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The Stigma of Being “Laid Off”

Q: Why is there such a stigma attached to lawyers being "laid off”?

Professionals in a number of industries are laid off and re-employed all the time, without missing a beat.  Yet, when it comes to lawyers, it seems as if employers think of you as “defective” when you’re unemployed, even if the layoff was not performance-related.  In the in-house world, companies often get acquired, go out of business, or reduce costs by laying off legal.  It’s not unusual to find yourself out of a job, so why the stigma? I think I've shown more talent and moxie than many of my peers that are currently employed.  Yet, employers seem more reticent to consider someone without a current job, than someone with one.  Please explain. Frustrated Laid Off Lawyer

A.  Dear Frustrated Laid Off Lawyer:

There is a big difference between leaving a company because the company was bought or went out of business, than having to leave a company because you were fired. For the most part, when a company is purchased or going south, you have some time to see things coming, and employers assume that if you have this much “talent and moxie,” you'll have another job already lined up before your head comes to the chopping block.

“A star is a star is a star.” That’s the common line of thinking by many legal employers. They see it as the bottom line no matter how rough the economy may be, no matter how bad the company's financial straits may have become, there is always work for the stars. Please do not misinterpret what I just said.  I do not happen to think that someone who has been laid off cannot be an outstanding lawyer.  There are legal employers out there that can make the distinction and who understand why someone may have been laid off.  Clearly, there are situations where even a superstar must be let go.  That said, many legal employers think that if a lawyer has been laid off, he or she was not indispensable. Of course, this is even worst if the company retained any of its lawyers, and only laid off a few.

Because usually the superstar is not the one that is being asked to leave, being laid off ends up having a negative connotation attached to it. Of course, being fired is, without a doubt, is the worst thing that can happen in this context but unfortunately, being laid off is only a bit better. Generally what helps to soften the stigma is when the layoff was made public, the acquisition or bankruptcy was well publicized, and none of the lawyers survived. However, things are not always that transparent, and employers in a market where there are more candidates that jobs, are not always willing to look into the reasons behind a layoff. It is for all of these reasons that there is a stigma attached to someone who has been terminated due to a layoff.

You have signed your name as "Frustrated." Don’t let your status slow down your job search.  Update your resume and continue to make yourself available to the job market.  If you are a good lawyer, there are still plenty of legal employers that will be willing to consider your candidacy, laid off or not. That said, next time don't wait for trouble to strike. If you have any reason to suspect that you might be a victim of a layoff, take action to look for your next job. You may have to jump ship sooner than you’d like.  Don't wait until you have that "stigma" attached to your candidacy.

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