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You just got the news: You’re getting laid off. Fired. Out the door. Now what? First: Don’t panic. Many lawyers inadvertently do major damage to their job prospects by calling headhunters and flooding the market with their resumes. Hold off until you have assessed the market and established a strategy for your job search. Another mistake is to vent anger and frustration at your current employer. You will have much greater negotiating power if you calmly assess the situation and respond with a reasonable proposal about the terms of your departure. Consider hiring an attorney. Nowadays most companies require departing professionals to sign agreements, in which employees waive their rights to sue the company in exchange for severance pay and other benefits, such as health insurance and outplacement services. Evaluating such an agreement at an emotional time can be difficult. But are you certain that the severance package being offered is reasonable for someone of your experience and tenure with the company? Terms of severance agreements are not always set in stone. They may depend on whether you are leaving as part of a group or as an individual, on your seniority, and on the circumstances of your departure. Employment lawyer Debra Armbruster of Englewood, Colorado, says, “It is generally easier to negotiate issues that don’t cost [the company] a lot of money or create an undesired precedent. For example, you can sometimes extend the date that you leave active employment, and start receiving severance, assuming you can provide some valuable conclusion to one or more projects for the employer.” Frequently, severance agreements are silent regarding what your company will say to a potential employer about your termination and job performance. Before you sign, Armbruster recommends obtaining a written commitment “to follow a mutually agreeable script.” If your employer has a policy of never providing substantive references and seems unwilling to agree to a script, she advises that you get an agreement from the employer to release only basic information — when you started, your title, years of employment (something akin to name, rank, and serial number), and not go beyond those points. In most instances, in-house counsel can be terminated “at will,” that is to say for any reason at any time. However, Armbruster points out, “certain exceptions to an employer’s unfettered right to dismiss an employee have been recognized in various federal and state laws and court decisions. For example, it is illegal to discharge an employee for gender, race, age, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, or disability (and, in some localities, such additional factors as sexual orientation).” If you have any suspicions that your dismissal is discriminatory, it’s worth talking with an employment lawyer. Issues involving vesting of stock options or buyback provisions always should be reviewed by a lawyer. Of course, salary already earned is legally payable to you, regardless of whether you sign the severance agreement. Take career counseling seriously. Nowadays, many companies provide some form of outplacement assistance. Make use of it. But be aware that the quality of the service is sometimes questionable. If you can, shop around for the firm or counselor who will serve you best. Inquire about the budget for career counseling, and ask for a counselor of your own choosing, if you feel that is in your best interest. Companies generally honor this request, if the fee is reasonable. Some outplacement firms are little more than glorified mailing services that take a one-size-fits-all approach to their clients’ presentations. They may recommend that resumes list “job objectives,” or “executive summaries,” packed with “action” verbs. They often provide generic cover letters containing jargon that many legal employers find annoying. Such presentations are almost a sure giveaway that you have been fired. A good career counselor or outplacement firm should provide the following services: � Personalized career planning. That includes both self-assessment and market assessment. The goal is to help you identify career options that are both satisfying and realistic. � Market analysis. Too often, career counselors emphasize the touch-feely stuff: interests, personality, and values clarification. All of this, though important, can amount to navel-gazing. An effective counselor will place equal emphasis on market analysis to ensure that the jobs you pursue are actually attainable for someone with your skills and salary requirements. � Direction in job-search campaign. This should include assistance in resume and cover letter preparation, as well as training in interviewing and salary negotiation. In-house lawyers should prepare several versions of their resumes to use for different types of jobs. For instance, resumes may be industry-specific or emphasize substantive legal skills. � Insights into the hidden job market. This is what yields the vast majority of jobs for experienced lawyers. For instance, many CEOs of smaller companies lack in-house counsel and may be very receptive to the idea of hiring a de facto inside or outside general counsel — either on a full-time or part-time basis. Sell yourself: Show them how you can save their company legal fees. The right counselor can help you to prepare and present an effective proposal. Before you submit your resume to search firms, send it to professional colleagues who may help connect you to jobs directly. Start in your backyard: Approach the former members of your company’s legal department, and network with fellow alumni from your old law firm. Also reach out to other lawyers who have gone through layoffs; they can be a source of support and inside information. Remember, there are many employers that rarely or never use headhunters, including most small companies, most small law firms, and virtually all governmental agencies, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations. Use headhunters with care. After you have established a job search strategy, and prepared several versions of your resume, call some recruiters. You might not end up getting a job through them, but they can give you some insights into the market. Just don’t mistake search firm professionals for career counselors. Headhunters do not represent you. They represent employers and their interests; that’s who’s paying their fees. It is in your best interests to find out what positions a search firm has in its inventory, before you turn your resume over to the headhunter to disseminate. Also, bear in mind that most companies — unlike law firms — generally list their legal positions with only one or two headhunters. You may need to speak to a large number of search firms in order to uncover the universe of appropriate positions. ( The American Lawyerincludes a comprehensive pullout, “Directory of Legal Recruiters,” in its January issue each year. Other legal publications also print this information periodically.) Some retained search firms that handle in-house positions are not even listed in directories, including executive search firms and industry-specific search firms. So speak to human resources directors at corporations in the geographic area where you want to practice to find out which search firms they use. Even if you were placed by a search firm previously, it may seem that the number of opportunities available through this route has diminished. That is not your imagination. There are many more lawyers in the market for each in-house position than in the past few years, and employers who can fill their positions directly (i.e., without having to pay a hefty search firm fee) generally prefer to do so. Finally, don’t forget to keep your perspective and look for that proverbial silver lining. If you are unhappy with the toll that the golden handcuffs of booming economic times has taken on your personal life, use the layoff as an opportunity to reassess your work/life balance. This may be a painful moment, but it also can be the right time to liberate yourself. Need a short sabbatical? Longing to move to a different city, or overseas? Want to switch careers? Leave the law altogether? Don’t just dream. Go for it now. Carol Kanarek is a legal career consultant in New York City. E-mail: [email protected]

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