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Preparing for Downsizing: A Career Guide for Lawyers

Kimberly Lerman 04 / 19 / 21

Many organizations today are facing hard decisions about what steps to take to increase the chances of remaining viable during a major economic downturn. One way companies cut costs is by downsizing. As a result, many workers have started to question their job security as the news of layoffs abounds. It’s can be very difficult for employees to keep going about business as usual when the signs of upcoming layoffs become more prevalent – for example, when new projects are put on hold; hiring, spending and salary freezes are implemented; nonessential budgets are cut; executives having more private calls than usual; or there have already been multiple rounds of layoffs. I

It can be easy to feel helpless at this time because regardless of how hard you work and how much you contribute, you may have no control over whether or not you are retained by your employer during tough economic times. There are, however, many things you can do to help prepare for the worst.

Don't underestimate the power of networking for lawyers - if you haven't built a professional network, now is the time to get started.


Smart lawyers continue to perform highly

First and foremost, it is important that you continue to work diligently and perform your job in a highly professional manner. Even though your current performance and behavior aren’t likely to be enough to change a decision that recently has been made based on economic factors, how you handle yourself during this difficult time contributes to your reputation. This is important not just in terms of securing references from your current employer, but also because your professional actions all contribute to your personal brand, or your personal reputation in your professional community, which may stay with you throughout your career.

Looking for a legal job right now?

Brush up your legal résumé

Next, even though you will be hard at work in your current job, it’s best to also take the time to update your résumé and your LinkedIn profile, and put together some template language to use as a basis for cover letters to accompany job applications. That way if you do find yourself in the unfortunate position of being downsized, you will have your resume and cover letter templates ready to go, and your LinkedIn profile will already highlight your skills and legal experience for recruiters to see when they are searching for candidates for new roles.

Legal careers are more flexible than ever: Take time to reflect

Third, if you do find yourself a victim of downsizing, I recommend you immediately file for unemployment insurance, as it can take some time before you will start receiving those benefits. Once that administrative step is complete, then I recommend you take some time to reflect on what you want to do next in your career. Think about what you liked, and disliked the most in your past jobs, and consider whether it’s time to explore the possibility of doing something different.

Contract work can give you the opportunity to try out new roles that you may not have considered previously.

I often speak with lawyers many years after they were laid off, and it’s not uncommon for them to tell me that in hindsight the layoff was a good thing – because it gave them time to focus on their career path. Many of these attorneys changed their professional focus, and are much happier with their career trajectory now than they were with their former career track. If you do find yourself out of work involuntarily, one silver lining is that you will have the time available to reflect on your professional path and to redevelop your career plan.

Networking for lawyers: Don't underestimate relationships

When you are looking for a new job, networking is more important than ever. If you’ve already built a professional network, now is the time to take advantage of the work you did to build it. It’s time to reach out to your contacts to let them know you’re looking for a new job, and make sure they have a current copy of your resume so that they can forward it along to those looking to hire. If you’ve lost touch with many members of your professional network, now is the time to invite them to reconnect, whether for a COVID-safe, socially distanced outdoor lunch or a virtual happy hour (bonus: no travel required).

If you haven’t already built a professional network, now is the time to get started. Think about what types of organizations and events could be most useful for you and then seek out ways to become involved with them. Even though in-person networking events are mostly still on hold right now, you can still focus on putting together a plan so that when social distancing becomes unnecessary, you can get started right away with attending events, seeking out speaking opportunities, and expanding your network. To do this, spend time now thinking about organizations with which you would like become involved to help grow your network; consider professional associations, school and law firm alumni groups, and volunteer opportunities with non-profit organizations. Do some research to figure out which groups will help you connect with the right professionals and then get your name added to their mailing lists and keep an eye out for volunteer opportunities.

