrman refugee, a potential employer will not presume that you individually contributed to the demise of the firm and, therefore, you will have little need to explain your current unemployment. On the other hand, if you were fired by Dechert and are concerned about the perception of your departure, you will need to prepare a brief, reasonable and well-articulated explanation. And if you were in-house at a now-defunct business like Lehman Bro­th­ers, you might want to be ready to allay potential concerns regarding your perceived responsibility in the failure of your employer. However, this latter issue will generally only be a concern if you were fairly senior in the law department.

NO NEGATIVES

No matter what else you decide to say about why you are no longer employed, it is important to avoid negative comments about your former employer. No employer wants to be exposed to another’s dirty linen, no matter how public a problem may be. A prospective employer also doesn’t want to be given the impression that, if you are hired and your relationship with the new job sours, you might soon be airing sordid stories about this new firm.

And no matter how valid your complaints about your previous work or employer, an outsider hearing those complaints may wonder if you didn’t share in or even create the problem. This last issue can become especially problematic because if a negative perception is planted in the interviewer’s mind, any related issue that later occurs may be filtered through that perception. Complaints about a former employer often are viewed as excuses rather than facts.

Instead, evaluate the positive aspects of your pre­vious employment—what you learned, what responsibilities you were given, what successes you had, what depth or breadth of expertise you developed. You will also want to select remembered quotes from any positive performance reviews. This will give you the ability to make some promotional comments when speaking about your former position.

Especially if you believe you were unjustifiably terminated, you could inform the interviewer that all of your performance evaluations were excellent and that you worked successfully with your former firm for a stated number of years. Be prepared to counter questions about problems with positive examples.

But what if your practice area is one of those where work has dried up? How do you get a potential employer in a new field to interview you in this tight market? One way to make yourself more marketable is to examine the tasks you have performed and analyze the skills used in those tasks.

You may find, as did one of my clients who was downsized after the dot-com debacle, that your skills and knowledge base are transferable to a newly burgeoning field.

Ray (I’ll call him) had been doing big-ticket mergers and acquisitions when his entire department was laid off for lack of work. Our analysis of his skills and experience indicated he would both enjoy doing and have the background for corporate restructuring, a booming practice area because of the high-tech meltdown. The only initial downside for Ray was that his new job paid substantially less than he had been earning at a big law firm. But he knew that within a few years his income would increase, and he would have more free time to enjoy it.

Because of the similarities between his previous work and his new field, Ray’s transition was relatively painless. But what if your skills and knowledge don’t segue quite as smoothly into a currently viable practice area? Many unemployed lawyers have been working with banking, mortgage and other financial issues. Some of my clients are looking into the bankruptcy and reverse mortgage arenas, drawing on their financial backgrounds.

CREATE YOUR JOB

A proactive method for securing work that has been successful for some clients has been to solicit or create a job. A client (I’ll call her Shelly) had a background in mergers, securities and litigation. She consistently read the business journal in her city and whenever she saw an article about a company that had a problem in her areas of interest, she would write the CEO of that company suggesting that she had ideas that might contribute to a solution.

Shelly was successful in securing appointments with several CEOs. Some just wanted free advice, but a few were impressed with her ideas and knowledge and got into serious discussions about how they could work together.

She eventually accepted a job as in-house counsel for one of those CEOs. This resourceful tactic initially impinged upon her unpaid time and energy, but it resulted in a productive outcome.

Some of my clients are taking their suddenly available free time to do an in-depth evaluation as to whether they want to continue to practice law, or work in the all-consuming style they did previously. Perhaps this would be a good time for you, too, to step back and begin to decide where you see yourself five or 10 years in the future. Rather than just chugging along on your previous path, maybe your layoff or firing can be used as a catalyst for changing direction to one that will be of more interest to you.

Once you decide what field in or out of law you want to pursue, it is crucial to analyze the skills used in your previous work and discover how they would be appli­cable to the new area. Then take education courses in your preferred area so you will sound knowledgeable when you interview and show that you have a focus.

If you aren’t successful in securing employment right away, try to find someone who is working in your area of interest. Next, either volunteer or ask to work as an independent contractor for that person or firm in order to get relevant, current work experience for your resumé.

If you decide to stay in law, it can be productive to cultivate networking contacts. Do this by obtaining a copy of the alumni list from your law school and checking where and in what fields those alumni practice. Con­tact those in your preferred area or those you know personally. Make a list of everyone you worked with when you did practice, as they are good references and also may know relevant contacts in the new specialty.

Additionally, make yourself visible and noteworthy by becoming active in your local bar association, especially in the sections of the practice areas in which you are interested. To make good contacts, go to the meetings and talk to the practitioners. To get yourself noticed, write an article on your topic of interest for the relevant bar section publication.

And whether you stay in law or leave, don’t overlook the people you meet through your children’s school, your church or synagogue, your activities and clubs, because some of these people might work in your preferred field or know people who do.

More than 70 percent of jobs are obtained through word of mouth, so the more people with whom you interact, the more information you will glean.

NETTING WORK

Some job hunters successfully use the Internet for their job hunt. There are numerous websites listing job openings in every field, including legal positions.

If you are interested in an in-house position, don’t just check the legal want ads, but also go to the websites of the companies where you might like to work. They often list their job openings or whom to contact for information.

For government jobs in and out of law, federal jobs can be accessed at usajobs.gov, and for each state, county, city and town, you can locate a job-listing website.

Trying to find a new job in a tight market is neither fun nor easy, but with perseverance and creativity a number of my clients have made effective and satisfying transitions. You can too. Just remember to take that first deep breath.

Hindi Greenberg, president of Lawyers in Transition, presents programs across North America, consults with individual lawyers on options in and out of the law, and advises law firms on retaining or outplacing their attorneys. The author of The Lawyer's Career Change Handbook, Greenberg may be contacted through her website at lawyersintransition.com.

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