The Upside of Outplacement

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

As seen on Lawyer Avenue. Updated 6:35 AM, January 7, 2009

What are the two words you don‘t want to hear in the worst economy since the 1930s?

“You‘re fired.“

Let‘s face it, though: More than at any time in recent memory, that‘s the reality for associates in practice groups without enough work, for associates and partners whose contract position is not being renewed, and for partners without portables.

But all is not lost. After all, your firm‘s professional development person did say something about outplacement options. Which means you can choose to work with a career or outplacement counselor. But which counselor is best for you? What‘s more, how do you conduct a productive job search with a job market in deep freeze?

Here are eight points to consider:

1. Your Counselor Should Help You Talk About What You‘re Going Through

Maybe “outplacement“ sounds nicer than being fired or being let go, but it hurts just as much.

Most attorneys asked to leave their firms after working long hours and doing their best to succeed, feel a justifiable combination of betrayal, embarrassment, anger, and/or depression. In fact, some lawyers can become clinically depressed from job loss. To the point where it‘s hard to get up in the morning, and harder still to take the steps necessary to conduct a job search. In fact, some lawyers I‘ve worked with feel such a sense of shame that they cannot tell anyone that they are looking for a new job. And others are so adrift they turn to alcohol or drugs.

A good outplacement counselor should encourage you to vent about whatever discomfort you are experiencing, including anger, frustration, sadness, self-doubt, and/or embarrassment. It helps to air your feelings, and to express yourself outside of the confines of the law firm. If your counselor is a trained therapist, all the better; if not, your counselor must at least be capable of identifying a clinical depression and help you to get medical attention for that condition if it does occur.

2. Your Counselor Should Help You Improve Your Game

One of the most important things you want to learn from outplacement is why you might have been let go in the first place, and how to avoid the same fate later.

Your outplacement counselor should help you find out why your workplace targeted you, what made you vulnerable, and to help you recognize and overcome whatever problem(s) might have led to your loss of this job. An employer will rarely if ever tell you this directly.

I have worked with associates who, fairly or not, did not have the partners‘ trust to work at their class level. As a result, the associate was passed over, and the partner(s) used associates they believed to be more capable. Perhaps the associate made too many mistakes, perhaps they expressed uncertainty about their ability to handle matters, perhaps they were slow to turn the work around, perhaps they performed with too many errors. Or, perhaps the associate asked a few too many questions, leading the partners to use another associate who performed more efficiently.

A good outplacement counselor is able to read between the lines when given somewhat “coded“ information about the outplaced associate or partner. A good counselor will work with that lawyer to improve his or her game as well as to demystify the often-opaque reviews that sound reasonably good but actually reflect an individual‘s shortcomings.

The kiss of death for many partners is their lack of business origination.

I have worked with many partners who were let go because they did not know – nor want to know – how to develop business. Unfortunately, many of today‘s more senior partners entered the workplace before business development became a requirement for job security. They never learned how to build practice, and some would like to avoid business development in the future as well. But, depending on one‘s practice area, client-development has become a necessity. When appropriate, a good outplacement counselor should do some basic client-development training. In the event you need to develop business, you will know more about what to do, and, better yet, you can start laying the groundwork for future business once you begin your new job.

A good outplacement experience includes coaching to learn more productive ways to deal with workplace situations that are problematic for you, and ways to manage or cope with such problems as procrastination or organization and time management. If you get nothing else out of your outplacement experience, this knowledge about how to change your game for the better is worth its weight in gold.

3. Your Counselor Should Help You Assess Whether to Leave the Law and How to Make That Transition

Another question that may need addressing is whether law is even the right game for you.

After being let go, it‘s only natural you would wonder if your choice of a legal career was a mistake. After all, practicing law does not meet everyone‘s needs. Some lawyers who are outplaced say they have not been enjoying their jobs, and maybe it showed. I have worked with disappointed lawyers who tell me their dream had always been to do something to make the world a better place. But in most law firms lawyers rarely have a mission that satisfies that wish, and pro bono work is hard to manage when you are an overworked associate or partner.

Doubts about a career in the law also arise from other common sources of dissatisfaction: long hours, billable hours, lack of a work/life balance, difficult partners, demanding clients, lack of interest in the law itself, and the workplace culture itself. Many of these stressful concerns will prompt soul-searching about whether to continue as a lawyer. Outplacement can be an opportunity to look at other prospects for a future career and identify a more meaningful direction.

