High inflation, reduced mergers and acquisitions and capital markets activity, and a volatile stock market have led us to a moment where layoffs at law firms are increasingly possible. 2021 was beyond boom time for legal hiring, and some firms overhired. As the market slows, some of these extra lawyers on teams may be asked to leave.
If layoffs become inevitable, then a firm should be as respectful and conscientious as possible in delivering this upsetting news to the associate.
Legal layoffs during the Great Recession were less than graceful — whole teams were let go with no notice and few benefits and immediately removed from firms' websites. The images of lawyers standing outside their old offices with cardboard boxes still haunt us.
Here are some lessons that can help firms make any layoffs a much more empathetic, responsible process.
Don't minimize or inauthentically buffer.
Minimizing the enormity of the event — with statements such as, "You'll be able to find a new job in no time!" — or the implications of a termination may make you feel better about the bad news you are delivering, but it will likely make the associate feel much worse. It is not your job to control their emotional reaction; instead, focus on embracing whatever reaction they do have.
In addition to the trauma from the decision itself, associates may feel secondary trauma from the way in which the news was conveyed, if the delivery is not thoughtful. Rather than downplaying the severity of the event, minimize the secondary trauma that associates often feel upon being terminated.
Also, do not sprinkle in inauthentic clichés, such as, "We decided to go in a different direction," "You are valued here," or "We think this will be good for you." These sorts of clichés often make the boss feel better, but the associate feel worse. Deliver the news earnestly and acknowledge the gravity of the employer's decision.
Speak to the individual one-on-one and acknowledge his or her contribution.
At some point in the conversation, but not at the outset, attempt to empower the associate going forward by identifying three of the greatest strengths they displayed while at the firm, plus a few of the victories or successes they experienced. Even if an associate significantly underperformed, a collection of character strengths and performance highlights should be deployed.
These strengths and victories do not undermine the need for termination, but raising them during the conversation can provide the associate with a little boost during an otherwise horrible conversation. It can also plant a seed in their psyche that will help them emotionally recover over time and bounce back. Not mentioning their strengths and victories during the termination process can leave a psychic imprint that they are talentless and useless.
Offer outplacement assistance.
If a firm works with outside recruiters, they should help laid-off associates make connections with them. A firm should also connect those being laid off to friendly partners at other firms or in-house counsel at companies where the candidate could be successful. Many firms have internal career coaches — if those are present, they should be available to laid-off associates for a period of months after termination.
Keep profiles of people on the website for a respectful amount of time.
This allows candidates to remain credible as job seekers. It is an act of kindness and is costless for the firm. And it gives the people the firm fired a chance to take a breath before diving headlong into a search.
Keeping bios up for at least a month on the website after termination is the minimum. We understand that the firm doesn't want to misrepresent who is employed there, but they owe some duty of care to those they have let go.
Choose your location wisely.
In this hybrid world we now live in, it's important to mindfully select whether to deliver the news in person or virtually.
If there is a natural in-person opportunity, be sure to do it in-person. For example, if the associate comes into the office regularly or has an upcoming date that you know will involve an in-person appearance, take advantage of one of those moments. Being informed of this news in person will make them feel more respected and valued, particularly as they reflect on the termination over time.
However, if the associate isn't set to come in, do not prioritize an in-person delivery over their overall emotional health. Do not inform them that you want them to come in to discuss "something important." This will only cause extreme anxiety in the hours or days until the meeting actually occurs. Sometimes the kindest and most humane termination is a virtual one.
Avoid small talk.
Because terminating someone is so awkward and uncomfortable, bosses tend to start the conversation with small talk. This will reduce your emotional discomfort, but will likely lead the associate to feel blindsided when you shift into the real reason for the conversation.
After the meeting ends, the manner in which you begin and conduct the conversation will play an important role in the associate's emotional processing. If the associate retroactively interprets the conversation as a bait-and-switch or an insensitive unfolding, it will actually impede their ability to emotionally process the news. So, have the courage to be direct and straightforward, rather than beating around the bush.
Do not prove and persuade.
Allow for the wave of emotions the associate may go through, e.g., confusion, anger, fear, stress, blame, denial, etc. Do not try to convince them that their emotions are wrong or that the termination decision is the right call. Instead, validate and affirm their emotions — even the ones you believe are baseless.
Practice active listening, including if they begin conveying their side of the story, which is a natural coping mechanism to such upsetting news. Try to make them feel heard and understood. This is not a time for demonstrating that they fell short, but rather, a time for empathizing with their pain.
Prepare for the three hardest things.
While many bosses prepare what they are going to say during the termination meeting, most woefully underprepare what they will say in response to the most challenging points raised by the associate. This causes the boss to feel caught off guard, leading to a knee-jerk reaction rather than an intelligent response, which harms the process.
Instead, brainstorm in advance the three things the associate can say or do that you most dread. Identify those three things and then prepare a clear and sophisticated response to each one. After prepping in this way, you will enter the meeting with less anticipatory anxiety knowing you are prepared for the worst, and you will bring your highest and best self to even the worst moments.
Help them save face.
A major reason a termination is so painful for associates is the embarrassment they experience and the uncertainty of how they should communicate the event to their friends, family and network. A conscientious and caring boss helps the associate construct a public narrative that will dull some of the sting of the termination.
Toward the end of the meeting or by a follow-up email shortly after, offer to help the associate craft a brief description of why things did not work out. This will make the associate feel supported on a key pain point, and will give them a tangible tool to broadcast the event in a way that maximally protects their feelings and reputation.
Offer support during this difficult time.
Ask the associate how you or the firm can support their transition or their emotional processing. Many terminations involve a one-way information exchange, followed by the generic "Do you have any questions?" that only rubs salt in the wound.
Instead, ask open-ended and open-hearted questions to allow them to feel they have a voice in the process and to show them that they are not being abandoned. Some examples include:
We hope the above tips help you and your firm lay off attorneys in a respectful manner that maximally honors their humanity.
In an upcoming article, we will be providing guidance to anyone who is laid off, so they can emotionally process and professionally rebound in the best way possible.
This article was co-authored by Jarrett Green, a wellness consultant and teaches resilience and well-being classes at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law and the University of California, Irvine School of Law.