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The Most Common Reasons Why Attorneys Get Fired From Their Law Firm Jobs

published April 05, 2022

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Losing a job is nothing uncommon in the legal industry. Most attorneys lose their job at some point in their legal career, and although it is sometimes the result of their own mistakes, there are also instances where it has nothing to do with the attorney or their work. This article uncovers the most common reasons why lawyers lose their jobs in law firms to help you avoid making preventable mistakes and keep your job as long as possible.
 
 

What Losing a Job Means for Your Legal Career

 

While most lawyers cannot avoid losing their job, it can be catastrophic for your career. Once an attorney loses their job, it can be extremely difficult to find legal placement in an equally prestigious law firm.


Attorneys should do everything they can to avoid being fired because it is difficult to find a job in a law firm after being fired. Many lawyers opt to start working as contract attorneys, or in-house counsel. They become solo practitioners and have their businesses or go into government or public service. Such positions are often looked down on in the legal industry because these lawyers usually earn less money.

Lawyers who do not want to find other employment than law firm positions usually end up unemployed. However, being unemployed comes with its drawbacks. Most law firms do not want to hire attorneys who have a gap in their resume, and being unemployed can drag you down for years after the fact because employers will ask about it.

This reality of the legal profession often results in many lawyers quitting the law practice completely and starting alternative careers even though they are talented and have put in a lot of time and effort to graduate from law schools and get hired by prestigious law firms. Of course, many attorneys take their failure and disappointment and turn it into energy for doing more and achieving everything they wanted with their legal career; however, most attorneys go the first route.

Suppose you are one of those attorneys who were able to secure employment in a prestigious law firm right out of law school. It is important to know that once you switch firms, you might never be able to get to the pay scale you have been with your first firm unless you advance significantly. Every other law firm you will get employed in afterward will probably be of lower prestige and with a lower salary. That is why it is important to know the most common reasons for losing law firm jobs and how you can prevent this from happening for as long as possible.
 

Reasons for Losing Jobs in Law Firms


Not Billing Enough Hours

 

Law firms are businesses that have to earn money to function, and the only way a firm is making money is by the hours their employees are billing their clients. That means that if an attorney is not billing enough hours, they risk losing their job.

Not billing enough hours may be a result of several things. If the law firm has enough work but an attorney is still not billing enough hours, the partners will not assign the work to this person. It could be because they hand in poorly finished tasks, they do not have allies in the firm, have made enemies there, or they are too difficult to work with and lack work ethic. Whatever the reason, if the firm is thriving, but an attorney has low hours, there is something wrong, and the attorney is at a big risk of losing their job.

There are also instances where the law firm of the attorney's practice area is currently not in a great state, so the attorney is billing a low number of hours but not entirely because of their fault. In many practice areas, only the most productive and hard-working attorneys can bill many hours, which means that law firms will let go of anyone who does not get through the silo. If the attorney's law firm is currently in trouble, it makes sense that they will downsize and fire anyone who is not among the top fee earners.

Sometimes, the main difference why some lawyers bill more hours than others is their ability and willingness to work hard. Some lawyers are just more hard-working and are willing to sacrifice all of their time to work. Many attorneys bill enough hours but are in a very competitive firm where their peers just work more. So, when a law firm sees that they have a group of lawyers who bill 3000+ hours a year and there is an attorney who bills a thousand hours less, it is understandable that that one attorney will be at risk.

As the seniority level of attorneys grows, they have to become even more aggressive in billing their hours. It is because attorneys' billing rates rise with the seniority level, and only the best attorneys or attorneys with the best client relationships can keep billing enough hours.

The hours that attorney bills have to cover not only their income but also the cost of the firm's needs to continue to function and the profit of the firm's equity partners. If an attorney's hours are too low to cover all of this, they become a liability for the firm, and the firm does not have another option but to let the attorney go.
 

Not Generating Enough

 

The only way to have job security in the legal profession is by having enough work. Attorneys who do not have enough business on their own have to rely on their firm and partners to give them work, which means they are not in control of their job safety. This is never a good position to be in because there are too many things that can happen overnight, which could result in sudden lack of work. Having enough business on your own is the only way to have stability and success in the legal industry. Too many senior attorneys have trouble finding any legal work because they did not build a book of business.

If you do not generate enough business on your own and rely solely on the work others give you, you are putting yourself in danger. Lawyers who are giving you work might decide or be forced to leave the firm and will take the business with them. And while sometimes they might be able to help you and take you with them, it is not always possible. You will be left with nothing to do if that happens, and your job will be at risk.