Careers work best when you get to do more of what comes naturally to you. And in the course of outplacement, you will want to look for a career that allows you to be immersed in the work, and that you enjoy what you are thinking about and doing for much of the day. You want a career that maximizes your aptitudes, interests, skill set, and provides the lifestyle you need to be satisfied.

Not all outplacement counselors know how to assess the issue of career-change effectively. Done well, self-assessment work is a mixture of vocational counseling and insight-oriented work. And yes, it can at times even border on therapy! Your counselor should be able to guide you through a process that includes a work history and personal history, as well as a series of exercises that allow you to think outside the box about work that would be a better fit. If you are considering a new career direction, you will benefit from a counselor who has worked with many lawyers and helped many of them to launch new careers or change their practice area or move into a different sector of the field of law such as government, not-for-profit, or trade associations.

Recently, I worked with a conflict-avoidant litigator. He‘s bright, soft-spoken, studious, thoughtful … and shied away from confrontation most of his life. It was as though conflict-avoidance was hardwired into his DNA. And this failure to confront, argue, and aggressively litigate was seen as a serious weakness, of course, and he was eventually outplaced by his firm. Recruiters tried to interest him in similar positions, which is only natural for a recruiter to do since they earn their fee by finding jobs that fit the current skill set of a candidate. Fortunately, this lawyer took the time to do some self-assessment and wisely decided against pursuing another litigation position. Had he accepted one, it‘s likely he would have failed again.

People cannot radically change a major personality trait. No amount of exhorting, even by Dr. Phil, will do the trick. Far better to help a lawyer move to a job where he can be a stand out for being himself.

A good outplacement coach ought to help an attorney with a case of severe career mismatch to identify likely places in the field of law where doing an excellent job does not require a personality lobotomy, and where the move is realistically possible to accomplish. This particular client left litigation for a government job where his strengths in investigation, research, and writing are all called into play. He enjoys his work, and is likely to be very successful.

4. Your Counselor Should Be Psychologically Astute & Realistic

Some vocational counselors will stop their work with a prospective career changer at the point when that person has identified a career direction that seems to be a better fit. But there is still more work to be done. The new career direction has to be something that is “doable“ and realistic given the person‘s situation. Would this career change necessitate re-credentialing. If so, can and will the person do that? What is his or her financial situation and home situation? Is the person motivated enough to make this change? These are just a few of the questions that the counselor should be assessing.

Many people say they want to change their careers but are ambivalent to the point of being incapable of making the change they desire. The psychology of ambivalence is complex. For example, some people dream about a new career but won‘t take steps to further their dream. In fact the dream itself sustains them, and if it is challenged, or removed, the person may become depressed. Motivation to change can also be dampened by a fear of failure or lack of self-esteem. A good outplacement counselor should be able to recognize these and similar psychological issues, and help the lawyer work through his or her roadblock, develop a longer term plan for career change, accept that s/he is wedded to the status quo, or help them to add satisfaction through activities outside of work.

And even if the career-changer is motivated enough and can launch a viable effort to make a career direction change, most people need some form of continued coaching or guidance to leave the law and successfully transition into the new field. Without that support, many lawyers end up falling back into a job that might be undesirable for them but will pay the bills. Their doubts about the law often linger, and undermine long-term career satisfaction.

Many lawyers who take the time to assess the “rightness“ of their legal career discover that, in fact, the law is a good avocation after all. That the grass is not always greener.

If you are unhappy at work, it might seem as if you need to get out of the law. But your dissatisfaction might vanish if you are able to work with a more compatible group of people, or lose the boss-from-hell, or work fewer hours. Some lawyers who take the time to assess their career direction will decide to stay in the law, but the difference is that they know more about what they need from the next legal job, and they make a well-thought out choice to stay. Not all legal workplaces are alike, and it is unfair to paint them with too broad a brush. An outplacement counselor should understand the legal work world as distinct from the business work world in order to guide a lawyer to a better-fitting job in the law.

5. Your Counselor Should Know How to Coach Your Job Interview

Doubts about being a lawyer are important to address if for no other reason than this: a good interview cannot be faked. People are too good at reading credibility for you to try to pretend you are thrilled at the prospect of working at a particular place when you really could care less. If you are not interested, your demeanor and body language subtly convey that disinterest, which has a negative impact on the interviewer. Even ambivalence can usually be detected by an astute interviewer unless you are a really good actor or actress.

Your outplacement counselor can help you to perfect your interview approach by doing a mock interview and asking you all the questions that usually get asked in a standard interview as well as any you are afraid a potential employer might decide to ask you. Your counselor should be able to help you answer all questions honestly, and with the strongest response possible as well as provide feedback on your demeanor and dress.

