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When I was growing up, my parents had a book for self-diagnosis. The book purported to help the reader define an ailment without the pesky trouble of driving to the doctor's office. By answering such questions as ''Are you running a fever?'' and ''Are you having trouble swallowing?'' you could track through hundreds of pages of flow charts to arrive at a laundry list of potential diagnoses.
Unfortunately, the book would invariably lead even someone with relatively mild symptoms to the conclusion that he or she was riddled with tumors, highly contagious, and likely not long for this world.
Having spent too much time nursing a completely innocent mosquito bite only to convince myself (with the help of our self-diagnosis tome) that I was suffering from incurable scurvy, I am loathe to list the signs indicating you are about to be fired. The fact that your BlackBerry isn't working doesn't mean you've been fired. Usually, it just means your BlackBerry is malfunctioning.
The following should only be read as signs that may precede a pink slip. Like all symptoms, they should be read in the larger context of your overall relationship with your firm.
The Number-One Mother of All Signs: You Have Nothing to Do.
There are many occasions in a lawyer's career when he or she is not absolutely swamped. If you are a young lawyer just starting out or a lawyer starting out in a new job, you will likely experience reasonable lulls in work flow. However, a lawyer who usually enjoys a desk full of work who finds himself or herself without any assignments may have cause to be concerned.
Why? If your work is being reassigned to your colleagues, it may be a sign that the partners with whom you work do not have confidence in your performance. If other lawyers around you appear to be busy, but you are still twiddling your thumbs, it may be you or your work that's the issue. Whether or not a decision about your future with the firm has been decided, a dearth of work doesn't bode well. If you do not have any opportunity to be productive, the writing is on the wall.
When trying to evaluate whether a light workload is a bad sign, consider the economy, your practice area, and the productivity of the people around you. Sometimes when the economy is doing well, it isn't unusual for a bankruptcy associate to be billing less than he or she normally would.
If your contemporaries in other firms in the same practice area are having the same experience, it may be market factors rather than performance issues that are having an effect. On the other hand, if a corporate associate in today's economy tells me that his or her practice is slow, I suspect something more disconcerting is afoot.
An associate with a real concern about a lack of work must address this by being proactive. If you aren't getting work sitting at your desk, walk the halls. Educate yourself on the work that the partners are doing. Show enthusiasm. Volunteer your services. If busy partners send you on your way without work, address whether there is an underlying issue.
Two: You Get a Bad Review.
Reviews almost always include some constructive criticism, but a bad review from your superiors should speak for itself. There is something wrong. Whether or not you believe it is justified, a negative review may be your firm's way of telling you that the relationship is not going to end well.
Three: You Tell Your Firm You Are Leaving.
If your firm knows that you intend to leave, it may show you the door before you anticipate actually walking out. The firm may have good reasons. It may not want you to be working on your job search while working on ongoing client matters. It may just be trying to break up with you before you dump it, as it were. In any event, sharing your plans may turn a voluntary resignation into an immediate termination.
Four: You've Lied About Your Credentials.
I've never heard of a lawyer who lied about any credential (bar admission, grades, etc.) and did not lose his or her job upon discovery of the falsehood. While intentional misrepresentations of your background may take some time to come to light, I don't know of any person who has talked his or her way back into a lost job. Even the discovery of an omission of a previous job from a resume can end—and has ended—a lawyer's employment at a firm.
Five: You've Been Transferred to a Remote Office.
This may be the most difficult sign to accurately analyze because it may also be a sign that you are a highly valued associate. Depending on the office and the work you are being sent to do, a transfer may be a fast lane to success or a sign that your employer wants you out of sight. A lucrative secondment to London says "We love you!" A long-term document review in a remote airport hangar says something very different.
With the exception of lying about your background, none of the aforementioned signs are absolute indicators. If you are gainfully employed and spending your days analyzing whether you may get fired, I would suggest reorienting to address any dissatisfaction head-on.
Instead of holding your breath when the managing partner walks down the hall, identify any issue with you or your work product that may concern the powers that be. If you are direct with the partners for whom you work, you may encourage them to behave the same way, giving everyone an opportunity to talk openly about solutions. If you are unsure about which way the signs point, you can always ask for directions.
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