May 01, 2015

Reviving Your Legal Career in the Wake of Addiction

Ann M. Israel

Back in the go-go 1980s, I had in my attorney search firm an employee—let’s call him David—with a clear and obvious addiction to cocaine. At first I tried to ignore David’s problem. Eventually, however, the addiction took over his life, and I realized it was potentially injurious to my company to let him deal with candidates and clients. I attempted to counsel him and advised him to get outside help, but he was not interested in hearing what I had to say. I had no choice but to terminate his employment for cause.

What would happen to him next? Wouldn’t David need to supply references from where he had worked for the past two and one-half years when he went to apply for a new job? As I had predicted, not that long after I terminated his employment, I received a phone call from a potential employer and was asked to provide references for David. Following legal protocol concerning references, I only verified his dates of employment and compensation. By verifying only these two items and not going any further in terms of what I had to say about him, it was clear I was sending out a signal that I was not endorsing a good reference for this individual.

But here is the good news: David was honest about why he was no longer working for my firm. In the interim, he had received help for his addiction and was now clean and sober. He didn’t dwell on the issue in his interview but he also didn’t lie about the reason for his termination. After much deliberation by the potential employer, David was hired on a probational basis and went on to be successful in pursuing a new career and life.

David’s story has a very happy ending. This is not always the case. Those “bumps in the road” on your résumé may not always be easily explainable or, even if they are, may not be as happily resolved as they were in David’s case.

The face of addiction has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Drug use is not the only form of addiction causing problems and issues on the job, on the résumé, and on job interviews. Addiction can take on many forms. For example, there is now an actual name given to the condition afflicting those people who are addicted to the Internet (a growing issue with employees glued in front of a computer at the job); it is known as pathological Internet use (PIU), which is defined as Internet use that causes a specified number of symptoms, including mood-altering use of the Internet, failure to fulfill major role obligations, guilt, and craving.

Today, there are many other types of addictions—gambling, alcohol, and shopping, just to name a few of the more common types of dependency and compulsivity. Certain types of mental illness, such as depression, can also be the cause of employment gaps. Severe depression can easily leave a person holed up at home and staying out of the job market for long periods of time, thus causing a tremendous employment gap on a résumé.

Addressing Bumps During the Interview

How does one deal with these gaps in employment on an interview? First, the good news: If you are actually getting called in for interviews, this is a clear signal that you have experience in a practice area in demand or need for this particular employer, or that there is something very appealing on your résumé such as past employers, where you went to law school, honors in law school, etc. A call in for an interview would seem to say that the employer will be ready to overlook the employment gap if you are able to explain it in a way that makes sense (and assuming that everything else goes well on the interview).

So, you are called in for the interview but now—and inevitably—you are going to be questioned about this time gap. First and foremost, do not be defensive. The potential employer has every right to ask what happened during this time period. The best approach is to be honest and to the point when explaining the gap but not to dwell on the matter. Address it simply, honestly, and to the point. “I had a personal issue that caused me to be out of work at the time. But that was my past; I have dealt with it, and now the issue no longer exists.”

No matter what the issue was that caused the time gap in your employment, here is the best advice you will ever receive: Do not lie or misrepresent what happened during this time period. You can be sure that if you are not honest about what went on during that period of time and then you do get hired, the truth will eventually come out and the employer will be forced to terminate your employment, causing yet another issue when seeking your next position. There is nothing worse than misrepresenting anything in your history or on your résumé because the truth will always be found out and you will surely be let go immediately.

Of course, it is best to be brief and just address it in the manner above. But what if the employer presses you for details? Again, honesty is not only the best policy . . . it is the only policy. Should the truth then prevent the potential employer from making you a job offer, so be it. Had you not been up front and honest from the beginning, you would have been found out eventually. And sadly, not receiving a callback for further interviews or receiving a job offer is one of the consequences for the behavior that caused the employment gap in the first place.

But instead of focusing on the negative, let’s figure out how to get a hiring partner past your bumps in the road. Exactly where is the light at the end of the tunnel?

Shaping Your Cover Letter and Résumé

With a particularly problematic issue such as an addiction that has caused a large gap in employment, it is advisable not to put everything on a résumé. When certain reasons for that time gap could be viewed in a very unfavorable way, leaving them out of your résumé and briefly discussing these issues in your cover letter might serve you best. In these instances, a chronological résumé is not the way to go. Instead, what is known as a “functional format résumé” is the best layout in presenting your background and experience. A functional format résumé lists your skill sets and accomplishments rather than a chronological listing and description of your present and past employers and experience. You still need to recap your chronological work history, but instead of leading with this information, you will list it at the bottom of the résumé. Hopefully, by the time any potential employer gets to the bottom of the résumé, your experience and skill sets will have enticed the employer enough to bring you in for an interview.

Unfortunately, functional format résumés are not seen in the best light by some hiring partners, and a red flag immediately goes up, signaling that something is being hidden. This is where a very strong, but brief, cover letter might prompt the partner to bring you in for an interview. Again, your explanation for the gap in time must be brief, honest, and to the point; most important of all, you must indicate what you have achieved in changing any negative patterns.

Regrettably, I have learned over the years that employers do not spend much time reading cover letters but instead go directly to the résumé. This most likely is still true; however, when there is a gap between employers, it is a glaring submission on a chronological résumé. Because of this, a functional résumé is still the best way to go—and you must go with the hope that the cover letter is going to be read. Having to submit this type of résumé is yet again one of the consequences of past behavior, but it is really your best option.

Maryann Feldstein, a psychologist practicing in Manhattan, strongly encourages navigating these bumps in the road by being an advocate for yourself. Seek out treatment to help deal with any addiction issues you might be facing, and then do not hesitate to explain how the treatment has helped you overcome these problems. And Feldstein agrees that you cannot deny or try to cover up anything. Background checks or even quick searches on social media by potential employers now reveal just about everything in someone’s background—even something that we want to believe is as confidential as insurance records, which potentially can reveal things such as prescriptions for specific medications or a stay at a rehab clinic.

Focusing Your Job Search

When rebuilding your career following a return to wellness, consider applying to smaller firms and boutiques rather than the AmLaw 200 firms. In the larger firms your résumé and cover letter will most likely go directly to a recruitment office and might very well be thrown into the “circular file” when not perceived as a square peg fitting into a square hole. Unless you have direct access to a hiring partner, this probably is what will happen. Remember, the people in the recruitment offices receive literally hundreds of résumés for a posted opening, and who knows how many unsolicited résumés every day. Therefore, in order to deal with the résumés in the most expedient manner, they only are interested in those that fit the requirements of the job, including a background without any gaps (and presented with a chronological résumé).

Because this generally is the case, when there is some issue in your background that presents itself on a résumé, it only makes sense to apply to smaller firms that can be a bit more flexible—or open-minded—when it comes to accepting some bumps in the road. As I have written throughout this article, this is yet another consequence of past behavior.

Suffering consequences for certain behavioral matters does not have to be a life sentence. Just remember that honesty, a good attitude, and not being defensive when questioned about an issue are the best—and only—ways to deal with these situations. If you are not hired for a specific opportunity because the potential employer cannot deal with your past, move on to the next opportunity. You wouldn’t have wanted to work for that person anyway.

Best wishes to you as you start your life on a new—and smoother—road.


Ann M. Israel

Ann M. Israel is the principal of Ann Israel & Associates, Inc.; the firm is dedicated to serving the attorney search and consulting needs of the legal community.