You should also be helped to craft a strong statement of advocacy punctuated by anecdotal evidence that supports your contention that you would be a good match for this job and why. The counselor should provide a framework for interviewing, and that framework should be shaped to the job for which you are interviewing.

6. Your Counselor Should Understand the Legal Market

It is possible that a different practice area, or a switch to government or another sector of the field of law, might satisfy more of your workplace needs, be a better match for your personality, and maximize your chances to land a job even in the current market. If so, you will need to understand how to make that switch. The success of such an attempted move may hinge on whether you can convince the next employer that it is a good idea to hire you even if your skill set is not a perfect match. What should you say to advocate for yourself? What should you say or not say about why you want to make this move? A good outplacement coach should be able to help you, and not simply insist that you stay in the same practice area.

Of course your coach also needs to help you to assess whether this career move is realistic given all the variables: the ability to transfer your skills, how well you can make the case for yourself, the economic climate, etc. You may need to shift your career in stages, developing a new direction by attending conferences, joining committees, doing pro bono work in your area of interest, or returning to school to improve your credentials for a new career direction.

Part of self-assessment is about “market need“.

For example, think of the job market in terms of “appetite“. When a particular market expands, it is very hungry and needy, and a transition into that market is easier. During the dot.com era, lawyers without perfect credentials moved into that rapidly expanding field in a fairly wide variety of roles from in-house to business side to IT. At the moment, we have a legal job market many of whose practice areas have little or no “appetite“. Which means that career transitions will be limited and employers will be very picky. There may still be need, however, in bankruptcy, benefits, IP, and litigation, and markets in Asia may still be hungry for lawyers in certain practice areas that reflect continued growth rather than contraction.

But because we are in a recession (and edging towards what some economists say is a depression), a radical career transition that might have been possible before may have to be worked on for a longer time, and even landing a job in the same practice area could be a challenge requiring job search strategies that might not have been so crucial to success before this meltdown began. And by search strategies, I mean strategies that go beyond mailed resumes, answering ads, and the usual networking tropes.

In the economic climate we now face, companies and law firms will be less likely to use recruiters if and when they have a need. To be successful in this extraordinary market, a job seeker must use more advanced techniques and strategies for networking and will usually need more close coaching from the outplacement counselor as well.

Not every outplacement counselor understands how to teach attorneys more sophisticated networking search techniques. I base that comment on the numbers of lawyers I work with who report their prior or even current outplacement experiences to me, and say that they do not have a grasp of the kinds of more advanced networking strategies I am alluding to. As part of a more sophisticated networking search, for example, you need to tell a consistent story to the potential employer by utilizing informal interviews which are supported by your resume or bio.

7. Your Counselor Should Know How to Help You Tell Your Story

Your resume is your particular way of telling your story. There are few hard and fast rules about how to construct your resume, and it can be challenging for the job seeker to craft a resume that he or she feels confident about.

A resume needs to be crafted based on the particular job one is interviewing for, which means that the resume will usually highlight particular parts of your background depending on the position you seek. A resume might also have a different look depending on whether the job seeker is trying to land the same kind of job or is trying to move into a different field or practice area. Close attention needs to be paid to the transferable skills that a potential employer will need to see in order to give the job seeker a shot at an interview. The resume must be just right when it has the potential to get you into the pool of applicants that will be vetted for the job. A standard business-style resume is not always the best approach for a lawyer, and sometimes outplacement groups do not seem to know that. Your counselor should know that some law firms are more comfortable with a very readable chronological resume with an attached deal sheet, for example, and help you to craft that version of your background if you are shooting for that market rather than in-house.

8. Your Counselor Should Suggest Knowledgeable Legal Recruiters When Appropriate

If you create a relationship with a recruiter, it is important to tell him or her about any other search efforts you are engaged in so that they are not stepping on anyone‘s toes. Good recruiters have to guard their good reputations because their livelihoods depend on the trust of their employers, namely, law firms and corporations. So you need to be honest with your recruiter. If you were let go because you were dealing drugs in the office lunch room, don‘t say you were let go because your group was slow. On the other hand, if you need to move on because you blew a crucial deadline, and the sole partner you work with went ballistic and vowed never to give you work again in this lifetime, but your background is stellar in every other way, you should tell your recruiter about this aberration and see what she or he says about it.

Last Thoughts

Outplacement could be your best chance to get your career right Spend the time to vet your outplacement counselor. It is well worth the effort. Done the right way, your outplacement could assist you to avoid the dreaded pink slip ever again and set you on a course for a better future career.

Reprinted with permission.

Nielsen Career Consulting
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