No one wants to hear those words, or anything to their effect, whether prompted by economic realities or performance issues. Being fired or laid-off is a career setback, but need not be a career-ender. Although prospective employers generally favor candidates who currently are employed, being terminated has been losing its stigma as excellent attorneys were downsized from prestigious law firms during slow economic times. Of course, if you were let go for performance reasons, you will have more to overcome. The following are ten steps to help you survive a career setback:
1. Stay calm: Despite your initial reaction to the news, maintain your dignity. The legal community is small, thus you cannot afford to burn bridges. Keep the discussion civil so you are in a better position to negotiate an exit package. Clarify your exit date, severance pay, and continuance of benefits such as life and health insurance. Understand your rights under COBRA, and how to convert to an individual plan with no lapse in coverage.
2. Verify reason for termination: Understand the basis for your termination so you can correct any deficiencies and minimize damage to your future job search. Confirm your exit story with your employer, so what you tell prospective employers will check out. Ask if your employer is willing to act as a reference, and what they will say. Listen for any hesitancy as a prospective employer will detect it. If you are not certain of a good reference from that person, look for others who have seen your work and would give a positive statement about your qualifications.
3. Ease your exit: Ask about outplacement help and use of your office, email, voicemail, and phone answering services for as long as possible during your job search. If you will not be on premises but your phone will continue to be answered, try to minimize the chances of “She no longer works here”. Rather, have your callers simply put through to your voicemail—and check it regularly. Leave your office in order, organize and reassign your work, return all supplies and keys, and provide your employer with access codes and passwords so that the work can continue as seamlessly as possible.
4. Conduct a personal financial audit: Objectively assess your resources and expenses. Discuss the situation with your family or significant other, if applicable. Then, create a viable budget to provide for a realistic job search period. You do not want to be forced to take the first thing that comes along, so you might need to look into temporary work to make ends meet until you find the right position. Swallow your pride and apply for unemployment, if necessary.
5. Deal with your feelings: Termination, whether being fired or laid-off, generates negative feelings such as anger, shame, and grief. It is important to take time to deal with these feelings so they do not sabotage your job search efforts by surfacing during an interview, causing a crisis of confidence, or paralysis. Surround yourself with positive people to serve as your support network, allowing you to vent while not reinforcing your negative feelings. They should offer encouragement and build your confidence. If necessary, visit a counselor or therapist.
6. Take good care of yourself: Exercise, eat well, and sleep on a regular schedule. Do things you enjoy, but do not overindulge in escapist activity like endless videogames, overeating, drugs, or alcohol. If you are stuck in an unhealthy rut, get help, because you need to keep moving.
7. Conduct a self-audit: Consider your interests, strengths and weaknesses, preferences, and career goals. Look for lessons learned so as not to repeat past mistakes. Decide if you want to pursue a position similar to the one you left, or change direction. Explore your options and get further training or a specialization, if necessary. When you have done all of the above and are ready to pursue the job of your dreams, create an action plan, set mini-goals, and be honest with yourself about your efforts and progress.
8. Market yourself: Consider yourself a full-time marketer and the product is you. Polish your presentation. Rework your resume, cover letter, and business plan. Put together your list of references and representative cases or deals. Prepare your writing sample. Rehearse your answers to difficult interview questions and, especially, your story about leaving your last job.
9. Network relentlessly: Contact friends, family, former colleagues, law school and college classmates, neighbors, and just about anyone you meet, letting them know what kind of position you seek. Volunteer and attend bar association, CLE, alumni association, charitable and civic organization events. Do not ask directly for a job, as that may make your contacts uncomfortable. Rather, ask them for information and advice. Approach recruiters, your law school and college career centers (ask if they have reciprocity of services with any schools in your region), and post your resume on job boards. Follow up all of your contacts with copies of your resume and cover letter, asking them to pass it along to anyone they deem appropriate, asking those recipients to pass it along, as well. This is similar to viral marketing on the internet. Your perfect job could be less than six degrees of separation away.
10. Tell your story: You do not need to mention the termination in your cover letter or resume, but should deal with it proactively in the interview. Most interviewers will ask why you are looking for a new position. Be factual about your termination. Never lie, badmouth, or act like a victim. If the circumstances were economic, state the minimal facts. If there were performance issues, calmly state them and the lessons you have learned, with any steps you have taken to remediate the problems. Do not mention any legal action against your previous employer. Rather than bolstering the impression that you were not at fault, it labels you as Typhoid Mary. Get the discussion away from your termination as quickly as possible. Emphasize your transferable skills and interest in the potential employer and position. Show them how you can make a contribution to their organization.
In retrospect, a termination may be a blessing in disguise. It can give you the opportunity to correct a bad job choice and gain greater career satisfaction.