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“They’re a bunch of idiots! How could they do this to me? Why would they do this to me? I’m the highest biller in my class, and they let me go? You tell me how that makes any sense!” Brett had been fired right before the holidays. She was outraged about her treatment. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the legal job market was barely breathing. Even though she was a third-year associate, Brett lacked the skills to be a highly valuable commodity in this tight job market. She would be in for a tough job search and she resented it. “I worked my you-know-what off for this lousy law firm,” she said irritably, “and this is what I get!” At first glance, the firm’s reasoning behind the decision to let her go was not obvious. Brett was not only a beautiful woman with a flair for fashion and an haute couture voice to match, she had a r�sum� with impressive credentials. She was smart, aggressive, and a top biller. So why had she become the target? When the word comes down from on high that people have to be let go, law firm managers and practice group leaders are forced to make tough choices. These choices are informed by a variety of factors, some clearly quantifiable, but many subjective. The real motives for targeting certain people for outplacement are more secret than the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. The person being jettisoned is going to be the last one to know the underlying reason for being forced out. Even an associate’s best efforts to elicit the real reason for dismissal are met with placating words designed to make the person feel better — and limit liability in the event of a lawsuit. Many of my outplacement clients report stonewalling or suspect outright lies when they search for the truth. They hear, “Look, I never said that to Frank. I don’t know where he got the idea I didn’t like your work on that case,” or, “Hey, I never told Ken about the deadline we missed. I have no idea where he got the impression it was your fault.” When law firms make choices about whom to hold and whom to fold, those choices are not necessarily formulaic. Many associates either hope or believe that astronomical billables will buffer them from the storm. High billables can certainly be important, but there may be even better insurance against losing your job. Clearly, Brett needed to develop some career insurance at her next job. To help her do this, we had to understand what had gone wrong at this job. At first, Brett’s dismissal from her law firm was a mystery to us both. But as we continued to talk about her career decisions and work history, the answer emerged. Brett’s first career choice had been modeling. She was not tall enough to be a runway model, but she could have been a print model. Competition for jobs in that field are notoriously fierce, but she was building a portfolio by the time she graduated from high school. Yet Brett was brainy as well as beautiful, and she felt that her intellectual gifts would be wasted in the fashion world. She went to an Ivy League school and did well there. When it came time to choose a professional path, she decided on the law — not because she loved intricate legal concepts, but because she loved the idea of being a “player,” a force to be reckoned with in a man’s world. She did reasonably well in law school and was hired by a large, high-paying firm after graduation. She was immensely pleased with her career at this point. When she started working at the firm, however, she encountered many associates and partners who were exceptionally incisive and capable. She struggled with a sense of intellectual inferiority for the first time in her life. MISTAKES WERE MADE Despite appearing to be sure of herself, she was secretly experiencing a crisis of self-worth. Brett felt she was less capable than her colleagues, but did not want the “truth” to be known, so she did not ask enough questions. Instead, she pretended to know the answers, acted as if she were self-confident, and kept her doubts to herself. As a result, she made mistakes. She characterized these mistakes as minor and inconsequential, but they must have been serious enough to create mistrust on the part of the key partners in her group because they began to channel their work to other associates. Brett was keenly aware of the peril she faced if she could not get enough work from her partners to keep up high billables in uncertain economic times. She campaigned to get assignments from partners in another group and was successful at that effort. She began to straddle two practice groups, which increased her billable hours, but she did not have an alliance with the powerful key partners in her group of origin. In addition, the second group did not have enough work or enough clout to bring her into their group. Brett also alienated key partners in her group of origin by failing to get their explicit blessing before soliciting work from the other practice group. It did not reduce her “culpability” that her group of origin was not supplying her with enough work. She was still guilty of disloyalty to the team, even though that was never expressly mentioned to her. Brett was not happy with most of the work she received from either group. She was assigned basic projects that required research and writing. She was not entrusted with higher-profile work, client contact, or more challenging matters. Her assigned group did not have faith in her abilities due to her errors. The second group gave plum assignments to the rising stars on their own team. Being assigned low-level work played into her sense of inferiority. Brett signaled her dissatisfaction and annoyance to other associates and occasionally asked partners to reassign her work to first-years. She believed that she was being unfairly treated and decided that her workplace was sexist. To the rest of the firm, however, she probably appeared to be arrogant, irritable, entitled, and untrustworthy. Brett was unaware of the ways she had set herself up for failure and blamed the firm for her mistreatment. But at this point it was clear to me why she had become a target. A GOOD FIT The career insurance Brett needed, in part, was greater political savvy about the ways firms work. She also needed more self-confidence. It seems counterintuitive, but you have to have the confidence to be imperfect and ask for help when you are just starting out as a lawyer. Career insurance also comes from a good fit between personality and the culture of the workplace. When the fit is good, there is a better chance of success, which translates into security. In Brett’s case, she felt uncomfortable at her firm from the beginning. She might have been able to overcome that initial discomfort if she had been willing to try to understand the problem and work on it. Another type of career insurance is to develop a skill that is in demand or in a niche area. Brett failed to make herself necessary to her workplace. In fact, by straddling two practice areas and ending up with work that was beneath her, she effectively devalued her worth to the firm. Finally, associates can protect themselves by staying in high-demand practice areas and maintaining an excellent working relationship with key partners. Here again, Brett struck out. She started out in a high-demand practice area, but made mistakes on work for key partners, which eroded their trust in her. Workplaces are not fair — and legal workplaces are not known for being warm and fuzzy. To avoid becoming a target of your firm’s downsizing: � Know your personal weaknesses and work to improve your personality, as well as your legal skills � Learn about the firm’s politics from more-senior associates � Develop a good relationship with partners by doing flawless work, so they will entrust you with progressively better work, and � Become indispensable to your firm by honing a special skill or body of knowledge. Do not rely solely on high billables to shelter you from the storm. Sheila Nielsen is a nationally recognized career counselor specializing in attorneys. A lawyer and a social worker by training, she counsels lawyers on a wide variety of issues, including changing jobs or careers. Her business, Nielsen Consulting Service, is located in Chicago. She can be reached at (312) 616-4416. Clients discussed in this column are composites, and all names have been changed.

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