As this website has covered at length for over a decade, layoffs are common within the legal profession. Mass reductions in force can occur at law firms for a wide variety of reasons. For instance, economic conditions, such as those experienced during the Great Recession, might lead to less demand for legal service. As a result, law firms may need to reduce their headcount in order to account for the decrease in demand. In addition, clients often choose to work with different legal counsel, and this might mean that firms must eliminate attorneys who worked on matters that are no longer handled by a firm. Furthermore, cases settling or partners retiring can all impact a firm’s decision to reduce headcount.
Although there are many times when firms need to terminate employees due to performance, in the vast majority of instances, layoffs have absolutely nothing to do with a lawyer’s work. Indeed, attorneys usually have no impact on the more global conditions that influence layoff determinations. However, attorneys who are laid off may still face biases and stigma when searching for new positions.
I recently went to an attorney social event and met a lawyer who had been laid off because of the collapse of LeClairRyan. This attorney has been applying to jobs for weeks, and had some interviews lined up for a variety of roles. I told this lawyer that he was looking for work in a relatively strong job market, and he should expect to have a new job before too long. This attorney had an excellent background, and employers should know about all of the craziness at LeClairRyan that precipitated this attorney being let go.
However, I couldn’t help but think that this attorney might be at a disadvantage when looking for work. Surely, any reasonable person should know that an associate at a bankrupt law firm was not terminated because of job performance, but because of a number of external factors. However, people may think that this attorney might have landed at another firm with a departing partner if their work was up to snuff or that this attorney otherwise had some ownership over the situation.
I faced a similar sentiment when I was laid off at the beginning of my career. A little more than a year after I started practicing, I was laid off in a mass reduction of force along with dozens of other attorneys and staffers. The layoffs were motivated by a number of external factors, including a major matter settling and economic issues with our firm.
However, even though I was laid off with dozens of other lawyers, and many articles were published about the troubles at our firm, I couldn’t help but feel that people thought I was responsible for my situation. Based on the questions I received at interviews, I felt like attorneys held the belief that I could have avoided my fate if I had worked harder. Despite any logic to the contrary, I felt that it was impossible to shake this flawed perception among legal professionals, and this made it difficult to get hired at other shops.
Another unfair issue with being laid off is that it places an indelible dark mark on your career. Attorneys are oftentimes addicted to prestige, and hiring partners like to recruit people who are on an upward trajectory in their careers. Getting laid off along the way, even if the attorney had nothing to do with this process, can put a lawyer at a disadvantage when compared to attorneys who were never laid off.
Many lawyers, especially those who practiced during the Great Recession, were laid off at some point or another, or know someone close to them that was. Being laid off is a traumatic experience that leads to isolation, depression, and a number of negative outcomes. Attorneys who are laid off from firms deserve kindness and understanding, since the are likely experiencing a difficult time in their lives.
As a result, it is important for people making hiring decisions to understand that many layoffs have absolutely nothing to do with an attorney’s work performance. In most instances, there is nothing that an attorney could have done to avoid getting laid off, since external factors beyond the attorney’s control contributed to the layoff. Hiring partners should not hold an associate liable for the bad decisions of senior partners or the choices of clients that likely motivated the reduction in force. In addition, hiring staff should understand that being laid off is not a huge blemish on a legal career, and will not affect an associate’s performance at a new firm.
I wish everyone searching for work as a result of the LeClairRyan bankruptcy and other mass reductions in force the best of luck in finding new jobs. Professionals within the legal industry should be compassionate to these individuals and should not unfairly judge applicants because they were laid off.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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