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Preparing for the Axe to Fall

By Wendy Werner

Perhaps you haven’t been able to make your monthly numbers for some time. Or your firm has already laid off other lawyers. Perhaps your most recent review is leading you to believe your job is in jeopardy. You’d be surprised how often lawyers who’ve been laid off or fired express complete incredulity. Usually, the signals have been clear. But since no one wants to believe it can happen to them, they find themselves completely unprepared.

Don’t let that be you!

1. Know your Rights

Make sure that you are clear about the obligations in your employment relationship. Review your employment contract if you have one, including general severance content if your firm has a policy, and general information about accrued employee benefits, including vacation, bonuses, sick leave and so on. You may also want to refer to policies regarding clients and client files. No matter how amicable a parting, things will go more smoothly if you know ahead of time what is reasonable to negotiate on your behalf.

2. Resist Any Temptation to Operate on Yourself

An even better strategy, however, is to consult an employment lawyer. While this might seem like a no-brainer, lawyers often fail to look out for themselves this way. Why not invest in a specialist who deals with these issues daily, who will think for you about parts of this employer-employee relationship you may overlook? If you are concerned about your job, get the best referral you can, now.

3. Control the Message

Just as there is only one opportunity to create a first impression, there’s only one opportunity to create a last impression. Shock and surprise make people say and do things they ordinarily wouldn’t do. It won’t be easy, but if you are let go you must control yourself and control the message regarding the circumstances of your departure. Come to quick agreement with your firm about how your departure will be characterized, and be sure to stick to that script yourself (even on Facebook). Be truthful with people, yes, but keep in mind that there are a variety of ways to tell the truth. While you can be brutally frank with your closest confidants, develop a nuanced way of talking about your situation to the general public, and later on to a prospective employer.

4. Make a Graceful Exit

You might be given time to wind down your work, but it’s possible you will be asked to pack your belongings immediately. While security is critical for all firms, it is rare that this kind of action is truly merited. But, if this is your employer’s policy, there is little that you can do on the spot. And, since this can upend even the most calm and collected among us, having a plan in place beforehand is your best chance of making a graceful exit. For example, be sure to keep critical personal files on your home computer or personal laptop. The same thing goes for personal and professional contacts. (A wise move, even if you aren’t in imminent danger of being fired.) If you don’t do it already, be sure to back up your devices regularly. Be prepared to sacrifice your smartphone, and don’t count on work computer information being available. Again, advice of counsel could be very useful.

If you are given time to wind down your work, take care of the big things first and refer smaller, less critical matters. You always want to leave clients in the best possible position. And be sure to play nicely with those more senior to you on strategy for client transitions, too. You’ll want good references later on.

An Emergency Exit Plan

As I’ve said, shock and surprise can make people say and do the unexpected. If you’re concerned about how you’ll react when you get the news, keep this “to-do list” nearby, just in case. When everything else goes out of focus, this list can help guide your steps until you’re seeing clearly again.

  • Review your employment documents. Be sure to keep copies at home or on your personal computer so you can find them easily.
  • Get a referral for an employment lawyer (do not act as your own lawyer).
  • Control the message. Come to agreement with your firm about how your departure will be characterized, and be sure to stick to that script yourself, even with your closest firm friends, colleagues and clients. Even on Facebook and Twitter. Especially on Facebook and Twitter!
  • Protect your personal information. Keep critical personal files on your home computer or personal laptop. The same thing goes for personal and professional contacts.
  • Remember to breathe.

While you may think you’re emotionally prepared to lose your job, few people ever are. We spend such a significant amount of time at our work, and invested in our work, it’s difficult not to take the loss personally. Making sure you are prepared, and that you are ready to face questions about your departure, will help you start to move on to your next job.

Categories: Communications Skills, Daily Dispatch, Legal Career Development
Originally published February 10, 2011
Last updated December 11, 2020
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Wendy Werner

Wendy Werner was an acclaimed photographer, a sought-after career strategist and social justice advocate. A longtime career coach and practice management consultant at Werner Associates, Wendy most recently served as ArchCity Defenders’ founding board chair, stewarding the organization for over 12 years as it became an established force for justice in the St. Louis region. She was a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and served on several ABA Law Practice Division boards, including as chair of the Publishing Board. Wendy died at her home in Saint Louis on January 3, 2022, after a long battle with cancer. She was 69.


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