Credit Crunch Layoffs
I am a second year associate at a law firm in Manhattan. I really like my firm but I'm worried about my future here; the firm has been going through a rough time lately. Before the sub-prime mortgage crisis, we had an extremely busy capital markets practice. Now the credit crunch has slowed down work considerably, to say the least. To avoid having to start lay offs, my firm has been offering associates "packages" with the attached suggestion to either take an extended, unpaid, leave of absence or just to depart the firm voluntarily all together. The good news for me is that I haven't been asked to take such a package. But with everything that is going on, the gossip mill has been churning and, honestly, I'm just worried about my future here. I don't want to be the last person on a sinking ship. I'm trying to evaluate what my next steps should be. Any advice on what I should be doing?
Scared in Manhattan
I'm sorry that your firm is going through this, especially so early in your legal career. Your anxiety is completely normal and can be viewed as positive in that it's forcing you to critically analyze your professional future. I am impressed by your self-awareness and I'm glad that you reached out with your concerns.
The first step is not to panic. The bottom line is that you're going to be just fine. I promise. Although I don't have the full details of your situation, I can offer my best advice, based on what you've told me, about what should you be doing and whether you should be thinking about leaving.
Your firm is going through a difficult time, but it sounds like the partners are trying to be honest and fair to their associates. I have seen other firms go through similar things over the course of my career with mixed results. Some firms come through tough times with an even stronger presence than they had before; others do not. Nobody can predict what will happen with your firm and you shouldn't try. Instead, you should be evaluating the "here and now" of your experience and figuring out whether the current environment offers what you need.
With that in mind, let's look closely at the quality of your day-to-day experience. How has it changed (or has it changed at all) since the work at the firm started slowing down? What are you working on right now? Are you still learning and developing skills? Is it possible that you will be able to get even more responsibility on your assignments because other associates are leaving? Is the work you are presently doing helping you to develop your skills as an attorney? This is of primary importance in your early years of practice. Are there opportunities for you to ratchet up your experience; e.g., interact with clients, draft important documents, negotiate deals, take depositions, argue motions, and/or run closings? Or, are you spending your days surfing the net and reading articles about Britney Spears's most humiliating moment of the week? If the latter, the firm may not have enough work to provide you with the opportunities you need to develop your skills and, therefore, you will need to be proactive in solving this problem. If you are no longer getting the work that you went to the firm to specialize in, or not enough skill-developing work of any kind, you absolutely must move to another firm in order to continue developing your skills. I'm sure this goes without saying, but while we are on this topic I may as well put it all out there--if you fall behind on skill development now, you will be less marketable down the road, whether for a lateral move to another firm, moves to in-house positions and even the partnership track at your current firm.
So, what are your options? Despite what you may fear, you have several. First, consider giving your firm an opportunity to explain its plan and where you fit into it. Ask directly whether you can reasonably expect to continue getting quality work if you stay. They are obviously putting forth a great effort to be fair to associates in the wake of these difficulties. You have no reason to doubt that they will be candid with you.
If you're satisfied with the answers to these questions, and confident that you will be able continue developing your skills as before, you may be able to stay put and ride this out. You can certainly consider it one of your options. Another option, if you are not getting enough skill-developing work now, but you are not in love with the specific work in your department, is to talk to someone at your firm about switching into a different--and busier--group. Just be certain to fully evaluate whether that group will continue to have enough work to keep you busy and keep you developing; particularly if things have slowed down the way that you indicate they have. If you decide to ride out this period at your firm, you must continue to get good work and develop your skills so that your future, whether at your current firm or not, will not be negatively affected. I want to make sure we are very clear on that.
If your diligence has revealed that you cannot continue your professional development at your current firm for the foreseeable future, it is time to launch a job search. Take time to reflect on your current practice so that you can decide what you're looking for. Why did you join this firm and why did you join this department? Now that you have been practicing for a few years, what do you like about your firm? You should also ask yourself, "Where do I see myself professionally in 5 years? In 10?" If you see yourself as the GC of a publicly traded company, you might be forced to consider a lateral move to another law firm that will better position you for that job.
A good place to begin when embarking on a search for a new law firm position is reaching out to other lawyers who are working at other firms. The ability to network is one very valuable resource in your arsenal. The colleagues around you, doing the same work that you do, may have useful information about the best places to get the work you want. Are your law school classmates happy at their firms, and, if so, why? Try reaching out to your former colleagues who have moved on to other firms to find out whether they are enjoying their new professional homes, and whether they are getting the experience they hoped for when they moved. You might want to take a look across the deal table and reach out to the attorneys that you've worked with from other firms, as well. As difficult as it might be to believe, all firms were not created equal, even if they have equally good reputations. Firms differ significantly in work atmosphere, quality of training and mentoring, diversity and growth opportunities. You owe it to yourself to investigate the marketplace. Honestly assess the type of professional environment that would suit you. Put pen to paper and make a list of what you like, and dislike, about your current firm, and your short-term and long-term career goals. What aspects of your position would you like to keep--good training and supervision, meaningful mentoring, client contact, opportunity for professional growth? Think about your reviews and critically examine what has been said to you about your strengths and weaknesses in order to create a snapshot of your skills and the qualities your current employer finds valuable. All of this will help you as you think about the direction of your search. Any job search you embark upon should be motivated not only on your finding a safe landing if you need one, but also by greater responsibility, a more compelling mix of clients or matters, a more comfortable cultural fit, superior mentoring and training, or a better chance for partnership or leadership. This is an excellent opportunity for you to evaluate what you really want and to go after it.
Next, make sure your resume and deal sheet are up to date, and schedule meetings in person with you to evaluate the best strategy for your lateral search, as well as address how your next move fits into your overall long-term career development plan. Choose one recruiter whose judgment and knowledge inspires your confidence. This is the person who will be able to help you identify which firms fit the bill of what you are looking for.
If you are contemplating a move to an entirely new practice area,--for example, if the credit crunch is affecting your entire practice area--be sure to gauge your likes, dislikes and professional strengths and weaknesses against the realities of your chosen specialty. Remember, you will need to convince a new firm to take a chance on you and invest effort and expense in training you. No employer will ever make this leap of faith without sensing that you are committed to this transition and that it's not just a whim. So, demonstrate that your transition is already underway. Once you have figured out which practice area truly interests you and fits your existing skills and background, try to find CLE programs, bar association programs and other resources in your new field and start learning on your own. The time you spend really immersing yourself will help you figure out whether you really like this new area. Talk to current practitioners in the field--your law school classmates and other alumni--and put together a reading list that will facilitate your professional development in this area.
I also suggest that you start the process sooner than later. A successful lateral job search can take up to several months. Thorough preparation takes time, from working with your recruiter to polish your resume and deal sheet, to evaluating firms for possible submission, to preparing for the interviewing process. The actual interviewing process, including screening and callback meetings, offer negotiation, post-offer visits and finally the conflicts and reference checks, require several weeks at least. You must find a firm that can offer you the professional development opportunities you need to grow as a lawyer and realize the goals you've set for your practice.
Good Luck! I wish you the very best in this and all your future endeavors. I know it seems like a lot to contend with right now, but your career will be all the better for your doing this analysis and decision making now.