Three Steps Lawyers Can Take Following Involuntary Terminations

March 03, 2023

by:

Jessica Hernandez, JLH Coaching & Consulting

Jessica L. Hernandez, JD, APC, CPCC is a certified executive coach who partners with her clients to move beyond obstacles to a more fulfilling place in their lives, and is the co-author of “Let’s Coach All the Lawyers: An Essential Primer for Professionals Developing Legal Talent,” published by NALP in 2021.  Jessica became a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach in 2016 and started her own consultancy, JLH Coaching & Consulting, in 2018.  Jessica practiced as a BigLaw and in-house attorney for over ten years, before assisting law students as a career advisor at Georgetown Law and serving as an internal career advisor at a major law firm.

Albert Tawil, Founder & CEO of Lateral Hub

Albert Tawil is the Founder & CEO of Lateral Hub (wordpress-732414-4175320.cloudwaysapps.com), a lateral job board platform for top-tier law firms and lateral candidates.  Lateral Hub partners with top large, midsize, and boutique law firms to publish job openings, for laterals to browse and apply without relying on third-party recruiters.  Albert previously worked as an IP/Tech Transactions associate at Cleary Gottlieb and Fenwick & West.

NOTE: This article was originally published on Law360.com on February 27, 2023.

As demand for legal work has returned to normalcy in 2022, there have been reports of increased involuntary terminations. 

For several firms over the past three months, these terminations have been characterized as layoffs due to rapid hiring followed by excess capacity as demand slows.

Other terminations have been characterized as performance based, however, when such performance-based terminations occur in a down legal market, associates and industry consultants tend to wonder about the role slowing demand has in contributing to pressure on evaluation of performance. 

Regardless of how the termination is characterized, being asked to leave a firm involuntarily can be a very difficult experience for an attorney. This is especially true in an uncertain job market. Although many attorneys see a termination as a direct result of their failings, the truth is that many factors are often at play when a firm makes the decision to involuntarily terminate an attorney. 

Examples include: budget cuts or a drop in workflow; inadequate integration of the attorney into the firm or practice group, which is a driving force in many terminations coming out of the pandemic; cultural or personality differences; or, for senior attorneys, a recognition that, despite having excellent legal credentials, the attorney does not have a strong business case for partnership. 

Even when the termination is deemed to be performance based, the attorney's performance issues may have been caused or exacerbated by one or more of these factors. As a result, the attorney's performance may not be a true reflection of the attorney's skills or potential. 

Despite these mitigating factors, attorneys generally tend to be self-critical, and are prone to construing a termination as a personal indictment of their work or their ability to succeed. It can be daunting for a candidate to turn around on the heels of this negative news and think about presenting as a strong candidate for a new position. 

However, it is critical to move to a place of confidence in order to conduct a successful job search. Below we share some pointers on how a terminated attorney can take a step back, review any feedback given and analyze the circumstances as a whole to move forward feeling confident in their job search. 

1. Take time to process. 

A successful job search requires a lawyer not only to be able to sell their experience and abilities to a prospective employer, but to also move past any lingering anxiety in order to succeed in a new environment. 

Even in the best case, changing jobs is stressful. Involuntary terminations bring this stress to a new level, not only due to the negative connotations associated with being terminated, but also because, in many cases, the attorney was happy and not looking for a new job. 

Many attorneys will experience a natural reaction of shock, wondering "What just happened to me?" They may be worried that their legal skills are inadequate, that they don't know how to read a situation, or that they aren't marketable. These feelings often surface regardless of whether the attorney had expected this might happen or had been completely blindsided. 

If you find yourself in this situation, it is critical to give yourself the time and space to process your emotions. You may be replaying different things that have happened and worrying that you should have done things differently. You may be extremely angry at the injustice of the situation. Sometimes, there is also some measure of relief. 

Take the time you need to process this information. Be kind to yourself — do things you love, and be with people who support you. If your firm provides outplacement coaching, be sure to take advantage of this resource; outplacement professionals are experts at helping you move beyond the shock and into action. If you find yourself unable to move past it, think about reaching out to a mental health professional for additional support. 

2. Look for the opportunities for growth. 

Though it may be hard to see initially, involuntary terminations can be great moments of opportunity. 

After you have taken time to process the termination, you will hopefully be more equipped to assess the feedback you received with a clearer head. Think critically about your experience at the organization that terminated you. What worked, and what didn't work? What made it a good fit or not? What did you learn? What new skills are you walking away with? 

An effective way to assess the feedback is to distinguish between factual feedback, which is based on specific circumstances regarding your performance, and, subjective feedback, which is about your general personality or tendencies with respect to work. 

Examples of factual feedback are specific times where you may have, for instance, turned in assignments late, or failed to fix mistakes in work product before finalizing. 

If you received this type of feedback, how can you address these issues going forward? What have you learned? Try hard to focus on a few lessons learned to carry forward, and then let the rest go. Having these thoughts continually circle in your mind will not serve you in your next endeavor.

Subjective feedback might consist of more general comments, such as being told you do not present confidently, work too independently, or are not autonomous enough. 

Perhaps the style your firm uses in interacting with each other and clients is not in line with your general approach; one may not be better than the other. Or, maybe what excites you is digging in to really understand and dissect a legal issue, as opposed to client interaction or business development. What does this feedback tell you about this work environment? What do you need more or less of in your next position? 

This type of subjective feedback can clarify the environment or role that would best align with a candidate's strengths, as opposed to the candidate having to work to address subjective comments. As Albert Einstein once said, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." 

Remember that this role was hopefully only one of the building blocks of a long and successful career, and there will always be bumps along the way. By viewing this moment as a source of information, and by taking the challenge as an opportunity to improve and find a new role that is better fit for you, you will be more able to move forward with a positive mindset. 

Remember that, even in the case of a clear performance-based termination, the feedback was not entirely negative, and you owe it to yourself to not harp only on the negative feedback. Such self-reflection can open up opportunities to grow, develop and find an employer that is the right fit. 

3. Guide your job search accordingly. After processing the emotions and feedback you received, you are ready to use the information you've learned to design an effective job search. This may involve: 

• Focusing on roles that would be a better fit for your strengths and interests. 

• Clearly articulating what makes you a great candidate, so that you can project confidence about your skills.

• Understanding that you will be a valuable asset to your next employer, and that you are not simply relying on your next employer to give you a job, despite the difficult situation you are in as a job-seeker. 

• Coming up with a game plan to hone skills that you'd like to develop further, to make you an even better performer in your next role. 

Being subject to a performance-based termination is challenging. As described here, processing the event with self-compassion and looking for actionable information will allow you to move forward in your job search with clarity and confidence and advance your career. 

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