Thought leadership for lawyers

When someone is actively searching for a new job, we typically recommend that 80% of their job-search time be spent on in-person networking, but during this global pandemic that isn’t feasible. Since social and professional events are all on hold right now, it is a great time to do a lot of writing instead, and it is very easy to self-publish on LinkedIn. Think about your areas of expertise, how your knowledge may help others with whom you want to connect, and then get to writing. Articles are a great way to showcase your expertise to your network, and you can circulate them via social media and email as a way to keep in contact with and build your network.

Applying for legal jobs

Next, while I usually tell people that many (most) legal jobs are found through networking connections, applying for jobs posted online should also be a component of your job search process. Many jobs are still filled this way, and while the process can be time-consuming and sometimes frustrating, it should be a regular part of your routine. I find it is helpful to subscribe to email distribution lists on websites like Indeed and LinkedIn, and then be sure to monitor those emails regularly so that when new opportunities arise you can apply early. After you submit an online application, be sure to check LinkedIn and your contacts list to see what connections you already have at the company. In addition to going through the hiring company’s online application process, I also recommend that if you can do so, it helps to have someone at the company pass your resume along to the General Counsel or other hiring authority.

Staying sharp with pro bono work

If you wind up in the unfortunate situation of being unemployed involuntarily, consider taking advantage of your free time to do some pro bono work. There are many organizations that provide licensed lawyers and attorneys with opportunities to do pro bono work remotely, and some of them may even provide malpractice insurance and administrative support to cover the work you do through them. In many cities, there are organizations that provide pro bono opportunities geared toward transactional and in-house attorneys, so you may be able to find some opportunities to help non-profits or other charitable entities without needing to draft a pleading or appear in court. Not only can you help support a good cause by doing pro bono work, but it’s also something you can talk about in future job interviews.

Flexible legal talent: Contract work for high-performing lawyers

Finally, consider doing contract legal work during your search for a permanent role. There are many staffing companies that provide the opportunity for seasoned attorneys to do high-level, sophisticated legal work on a contract basis, and some of them may even provide you with benefits such as health insurance. As an added bonus, many contract assignments offer flexible working arrangements so you may be able to continue going on job interviews and attending networking events while also engaging in the practice of law. As another benefit, contract work can give you the opportunity to try out new roles that you may not have considered previously, and this can be helpful as you gather information to decide what career path you want to take going forward. Also, contract legal work could enable you to keep your skills sharp and stay connected with the legal community during your job search. If you’re still not convinced, consider that at times contract roles can lead to permanent employment offers. There are many benefits, and few downsides, to doing contract work during your search for a permanent position.

While we are all hoping for a speedy economic recovery, many organizations still face tough decisions to remain viable. Instead of worrying, spend your time and energy focused on planning and preparing for the possibility that you will need to find new employment, you will then be in a better position if you get the unfortunate news that your job has been eliminated.

Legility is a legal services company providing data hosting and management, technology-enabled services, consulting, flexible legal talent, and managed review services to in-house law departments and law firms. Legility is not, and none of its affiliates are, a law firm and does not provide legal advice as part of its services and nothing contained herein should be construed as such.

Do the best legal work of your life: Search open positions with Legility.

About the author

Kimberly Lerman
Kimberly Lerman

Kimberly Lerman is a Legility Talent Manager in Atlanta. She works primarily with attorneys, placing them in a variety of positions in corporate legal departments across numerous industries as well as at law firms. Prior to the start of her career in recruiting in 2015, Kimberly spent 15 years practicing law in Atlanta, and she was involved in hiring attorneys throughout that time. In her last legal role she served as Vice President & Associate General Counsel for a large company in Atlanta. In addition to seven years of in-house experience, Kimberly also worked as a litigation associate at local law firms, including several years at both King & Spalding and Eversheds Sutherland. Throughout her law firm tenure, Kimberly was involved with interviewing law students and lawyers at job fairs, on-campus interviews and onsite interviews. She also was a member of the Hiring Committee at Eversheds Sutherland from 2005 – 2007. Kimberly currently serves as Co-Chairman of the Duke Atlanta Women’s Forum, and is a Member of the Duke Law Atlanta Board.

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