Although people do not like to talk about this, senior attorneys and partners giving you work are usually older, which comes with situations like the lawyers retiring, getting ill or even dying. The best-case scenario in this situation is when clients are transferred to you; however, it does not always happen. It is also not uncommon for attorneys to suddenly lose business and when this happens to the attorney who gives you work, you are left with nothing to do.

Large law firms do not encourage their associates to generate business independently because they usually have too much work from their won clients that needs to be done. This can be a big setback for big firm attorneys, as they often do not realize the necessity of generating business until it is too late. Most law firms cannot keep attorneys without business long-term, so even if you have been working hard for years, if you do not bring in money on your own, it is not financially viable for the firm to keep you. The only way to be safe in your job long-term is to have enough business on your own. Those who do not have enough business are risking their job.
 

Not Being Qualified Enough When Compared to Peers in the Law Firm


When the economy or a practice area is booming, law firms usually hire as many attorneys as they need, even when they do not have the best qualifications. When the practice area is active enough, even lawyers from third-year law schools can get placements in major law firms in large markets. However, when the economy or practice area slows down again, the least qualified lawyers are always the first to go.

Clients sometimes really value having attorneys with the most prestigious qualifications work on their cases, and law firms know this. That is why they often value lawyers with better qualifications than other lawyers. It is easier to justify high billing fees when attorneys working for the clients are from Harvard or Yale Law School than when they are from somewhere the client has never heard of.
 

Being Among the Last of Your Peers To Get Hired


Law firms, especially the larger ones, often value their attorneys based on how long they have been with the firm. If the firm is in trouble and has to let someone go, the attorney who has been with the firm for a year is more at risk than someone who has been there for five years. Loyalty and institutional memory are big things in the legal industry, and they come into play when the firm has to make decisions because it is in economic trouble.
 

Undermining Authority in the Law Firm


Unfortunately, many lawyers lose their jobs in law firms because they undermine their superiors. This is something completely preventable.

Attorneys often like to question whether an assignment needs to be done or not. That is a direct threat to the superior as they are paid based on how much work is done on a case. If someone says that the work is unnecessary and does not do it, they do not get paid. Superiors call the shots, and they decide what work is necessary. The same applies if an attorney does not bill as many hours as the superior expects. When the firm has a client willing to pay, associates are expected to do all the tasks they are asked to do, not find efficient ways to do it quicker.

Senior attorneys and partners often expect to get credit for cases even though they were not the only ones to work on them. If an associate takes the credit they wanted to take themselves, it can create bad blood and have negative consequences for the associate. Attorneys should only take the credit that is given to them.

Another huge mistake many young attorneys make is to talk badly about the firm or superior behind their back. Something like that can quickly result in the attorney losing their job because it puts everyone at risk. Lawyers should never talk about their superior's personal life or issues, make fun of them, question their decisions, or talk about the superior overbilling their clients. Questioning the abilities or intellect of a superior is also a huge mistake many lawyers make. All of these situations happen, and they end up losing their job.
 

Expressing Anger Toward Management

 

Everyone gets angry with their firm's management at some point. It could be anything from not being able to advance despite working hard, dissatisfaction with compensation or bonuses, to disagreement with a stance on some important issue. Whatever the source of the anger is, there are right and wrong ways to express this anger.

You should never act out your anger toward the management. If you are unhappy about someone in the firm, bringing it as constructive criticism is the way. Most leaders will be open to hearing the criticism, and while it is never certain that they will actually do something about it, they usually appreciate employees approaching them kindly. If you lash out and act angrily toward them, the problem will not be solved, but you are also putting yourself at the huge risk of losing your job.
 

Having a Seniority Level That Is Too High


Attorneys who have worked in a law firm for over five or six years and do not have a book of business on their own are in a very vulnerable position. With an increasing seniority level also, the billing fees rise, which starts to become a drawback for the clients. If they can have firm partners working on their case for the same amount of money, they will always choose the partner rather than a senior associate.

Law firms like to switch out their older associates, who are costing them more money, for young, hungry ones who still have the energy and will to work extremely long hours. Many law firms started incorporating retirement ages to ensure that the workforce stays quite young and active.
 

Having Too Big of an Ego


Confidence is important for success in law firms; however, you have to be careful not to overdo it. No one likes arrogant people, and those with big egos can get fired.

If you start in a law firm and believe you are better than everyone around you, people will not like you. Behavior like this might make those around you want to prove that you are not better or smarter, and your day at work will not be easy. Pitting everyone against you because of your ego is a quick way to lose your job.

Many attorneys who have this problem have recently switched firms to a less prestigious firm, smaller, in a smaller market, or have gone to one of the top law schools and believe this gives them a leg up. An attitude like this will always end up hurting them.
 

