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What Should Legal Professionals Do To Survive Unemployment

published February 14, 2013

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A sudden layoff in today's job market may not be surprising but can still be devastating both financially and emotionally. There are many highly qualified people who are unemployed through no fault of their own. Recouping your self-esteem is the hardest part of the job search process, since losing a job is an emotional separation from which it is natural to grieve. Similarly, recent graduates who have survived three years of law school only to discover that there is no job waiting for them also can be devastated emotionally and financially. Although both groups need time to process feelings, the best way to recover is to take action. Creating a plan of action, starting your job search, establishing goals and brainstorming with others will restore your energy and make you think about the future instead of brood about the past. Consider the following strategies to help you speed up your recovery time.
  • Negotiate your severance agreement. Realize that despite everything, you still have some bargaining power even as you are walking out the door. Your former employer would like to remain on good terms with you and see that you leave with a minimum of hostility. Ask for anything that would be helpful to you. At this point, you have nothing to lose. You may be able to negotiate severance pay, continued use of an office or other space, secretarial privileges (including answering service). You should clarify the employer's position on these issues before you actually leave. Recent graduates should contact lending institutions to inquire about loan deferments.
  • Request Outplacement Services. Many employers retain outplacement companies as a goodwill gesture to help displaced employees get started with their job search. These companies provide career counseling as well as instructions in networking, resume writing, cover letter drafting, interviewing and follow-up techniques. Take advantage of these services but be mindful to adapt their suggestions to your particular needs.
  • Request References. You should have a conversation with the person or persons who will act as your references and come to a mutual agreement as to what will be said. You can initiate this conversation and actually tell them, to some extent, what you would like them to say. They are likely to agree with any reasonable suggestion. Although most employers desire phone references, you may also want to ask for a written letter of reference to use as a back up. Again, it is vitally important to actually have the letter in hand when you leave. References are equally important for new graduates. Faculty members and former employers should be approached for references and referrals.

  • Apply for Unemployment and Health Benefits. Unless you were fired "for cause," you are usually entitled to unemployment benefits although severance payment that you collect may affect the amount of unemployment benefits you receive. You should register for unemployment right away, as it may take some time to receive it. The good news is that you can receive every check except for the first one mailed to you at home from some employment offices. You will not necessarily lose your health insurance coverage either. You are entitled by law in most cases to extend your health benefits (although you have to make the monthly payments) for up to eighteen months under COBRA, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. You may also want to consider joining professional associations that offer group health coverage to members.
Viewing a termination as a positive experience sounds like a contradiction in terms. After all, termination is basically a rejection. People have described the trauma of feeling like a victim. Being associated with a particular firm or organization can be such an important part of a person's life. Being laid off not only creates a tremendous sense of loss of structure and interruption of "normal" daily routines but also a sense of betrayal. The firm or organization loses its family, caring atmosphere as the blame gets spread around and becomes anonymous, with nobody taking responsibility. The financial blow and the change in consumer status can be equally devastating.

In social situations, we are always defined by what we do for a living. Being laid off makes for some awkward moments when meeting new people. Rather than avoid much needed social engagements (and networking opportunities!) consider how you will respond when met with the question "What do you do?" Obviously, it is still appropriate to say, "I am an attorney, and you?" If pressed for more information, ("Really, who are you with?") try turning an awkward moment into a networking opportunity by simply saying "I am in transition at the moment. My background is in ...."

In Chinese, the symbol for crisis is the same as the symbol for opportunity. A layoff isn't only a crisis, but also a unique opportunity. It forces you to really look at your values and priorities and provides a push to change things for the better.
During a challenging search, your emotional well-being deserves attention and care. In fact, your productivity and ultimate success depend on it. Monitor your feelings and, when necessary, take aggressive, vigorous action to shift them in a positive direction. Since people need to feel they are making some progress in order to keep pursuing their goals, job hunters faced with frequent setbacks and disappointments may eventually lose all hope of finding a suitable position. Typically the "job market" treats candidates with little consideration or care. The trauma of the downsizing followed by a protracted search may paralyze you with depression, anxiety, frustration and anger. When you are feeling overwhelmingly discouraged, consider these tips to help you recharge emotionally and get over the "Why bother?" hump.
  1. Analyze the panic-what is the fear?
    "I will never work again."
    "I won't get the job I want."
    "I won't get the salary I want."
    How real are these fears? How can you prepare for, minimize or render any of these scenarios temporary?
  2. Focus on what you can control. Understand that each stage of the hiring cycle has lengthened. There is little you can do to speed up the process. You can not make employers waive requirements, create openings or return your calls. The more you try to plan or control these factors, the harder and more frustrating your search will be. Fuming over the fact that companies rarely confirm receipt of your resume or that they run blind ads is wasted energy. Focus on what you can control: the quality of your cover letters, resume, image, interviews, follow- up and networking. You can determine how fast you respond to leads, ideas and events. Concentrate your energies in these areas and let go of the rest.
  3. Take a career development refresher course. Now you have personal experiences to relate to the theories. This could give your morale a boost.
  4. Share your anxieties with supportive friends/family. Not only are these people great sounding boards but they can also help you spot flaws in your search. Remember to ask for what you need! Well meaning spouses and parents can drive a job seeker crazy by trying to be helpful or asking too many questions or by just plain nagging. Enlist their help as a coach if you think it would be productive. Otherwise, politely ask them to leave you alone while you sort through things.

    Keep in mind a change in your life naturally means a change in the life of your family members. They may be scared or have questions too. Do not try to protect loved ones by acting in control. They will be more supportive if they know what is going on and understand how they can be helpful.
  5. Try professional counseling. An experienced counselor can provide focus, guidance, motivation, evaluation, market knowledge and coaching. Don't forget to take advantage of the services of your law school's career services office.
  6. Have some fun. Do not feel guilty about enjoying something or goofing off periodically. Exercise, take a short trip to refresh yourself, tackle a project or read a novel. A short time away from your job search may allow you to return with renewed vigor and energy.
Although no one would have wished for a recession in the legal field, many have benefited from it by being forced to give some serious thought to their careers. Even those who remain unemployed for extended periods can be rejuvenated by the experience. By taking some time to reassess yourself, you can change your life and hopefully move in a new and better direction. Many people end up happier after a transition.

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