Handling a Layoff
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 attorney-counselor to discuss these issues as well as to strategize about your job search going forward.
Evaluate the Past and Focus on the Future
When you are informed of your layoff, 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 employer to assist you in your job search, or to act as a reference at some point in the near or distant future.
There can be many reasons why your employer has decided to terminate your employment. Because the reason will dictate your course of action with future employers, you should seek to learn what it is. The three most common reasons are: (1) for financial reasons; (2) your work product was deemed unsatisfactory; or (3) the employer didn’t feel that you fit in with its culture. Hopefully the employer will discuss the reasons at the time it informs you of its decision. If not, as uncomfortable as it may feel, if you are at all able you should be proactive in inquiring as to the reason for the employer’s decision.
If the employer informs you that financial reasons dictated the layoff, ask follow-up questions regarding the number of people, or the percentage of attorneys and/or staff, that will be laid-off. This information will be useful to you in talking with prospective employers.
If the employer says that your work product was not up to par, seek constructive feedback regarding your weaknesses, which projects were deemed to be 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 references for you.
If the employer informs you that you are not a good “fit,” ask for information regarding what specifically led 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 layoff, below are some initial steps to take:
- Ask how long you may remain in your current position, given the employer’s decision.
- Ask the employer about any severance pay, accrued vacation and sick pay.
- Request information on continuance of health and life insurance benefits.
- Inquire about outplacement resources.
Job Search Action Plan
Don’t be shy about asking the employer’s assistance in your future job search. Ask the employer what it will say if it is contacted about you by a prospective employer. Ask who at the employer can serve as a reference for you. It would be very helpful for you to have one or two individuals at the employer who will speak highly of your work, although that may not be possible under every circumstance.
With larger law firms and business employers especially, ask whether any assistance can be provided in your job search efforts. After determining the future career path you wish to pursue, inform your former employer and seek its assistance. It is possible that your former employer 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 job 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, opposing counsel, etc. Also added to this list of contacts should be fellow alumni of YLS, through Career Connections and other alumni networks, and your undergraduate school, in addition to other personal and professional 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.
You also may wish to consider speaking and working with a headhunter. See CDO’s Using a Headhunter page for a discussion of this job search approach.
In preparing for interviews, determine how you will answer questions regarding your prior experience, including questions about why you left that employer. Please keep in mind that particularly in a challenging market, being laid-off does not necessarily 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. But consider carefully what approach seems best for you. This may be impacted in part by any periods of time reflected on your resume in which you have not been employed.
No matter what your preferred approach, you may 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 layoff was the result of an economic downturn or difficult financial period for your former employer, keep in mind that there have been past economic downturns in the legal and non-legal market in which talented and hardworking individuals have been paid-off. A layoff is nothing to be ashamed of and portraying confidence during an interview will reflect positively on you.