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September 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 6 | Page 10
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Ask Bill

Fired? Advice—and practical steps—for getting back on your feet after losing your first job

Q.  Bill, I have been out of law school for two years and I just got fired from the small firm that hired me after graduation. I am devastated—it’s like my career has been ruined before it barely began. What should I do?

A.

I don’t want to sound like I’m giving you a pep talk, but the fact is that you have to get back on your feet and move on. Having said that, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s something easier said than done. To get some practical perspective for you, I contacted Ellen Wayne, Dean of Career Services at Columbia University Law School, where she provides career counseling to current and former law students. She writes and speaks on the topic regularly, and she’s also a coauthor of Nonlegal Careers for Lawyers, 5th Edition (ABA, 2006).

For years Ellen has been working with high-achievers who are used to spending their summers clerking for top-ranked law firms and then get hired by those large firms for big bucks after graduation. According to Ellen, even for first-tier Columbia students and graduates, sometimes things go wrong and jobs don’t work out. And for some of those students and young associates, their unsuccessful job experience may represent the first time they have ever failed at anything. In her job, Ellen has to deal with the devastation that results.

So how do you bounce back from the situation?

Steps to Lead You Past This Cloud

Ellen’s first piece of advice is to make the most of your experience at your old firm by lining up someone there to give you a recommendation when you apply for your next job. If you can’t get a recommendation from someone at the firm, you may be able to get one from a client you did work for while you were there. Ellen also recommends that you keep records of the projects you’ve worked on and make a list of the clients for whom you did the work. By doing that, you will be better able to explain to prospective employers—keeping in mind issues of client confidentiality—what you are capable of doing. It will also help you to avoid conflicts at your next job.

After dealing with practical issues like recommendations, Ellen strongly urges you to take these next steps: (1) figure out what went wrong in order to understand why you got fired, and (2) deal with the emotional side of the issue. Rather than burdening your friends (who may never have been fired from a job) or family members (who won’t know what to say to make you feel better), Ellen advises that you spend some time with a counselor to deal with those inevitable feelings of disappointment, anger, loss of self-esteem and general unhappiness.

She also offers these words of caution: Even if you feel that you were treated shabbily or didn’t deserve to be fired, resist the urge to vent to other lawyers or law firms. No matter what city or town you work in, word gets around and it doesn’t pay to burn bridges. You may someday find yourself working with or against lawyers from the firm that dumped you, and if you take the high ground now and don’t say anything negative, those future relationships will work out a lot better. (I probably don’t need to say this, but definitely don’t chronicle your firing on your MySpace page for prospective employers to read. And, while you’re at it, take down those photos of you from Spring Break 2003.)

Seeing a Sunnier Future

Now here’s something from my own past that might prove helpful to you. Your question reminds me of the time I got fired from a job in human resources, which I took between graduate school and law school. (I was 23 and my boss was 29.) The only reason he could give me when he fired me was that he thought I had a “low tolerance for ambiguity.” I’ve always wished that I had asked him to be a little more specific!

That’s humorous now, 35 years later, but it sure wasn’t a laughing matter at the time. Fortunately, after he showed me the door, I went to law school a year earlier than I had planned to. It might be that if he hadn’t spotted my “ambiguity problem,” I’d still be in that HR job today. (Not really, but I’m trying to make you feel better here.)

The point is, follow Ellen’s advice and 35 years from now you may think of this experience as the best thing that ever happened to you—just as I do about my experience getting fired in my youth.

About the Author

K. William Gibson is a personal injury lawyer and arbitrator in Clackamas, OR. He is the author of How to Build and Manage a Personal Injury Practice, 2nd Ed. (ABA, 2006).

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