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Handling a Layoff

During turbulent economic times, lay-offs unfortunately become more prevalent. When faced with a lay-off, be sure to make time for yourself. Loss of a job ranks as one of the most difficult times in life, and you will need to maintain your health and well-being to start again strong. If you feel you need additional support, consider talking with a professional who can assist you through this time.


If you find yourself in a position of being laid-off keep in mind how you first got that job - you worked hard, and success followed.  The same will happen again in the future. With that in mind, focus your efforts and energy on an aggressive and effective job search.


Prior to starting your search, take some time to evaluate your prior experiences and think about what worked well and what didn’t work well in your past jobs.  Identify some goals you hope to achieve in your next position. Perhaps you would like to move to the public sector from the private sector, or refocus your practice in a different area. Is there a different type of legal setting that might better fit your interests, personality and/or work habits? Talk to a CDO counselor to discuss these issues.


Evaluate the Past and Focus on the Future

When the firm informs of the lay-off, respond with grace. You can politely express your disappointment with the decision, but reacting in a professional manner will serve you better in the future. Remember, you may need to rely on this firm to assist you in your job search.


There can be many reasons why the firm has decided to terminate your employment. Because the reason will dictate your course of action with future employers, you must find out the reason from your firm. The three most common reasons are (1) for financial reasons; (2) your work product was unsatisfactory; or (3) the firm didn’t think that you fit in with the firm’s culture. Hopefully the firm will discuss the reasons at the time they inform you of their decision. If not, you must be proactive in inquiring as to the reason for the non-offer by talking with supervisors or your mentor.


If the firm informs you that financial reasons dictated the non-offer, ask follow-up questions regarding the exact number of people that will be laid-off. This information will be useful to you in talking with prospective employers. If the firm says that your work product was not up to par, seek constructive feedback regarding your weaknesses, which projects were sub par, and whether there were certain projects in which you performed well. You can then seek out the attorneys with whom you worked on the projects that turned out well and ask whether they will serve as a reference for you. If the firm informs you that you are not a good “fit,” ask for information regarding what specifically led them to that conclusion: whether it was a matter of one or more attorneys not getting along with you, or a specific incident in which you were involved, or some other factors. Again, this is important information for you to have when reflecting on your experience with prospective employers.


Upon first learning about a lay-off, below are some initial steps to take:


  1. Ask the employer about any severance pay, accrued vacation and sick pay.
  2. Request information on continuance of health and life insurance benefits.
  3. Inquire about outplacement resources.

Job Search Action Plan

Don’t be shy about asking the firm’s assistance in your future job search. Ask the firm what they will say if they are contacted about you by a prospective employer. Ask who at the firm can serve as a reference for you. It is critically important for you to have one or two attorneys in the firm who will speak highly of your work. With larger firms especially, ask whether they can provide any assistance in your job search efforts. After determining the future career path you wish to pursue, inform your former employer and seek their assistance. These firms have many contacts and may be more than willing to put you in touch with people, especially if your termination was for financial reasons. Finally, be sure to seek permission from the employer to use one or more written projects as writing samples (being sure to redact any confidential information).


As you begin your search, take the time to develop a list of contacts in your professional network.  During your time practicing you may have built relationships with co-workers, clients and opposing counsel. Also added to this list of contacts should be fellow alumni of YLS and your undergraduate school, in addition to personal contacts that may be of assistance with your search.  The majority of lateral positions come through an individual’s personal network, so it is important to reach out and let people know you are on the job market and what types of positions you are considering.  Try to be as specific as possible with the advice you are seeking to make it easier for people to help.


Future Interviews

In preparing for interviews, determine how you will answer questions regarding your prior experience, including questions about why you left that employer.  Particularly during challenging economic times, being laid-off from a legal position does not carry a stigma. The days of spending a career with one organization no longer exist; in fact, most attorneys will change jobs several times throughout their careers and many will experience at least one period of unemployment.


You may be able to avoid dealing with the issue by explaining up front in your interview that although you enjoyed your experience (and explain what you enjoyed), you have since determined that you are more interested in X (i.e., California, tort law, smaller firm, government agency, public interest, you name it). By explaining your new focus, prospective employers may not think to inquire about whether you were terminated.


You may however be asked in an interview why you left your previous position. You should answer the question truthfully, but you do not need to share all of the details of the termination. Answer the question directly and professionally, but craft your answer to avoid sounding defensive. It is certainly acceptable to say that the organization and/or practice was not a good fit but that you gained great experience, which you now seek to transfer to another firm.


If the reason for the lay-off was the result of an economic downturn, keep in mind that there have been past economic downturns during which attorney lay-offs occurred. A lay-off is nothing to be ashamed of and portraying confidence during an interview will reflect positively on you.