Avoiding Outplacement: How to Keep Your Head When the Axe is Falling

Sheila Markin Nielsen, M.S.W., J.D.

“They‘re dropping like flies.“ This comment came from a worried fifth year at a large Chicago firm. She was reporting on the outplacement of associates in the litigation group at her firm. She had come for counseling about how she could avoid becoming another statistic. Was there anything she could do to be more certain she would keep her job?

These days law firms have to maintain high compensation levels, meet high client expectations and demands, and manage costs in a competitive global marketplace with a turbulent economy and unpredictable flow of work from the business world. Some law firms practice groups are overwhelmed with work while others are insufficiently busy. For example, in Chicago for the past few months, litigation has in general been slow but benefits and bankruptcy are busy. Operating a global business such as a law firm has become more cut throat these days. Firms are forced to be nimble to stay viable and therefore they will fire associates and partners to maintain their edge. When the need arises, the firm looks for underperformers to unload. Like a boat that is carrying too much weight, a law firm will lighten its load by removing the perceived “dead weight“.

The short answer to Sara‘s question of how to avoid outplacement in uncertain times, is to avoid being targeted as “dead weight“. But what does that really mean in terms of actual action-steps you can take to create greater value at your firm? Most of the productive steps you should be taking need to begin long before heads start to roll at your firm. The key to being valuable to your firm is to build up your positives from the beginning. Here are four key concepts to employ from day one that we will explore:

1. Develop Good Work Habits
2. Create Strong Relationships with Key Partners
3. Niche Yourself
4. Be a Respected Presence in the Legal Community

1. Develop Good Work Habits

Good work habits will help you to efficiently process the work you receive from partners. Here are some suggestions.

  • Organize your office to run like a processing plant with easy access to tools you need to keep a streamlined and unencumbered flow of work in and off your desk. Think through where you store your supplies putting the items you need the most often in drawers that are easiest to reach.
  • Avoid redundancy at all costs. Try never to redo a task. Once you have learned something, keep a file or notes so that you can remind yourself but do not have to relearn, research, or re-organize the same process or information ever again.
  • Use your garbage can liberally to clear away clutter because clutter burns up your time as you search for lost or mislaid papers or bits of information.
  • Banish procrastination from your work-life. Procrastination is often a by-product of perfectionism, so you often have to start by coming to terms with a need to be perfectionistic. You may have to learn to be more relaxed about your work product to tame a tendency to procrastinate.
  • Delegate if and when you can. Review delegated work from associates immediately to avoid needing last minute revisions which will invariably fall to you to do and are very time consuming. Spend the time up front to teach secretaries, paralegals or associates how to do the job you are delegating to them to avoid having to re-teach, or redo the work you have given to them to do. Believe in their ability to be competent and do not allow yourself to micromanage the delegated work, if you have that tendency. Keep a master list of all matters delegated with the date you delegated it and the “status call“ date when you expect it back. Give your delegatees clear dates for receiving the work back on your desk for review and give yourself breathing room in those dates.

If you struggle with time-management or organization or have a procrastination problem, get help for this with an executive coach like myself or someone else you trust so that you can improve your game. You simply cannot afford to be inefficient.

2. Create Strong Relationships with Key Partners

From the beginning of your tenure at your firm, deve lop relationships with key partners you like and respect. Do not do this with a manipulative motive, but really seek our partners you see as role models who are likeable and try to work with them and for them more. Obviously partners with clout at the firm can be very helpful to your career and might single-handedly save you from getting the axe. Who are these partners? How do you know who has the power? Usually they are the ones who originate business and/or have positions on key committees at the firm such as the compensation committee. If you are stuck with partners who are not business originators or are not central to the firm, try to work your way into relationships with partners you prefer and who are more central. Let these partners know how much you enjoy working with them. Do outstanding work for them and do it quickly and with a positive attitude.

Be careful not to lean too heavily on “kingpin“ partners for mentoring as some of them are so busy they may try to avoid working with you if you are any kind of burden to them. I am really sorry to have to give that advice, but I have counseled many overworked partners who have voiced complaints about associates being too “needy“. Perceived neediness can negatively influence a partner‘s willingness to work with you. Of course not all partners feel this way. You can usually tell if a partner does not like this role if you ask for advice and the partner reacts with hesitation or he or she never can seem to find the time to work with you.

3. Niche Yourself

If you can find a niche within your practice area that is essential to your practice group try to develop that specialized knowledge. I have worked with associates who enjoyed a meteoric rise by becoming the “go to person“ for such esoterica as CERCLA or ERISA or by knowing more about some unusual tax aspect of a common kind of deal. Look for the niche that still keeps you in the mainstream of work within the group. Be careful if you are in a “dead zone“ at your firm. By that I mean you are in a practice group without enough business or you are often getting work that is beneath you. If that is happening you should be afraid, be very afraid. Partners in these dead zones at law firms will start to hoarde the billable work and pass along the dregs to the junior partners and associates. All too often your reviews will start to go more negative despite your best efforts if the firm wants to position you for the “ding“. I have worked with many outplaced associates and junior partners who were let go because they were “not progressing“ or “not making their hours“. Perhaps the fault was the lack of work in the practice group, but the potential employer is left with doubts about whether the outplaced lawyer was just not one of the preferred associates for some important reason and was passed over for work that other associates merited. So try to work your way into a hotter area within your practice group if that is at all possible. Be careful not to straddle two different practice groups. As a general rule that is not a good way to cement strong relationships with key partners who could be your champions for advancement at the firm.

4. Be a Respected Presence in the Legal Community

Participate in the bar association groups and take a leadership role. Your firm will be less likely to want to part with you if you are active and respected in the legal community. You also have a greater platform to develop business if you are well networked. And if you are let go, your chances for landing another good job quickly are far greater.

No one can give you an absolute guarantee that you will never be in danger of outplacement, but by being a star performer your likelihood for job loss will be minimized. In addition if and when a key partner in your group leaves the firm to go to a better fitting firm, you might be in a good position to be asked to join that break-away group.

As for Sara‘s question about acting to minimize her chances for outplacement, the best approach even late in the game is to try to implement these and other strategies to make sure that people at your firm see you as the star performer. Most of these suggestions actually help you to work more effectively and with greater enjoyment and engagement whether or not you have reason to be concerned about outplacement.

Nielsen Career Consulting
65 East Monroe, Suite 4301
Chicago, Illinois 60603
sheila@nielsencareerconsulting.com

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