Expressing Lack of Commitment


Many lawyers start their law firm job with statements about how they would like to do something else. Many want to get to better law firms and think about starting a business or a law firm of their own. They sometimes even express conditions, such as they leave the firm unless they get an advance or get this or that perk.

Even if the attorneys do not bring this information straight to the management, word travels fast, and their peers will uncover such a lack of commitment to the superiors when they get the chance. When a law firm uncovers that one of their employees is not committed to working there, they have no reason for keeping them. They know that the attorney will leave them with the first chance they get.

An important note to add is that a lack of commitment to a job is usually quite easily uncovered by the quality of the attorney's work. People who lack commitment typically do not put effort into their work. Not being committed enough to a law firm will put you at risk.
 

Acting in a Way That Reflects Negatively on the Firm, Even in Personal Life


While everyone has the right to have their own personal life, your actions outside of your law firm can negatively affect your career. As an employee of a firm, you represent it everywhere you go, whether during your time off or during a work event.

Negative actions outside work almost always get back to the employer, and if they put the firm's good name in jeopardy, the firm has to step in. These actions can be as little as writing something negative about practicing law on your social media and as severe as being accused of a crime.

Anything that smears the good name of the firm in the public eye can be used as grounds for firing an attorney. However, not every law firm reacts the same to attorneys' actions outside of work. What is okay in some law firms can be why an attorney is fired in other law firms. Finding a firm that does not make a deal out of what you are doing in your free time is important if you do not want to watch your every step.
 

Asking for Too Much Money


There are many reasons why attorneys believe they should be earning more money. Some have gone to top law schools but have not found a placement in a prestigious law firm. Others have switched firms to smaller or less prestigious firms or have not received the expected bonus. Whatever the reason for this dissatisfaction is, it is better to keep quiet about it, try harder for the superiors to notice and reward the effort, or start looking for a new firm.

Being too vocal about not being dissatisfied with the money an attorney gets almost always ends in the attorney losing their job. It might have to do with the fact that once one employee starts to complain about their compensation, the dissatisfaction and objections quickly spread, and others often start getting vocal. Firms want to avoid this, so the easiest step for them is to let the first attorney go before they influence others.
 

Acting Inappropriately at a Work Event


Work parties and other work events are the perfect situations to get to know people from the firm in a less formal setting. However, some attorneys tend to "overdo" things during these events. They get too drunk, make inappropriate comments, or even behave inappropriately toward other colleagues. When something like this happens, it can very easily result in the attorney losing their job.

As I have previously mentioned, an attorney's behavior always reflects on the law firm's image regardless of whether it is at work or outside of it. The firm wants to keep up its appearance, so when they see their employee behaving badly, they will do everything not to let it tarnish the firm's image even further.
 

Changes After a Merger


When two law firms merge, personnel changes are almost inevitable. The more dominant law firm in the merger can usually dictate their conditions and rules, while the less dominant firm has to obey these rules generally.

The previously mentioned reasons for letting an attorney go come into play during a merger. Partners and senior attorneys without enough business are let go. Those who do not bill enough hours or are in the practice area that is currently not bringing in enough money are probably going to be let go. Those who are senior or close to retirement age are also on the chopping block.

When two firms are merging, almost everyone who is not profitable for the firm has to go and is replaced by someone who will bring in more money (or cost less).
 

Leave of Absence That Is Too Long


There are many valid reasons for taking a leave of absence, such as having a child or dealing with an illness or ill relative. There is nothing wrong when an attorney takes a prolonged time off for something like this. However, when an attorney takes a leave of absence that is not for a seemingly acceptable reason or a leave that is too long, the firm will start to have some questions.

Law firms want only extremely committed attorneys. A leave of absence that does not have a reason the firm perceives as understandable tells the firm that the attorney is not committed enough. Every law firm approaches the topic of leaves differently but all of them want to feel like their employees are committed to them.

The other problem with a long leave of absence is that the attorney often is not able to handle the law firm culture after they return. The firm is often significantly changed and the attorney has also fallen out of the routine of working long hours in a high-stress environment. That results in the attorney quitting shortly after returning from the leave.
 

Not Being Willing To Do Certain Tasks or Go the Extra Mile


Law firms hire attorneys to do the job they are assigned. Lawyers might sometimes consider the work beneath them, not fit for their skills, or they might feel like they are working enough and do not have to sacrifice their Friday night finishing up an assignment that has a strict deadline. Most attorneys feel like that sometimes; however, to succeed in a firm, you have to get over these thoughts and do what the firm needs.

