What to Do When You Lose Your First Legal Job

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It is common for young lawyers to change jobs after one to three years. In urban areas, especially on the East Coast, the practice is rampant. Washington, DC is a prime example because of the cyclical interchange of government and private-sector lawyers. Motivation takes many forms: you, the firm, or both, could be the propelling force.

Handling being fired for the first time

Reasons for wishing a change may not be definable. You might sense that the practice of law, if that is your work, is not enjoyable. You might suspect that research and writing cannot really be called the practice of law. You might be overburdened or under-burdened with work. The work might involve too much research and not enough contact with people (or lawyers). Too many different challenges might be presented, or too few.

The working environment could be the problem. The particular lawyers with whom you work may be difficult. You may work with too many people and receive too little instruction from any single lawyer. Disorder may reign and "training" may be a word only. The system may be too regimented. The support staff may be inefficient. The atmosphere may inhibit any social development. The financial benefits or the rate of salary increase could disappoint you.

The firm may actively instigate your leaving. This propulsion may relate to incompetence, but often merit has little significance. Law-related institutions generally create a certain atmosphere and "encourage" their people to fit. If the fit is tight, due to personality friction or divergent approaches to work, a hefty supply of fungible young lawyers is waiting to fill vacant slots.

Increasingly, budgetary constraints cause young lawyers to leave. The federal government in the last years has sent many hundreds of lawyers away. Recurring economic recessionary trends have periodically caused mass exits. Recognize this problem inherent in every business. Law firms are not immune to the effects of business slow-downs. Newly opened firms and branch offices often feel the pinch first — consider that possibility when making a job choice.

The firm can indicate in numerous ways that your departure would be welcome. Lawyers may involve you consistently in less substantive work or less work generally. Your salary may not rise. Many firms provide periodic formal evaluations of young lawyers. Often these exercises are meaningless, but the firm may use the forum to nudge you. You may hear an outright suggestion of attitudinal problems or a failure to present the proper firm "image" to clients. These suggestions will be couched in vague conjectures and impressions. Underlying the discussions, however, is an indication that you do not fit and should leave. Take that hint: it is pointless to argue against their determination that your path leads elsewhere.
The "whys" of leaving the first law-related position can be varied and not articulable, or singular and doubtless. It is not unusual to change your job in law. Identify the "why" in this first stage of the launch.


Timing a move can be important, and appearance often looms large in consideration. Again, both you and the firm may diverge on your approaches to this problem.

You may decide after six months that the firm is not for you. Leaving at that point will probably be hard and may be imprudent. Pursue at any time a golden opportunity that seems tailored for you. Appearance-wise, however, usually wait a year, preferably two, before plunging into the market. A jump at six months looks precipitous and can raise suspicions about the reasons for departure. After a year you are assumed to have acquired a basic foundation in the field and a sense of judgment about career direction.

Do not wait forever to shift. A young lawyer's peak market potential, on the average, is between two and four years out of law school. There-after, a law firm suspects you have been too indoctrinated in other methods to be easily assimilated. Other organizations, without an opportunity to review your work first, may balk at the high salary you might expect. Once time marches a great distance, organizations might wonder whether you were passed over for partnership. If you have developed an unusual expertise in an area or can bring along or draw business to your potential firm, you will be welcomed more readily at any time.


A decision on the timing of dismissal or other action can depend on the size and nature of the organization. A large institution may delay for two years or longer, because decision-making requires bureaucratic wrangling. Conversely, a smaller or more attentive organization may give a sign much earlier, especially if there is an interest to aid your development or if an identifiable problem exists. The firm may delay deliberately, to observe problems resolve themselves. Budgetary considerations may impel a firm to act at unusual junctures. The firm's timing is very unpredictable.


You have decided to leave and when to do it. The hardest, next part is the search, if there is one. You may find a specific opportunity thrust on you and leave with little effort. You might, though, need to search, leaving at an odd time due to personal confrontation or budget.

Most important: maintain a shining appearance after you make the decision. Work strongly, appear willing to work. When dissatisfaction sets in, the Appearance challenge is important to your good standing in the firm, mainly for purposes of recommendation upon leaving.

There are many ways to approach the search, if one is necessary. Send a resume discriminatingly. After working in the legal world, you know what to avoid and what to seek in the next job. You may desire a specific field of work and can narrow the inquiry accordingly. Your industry contacts are invaluable aids. To winnow meaningful possibilities, perhaps telephone an organization to question its needs and to discover the appropriate addressee of your letter. Request confidentiality by letter, because industry people talk with one another: the word can travel fast.

Use people within the firm, if possible, to provide contacts. This enlistment is tricky: approach only trusted people whose knowledge of your search will not prejudice your position at the firm. Often people in the field four or five years are young enough to appreciate fully your intentions and experienced enough to have developed helpful business contacts.

Try out some executive placement (headhunting) organizations. Re-search those operating in particular cities and areas of interest. Placement organizations specializing in law jobs exist in all major cities. Choose a headhunter judiciously. Many will not attempt to cater to your particular career interests, accepting a fee from any organization willing to hire you. Be sure the chosen headhunter is a lawyer with experience as a practitioner. Many headhunters in law have backgrounds in counseling or executive placement in fields other than law. Law is a distinct and unique world; the headhunter, if unfamiliar with that world, cannot help you efficiently.

Broach the subject of recommendations to the current firm only when an organization conditions an offer on a recommendation. Unless the firm as a whole is aware of your search, you may compromise your position there by soliciting recommendations before they are necessary.

See the Top 32 Reasons Attorneys Lose Their Jobs Inside of Law Firms to learn some of the most common reasons attorneys are fired or let go from law firms.

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