The Highlands Company Blog

Being Terminated as a Lawyer and Staying Rational

terminating a lawyer

terminating a lawyerIn my practice, I work generally with attorneys. When an attorney – or anyone else – receives a notice of termination, it can be both psychologically and financially devastating. Some are so overwhelmed by this news that they deny the reality, rather than take the steps necessary to secure other suitable employment.

The state of denial can be so profound that some may even convince themselves that the termination notice was only a warning. They continue to mire themselves in work for the firm that has just terminated them to reaffirm their professional competence, and they ignore the top priority of searching for and securing a new position.

Overwhelmed by feelings of fear and shame and confused about what to do next, terminated attorneys can become paralyzed or “stuck in place.”

If ever you find yourself in this unfortunate position, here are some tips for moving ahead:

  • Put yourself first.
  • Gather references now from trusted allies. Don’t worry about partners who are still expecting stellar work from you. They have their own agendas, which probably do not include your future employment. Your number-one job is to find a new one. Billable hours for a firm that has terminated you should no longer be your priority.
  • Don’t volunteer for new work. Most law firms tell their partners not to give demanding assignments to departing attorneys. Your firm’s human resources officer will tell you your first priority is to find a new job. Nevertheless, some partners will continue to give you work because they need your help. They may not realize the drain on your time. If you cannot look for a job because you are continuing to do work for your firm, speak up. If you think that your firm is going to ask you back, think twice. That rarely happens. Your firm may give you additional time before you have to leave, but that will depend on the firm and the particular circumstances.
  • If you are given a “soft date” instead of a “hard date” by which you must leave, don’t delay – start looking immediately. Your “drop dead” departure date will come eventually. Take advantage of the time while you have it.
  • Analyze your own thoughts and feelings about your termination. Are you upset? Depressed? Embarrassed? Stuck in slow motion? While these feelings may be very real, find someone who knows you and who can help validate them – a friend, partner, or a trained counselor or psychologist. But never let yourself get swallowed up in this process. There is a prize at the end of your journey and that prize is to secure a new position. Don’t ever lose sight of it.
  • Find a legal recruiter who will help you find a new position. Recruiters can be a font of knowledge, but they may not be looking for someone with your qualifications. You may not have enough experience for the jobs listed with them. Or you may have too much. In-house opportunities are limited and recruiters do not place people in the government or in public service.
  • Don’t rely exclusively on the legal recruiter to do all the work. Every day that is wasted waiting for the phone to ring for another interview is just that, a day wasted.
  • Seek help with networking! This skill is essential when you are looking for a job. Most jobs are found through networking, so you need to develop this skill. King George VI of Britain, who was depicted in the movie, The King’s Speech, sought help from a speech therapist to get rid of his stutter. He had to give public speeches – a job requirement for a king. The legal acumen that enabled you to excel in law school or as a practitioner may not be the same skill-set needed to secure an interview or land a job. If you are anxious about speaking to people about your situation or have tremendous social anxiety that is hindering you from moving forward, get help. If seeking help was good enough for the King of England, then it is good enough for you. The skill of networking can make or break your success in finding a new position.
  • Seek out the aid of an outplacement professional or coach who specializes in the legal profession. These people can be invaluable tools in the battle for success. It’s probably been a while since you had to update your resume, hone your interviewing skills, or be at the top of your self-promotion game.
  • Sharpen your self-promotion skills. Modesty may be a virtue in most of life, but it tends not to be in job hunting. Match your skills and qualifications with the needs of prospective employers. Channel the inner law school graduate who was excited about the prospect of joining a new firm, and become that person again. It’s your own excitement and exuberance, coupled with the knowledge that you’ve acquired in your present position, that will catch the eye of your future employer.
  • Create a plan of action. Be as specific as possible about target organizations and specific people whom you want to contact. Force yourself to set and keep deadlines.
  • Use every method of job search including: networking, the help of legal recruiters, answering advertisements, and direct outreach to target people and places.
  • If you are thinking of leaving the law and are confused by your thoughts, seek the help of a career counselor. (See The International Association of Career Professionals, A career counselor can help you determine alternative career paths by assisting you to identify your aptitudes, skills, interests, personal style, values and more. Career assessment tools are often used to aid in the self exploration process, such as The Highland Ability Battery for talents and aptitudes and The Birkman Method, a personality instrument that helps people understand their own interests, behaviors, and underlying motivators. These are all crucial when trying to select a new career.
  • Don’t forget that you are a highly respected attorney. Although it may not feel that way at the moment, you are a winner. You would never have overcome all of the obstacles you have faced otherwise. There are plenty of law schools churning out new law school graduates every year and each graduate is as dedicated to finding a position as you were when you first started. Remember that you carry with you years of experience. It’s up to you to show your new employer that you are its best choice. In order to sell yourself effectively (after all you are a product), you must believe in the product with the same enthusiasm as you once did.

A note for senior attorneys who receive THE notice: Your age can be approached as an asset or liability. YOU must treat it as an asset. Perhaps the most memorable and effective demonstration of age as asset occurred in the second Presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale on October 21, 1984.

Second Presidential Reagan-Mondale, October 21, 1984

Question 9 – The President’s Age

TREWHITT [the debate moderator]: Mr. President, I want to raise an issue that I think has been lurking out there for 2 or 3 weeks and cast it specifically in national security terms. You already are the oldest President in history [Reagan was 73]. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale [Mondale was 56]. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cubin missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?

REAGAN: Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience. [Laughter and applause] If I still have time, I might add, Mr. Trewhitt, I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, that said, “If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.”

With this in mind, here are a few more tips.

  • Be realistic. You may not earn as much money. Come to terms with that and move on.
  • Capitalize on your considerable assets, including your experience, your network, your perspective and your maturity.
  • Understand that you have a knowledge base that is a valuable commodity.
  • Make use of a retained legal search specialist. They have higher-level job openings than most contingency legal recruiters.

Being terminated in the legal profession, or any profession, can be devastating, but it is up to you as an astute attorney to look at the termination as a beginning and not THE END. It may be the end of a particular work situation. But you can overcome the impact if you understand the psychological factors, seek out the help you need, and act as your own advocate as only you can. Stop acting irrationally by hesitating and delaying; take the necessary action steps to your new job! It’s up to you how you will land. I hope the tools I’ve described will make that landing as smooth as possible.