Attorneys who feel like they are too good to do some clerical tasks or are not satisfied with the type of work they are getting and want more responsibility and are vocal about it are the perfect candidates for being let go. The same applies to lawyers who are not willing to pull an odd all-nighter, spend a few weekends at the office before an important deadline, or turn down a task because they were already stepping out of the door. In every law firm, there are attorneys who are willing to do that, so those who object are usually quickly let go.
 

Lying (on a Resume or at Work)


Trust is important in all relationships, professional ones are no exception. And lying is almost always uncovered.

For some weird reason, some attorneys choose to lie either on their resume to get hired or when they are already hired at their work. It does not matter if the lie is just in the dates the attorney was employed in their previous firm, in omitting that they were fired previously, or in the fact that they have already finished a task they are still working on. Once a law firm finds out that the attorney has lied, they usually quickly sever any ties they have with them because they know they can not trust them.
 

Not Being Able To Collect Money for the Hours Billed


Even when an attorney bills enough hours, if they are not able to collect the money corresponding to the hours billed, it raises red flags. This could be because they were billing too many hours that were not justified or because they are not capable of explaining the hours they bill. Whatever the reason is, it can be a reason for being fired.
 

The Work in the Firm Is Slowing Down


Law firms go through episodes and from time to time, the work in a law firm will start to slow down. The moment this happens, the firm usually starts letting attorneys go because they do not know what to expect.

The important thing to note is that law firms do not like to state "lack of work" as the reason for firing someone. They will often try to find any small mistake you have made to shift the blame on you.
 

Making a Serious Mistake/Being Sued for Malpractice


People make mistakes all the time; however, if you make a serious one that loses a case or makes the firm look unprofessional, it can have negative consequences. Missing an important deadline, arriving late to a trial closing, or missing something important in a case that results in a negative outcome are all reasons why you might be let go from your firm.

Also, if an attorney is being sued for malpractice, it will usually end up in the lawyer being fired, even if it was not their fault.
 

Being Hard To Work With or Having Bad Attitude

 

When people in a firm assign work to an attorney, they usually want to get back a fully completed task with as few questions and guidance as possible. If someone asks too many questions and needs their hands held, other lawyers in the firm will not want to work with them.

If they behave poorly toward other attorneys in the firm, shout at them, or are nervous or upset, they are also not the easiest to work with. Practicing law in a firm is about cooperation, so when someone cannot cooperate well with others, they do not have a place in the firm.

The same goes for attorneys who have a bad attitude toward work, compensation, the firm, or other people in the firm. Law firms, lawyers, and clients want to work with attorneys with a good and positive attitude, so they quickly figure out if an attorney has a poor attitude. They also usually quickly intervene and let the attorney go because they fear that the attorney would negatively influence other attorneys.
 

Poor Work Performance


If the firm does not like the quality of your work, they will most likely let you go. Law firms do not have time to re-train every attorney that has performance issues and poor work habits from previous firms. Missing deadlines, leaving errors and typos in assignments, and not knowing about basic legal principles are serious mistakes lawyers just cannot afford to make if they want to work in major firms.

If this is your problem, you have to work on it as soon as possible. It may help you save your job. And even if you cannot save your current job, improving will help you practice law properly under other prospective employers.
 

Not Fitting In


The law firm culture and fitting in is an extremely important factor in finding success in a law firm. Not fitting in can cause various difficulties in your everyday life, such as not getting enough assignments, not getting invited to after-work events, or not having anyone to help you or give you advice. That can very quickly turn into getting fired as billing enough hours or handing in work that follows all the standards is not easy when everyone is against you.

The firm's culture is based on many things in attorneys' backgrounds, such as race, religion, law school, interests, etc. It is important to find the tribe you can fit in. It is also important to know how to navigate the hierarchy in this culture and firm politics if you want to succeed.
 

Being in a Branch Office of the Law Firm


This is something attorneys cannot really influence but if you work in a branch office, your job is at risk. As a legal recruiter, I see branch office attorneys lose their positions quite often for a few understandable reasons. Branch offices are usually not as profitable as the main office as they are in smaller legal markets and have to have lower billing fees. Branch offices also usually do not make important decisions (these are made in the main offices in many firms), which can anger branch partners and encourage them to leave. Taking their clients and business with them. That can be fatal for the branch and put all the attorneys back on the job market trying to get job interviews.
 

Conclusions


There is an almost unlimited number of reasons why attorneys lose their jobs. Some of them are more valid than others, but all result in the attorney's departure from the firm and their need for a new job. This article has provided some of the most common reasons that should be taken as warning signs to help you avoid making some preventable mistakes that can lead to losing a job in a traditional law firm.

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