If layoffs become inevitable due to macroeconomic conditions, our hope is that law firms act humanely and are as respectful and conscientious as possible in delivering this upsetting news to the associate. But what are next steps for the associate? How can they respond to and rebound from a layoff?
It feels like we've been waiting for a recession for six months, and the wave may be just about to crest. Higher interest rates and inflation have kept us on our toes. Here are some lessons to help associates laid off due to economic conditions.
Remind yourself that you are not your job.
It is very easy as lawyers to have our careers be our defining personality traits. It's time to walk away from that toxic trope.
You were a whole person before you went to law school, and that remains true. The sheer amount of time you spent working at your firm — the long hours, the late nights — may lead you to believe that your work there was the be-all, end-all. That is an illusion.
Now is the time to look inward and locate your innate grit. You will need it — and your full stores of confidence — in your job search ahead.
You are valuable to the job market.
Know that just because you were laid off, that does not make you radioactive in the job market. The more common layoffs are, the more easily you will be able to explain why you are not at your former firm.
Laid-off associates can go on to have sparkling careers, often at firms that were better fits for them in the first place. You just have to learn how to deliver your narrative and which firms will be receptive.
Remember that you did not fail.
Most people are not laid off because they failed at their jobs. Often, people are laid off because they are senior and expensive, not because they are senior and untalented.
People are laid off because a major client dropped the firm, or because there's a war in Ukraine, an ongoing global pandemic, record-breaking inflation, etc. Most lawyers who are laid off don't lack talent; there are outside forces at play that are beyond your control.
Allow yourself the dignity of your emotions.
Do not tell yourself you need to be strong or resilient. Embrace whatever emotions come up. It's likely to be messy and that is completely normal. You are already in emotional pain, understandably; do not add another layer of pain by judging yourself for your natural human emotions.
You will likely experience the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are cyclical, not linear, so you will likely bounce in and out of each stage at various times over the next many weeks or months.
Do not expect linear healing; you may notice yourself feeling somewhat better after 10 days, but on the 11th day, you plummet into rage and sadness. This is normal and part of the healing process.
Do not rush your healing. Search for articles online about processing the five stages of grief, in the context of being fired.
Deploy social media.
Now is probably not the best time to scroll through the deceptive, "I have the perfect life" postings. However, a complete cleanse may not be the solution.
In 2022, we've seen a huge increase in people announcing their layoff on LinkedIn and, in the same breath, offering their skill sets and what they have to offer for their next employer. Time will tell if associates will follow this trend, but we suspect they won't.
Some variation may emerge. At the very least, take some time to refresh your LinkedIn to demonstrate your complete skill set.
Balance emotional coping with self-care.
If you need to stay in bed while eating several pints of ice cream over the next few days, let yourself do so! But over time, also make sure you engage in your preferred self-care practices, whether that's exercise, meditation, walking outdoors, reading in nature, yoga, journaling or playing music.
After a painful event like this, it is especially hard to be motivated to engage in self-care practices — because our will power is razor thin, and those pesky self-care practices require willpower.
But this is also when our self-care practices are most necessary and valuable. So do allow yourself to engage in emotional coping practices to numb the pain in the short term, but be sure to also sprinkle in self-care practices, which will help reduce the pain over time.
Identify key takeaways.
Perhaps that job was not the best fit for you. But, see if you can identify the aspects of the job you most enjoyed or excelled at, so you can leverage them going forward.
What do those reveal about you? Can you use some of that information to target a new job that involves more of those things? Also identify the top three to five strengths you displayed during your time at the firm, and the top three to five successes you achieved, regardless of how large or small.
Use that information not only to guide your job search, but also to continually remind yourself of your skills, talents and ability to succeed in a high-stress environment.
During this difficult time, your brain's negativity bias will filter out your many strengths and successes, and focus only on your weaknesses and shortcomings. This will demoralize you and impede your emotional recovery, so intervene by deliberately forcing yourself to see and acknowledge the whole you.
Engage in honest self-reflection.
This difficult experience is also an opportunity to self-reflect and to grow. Even if the firm was misguided in terminating you, it is still an opportunity to turn the camera inward, so you can leverage long-term growth and success from this event.
It has been said that in looking at ourselves, we often must choose between truth and comfort. Being terminated certainly conjures up this choice. If you reflect on your time at the firm with total honesty and truth, you may notice some aspects of yourself that are uncomfortable to see.
However, these are gems that can help you improve and grow as a result of this seeming setback. Do not shy away from the uncomfortable; embrace it. Having hard conversations with trusted mentors or colleagues can also help us see things that we may otherwise be blind to.
Anticipate post-traumatic growth.
For the past 25 years, Western psychologists have been studying a fascinating phenomenon: The hardest and most painful experiences in life are often the ones that lead to the largest amount of growth, happiness and fulfillment in the long run. It is called "post-traumatic growth."
We have all heard of post-traumatic stress, but few of us realize that the science shows that super painful events, such as a termination, can catalyze a level of self-actualization and self-expansion that rarely occurs in life in the absence of a painful setback.
Perhaps this painful setback is your turning point in life! Perhaps it is your opportunity to make a shift or two that can radically transform the quality of your life over the next many decades.
Research post-traumatic growth and embrace the possibility that this painful event could be a blessing in disguise that you will eventually look back upon with immense gratitude.
If you engage in the honest self-reflection and hard conversations mentioned above, the science shows you are uniquely positioned during this painful moment in life to adopt changes and self-improvements that you otherwise likely would never make, but for this pain.
In closing, we want to again acknowledge the reality that getting terminated feels awful and scary.
But if you consciously apply some of these techniques and approaches over time, our hope is that you will be able to navigate this stormy experience with maximal mental health and emotional well-being.
This painful experience may even become the catalyst for building a more successful and fulfilling legal career, and happier life in the future.
Jarrett Green is a wellness consultant and teaches resilience and well-being classes at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and the University of California, Irvine School of Law.