Impey Biggs

Confessions of a Non-Networker: Layoffs

My post this month does not cover the topic I planned to write about. You may remember that one of my proposed networking goals last month was to return to my law school for a two-day event. I did that in mid-February, and really enjoyed catching up with my friends who practice near the law school. It was interesting to talk about our practices and realize that "big city" law firms have many of the same issues for associates as firms in smaller cities – finding mentors, how to stay active when work is slow, developing client relationships, etc.

However, while I was away visiting something happened at my firm that caused me to think about networking in a quite different light. Actually, when these events unfolded I was not thinking about "networking" at all.

February's (Unplanned) Networking Resolution: Learn How to Respond to Layoffs.

This month, a group of paralegals were fired from our office.

That may not sound like an astounding event in today’s economy, but it astounded me. Our office did not lay off any attorneys or groups of staff in 2008, and things are busier now than they were in 2008. So the layoffs came out of the blue. My secretary came into my office when I returned from my trip to tell me about it. She did not know any details, only that all of the after hours paralegal staff had been laid off the evening I left for my trip.

This group of people- six in all - worked on proofreading, cite-checking, and any other night time needs to support the firm. Each of these staff persons had been with the firm for literally decades. Many times I had talked about their work and the magical way things appeared on my desk – flawless and ready to file - after a night with these paralegals. I bragged about our after hours staff to my friends at other firms, who had nothing similar. If you ever read "The Tailor of Gloucester" as a child – a story where little mice come in the night and magically finish sewing a new coat for the mayor because the tailor is sick - that is how I felt about the after hours staff. If you were on trial, they would take care of overnight exhibits and proofread trial motions. If you were compiling an appellate brief with edits from nine different people, they would make sure it was flawless. Not only that, but after working with these paralegals on more than one all-nighter, I never once heard them complain or lose patience.

Who Do You Talk To?

When my secretary told me the news, I could not process the information. I was busy catching up from my absence. There were calls to make and questions from partners that needed answers. But when I was home later that evening, talking to my spouse, it hit me that I was incredibly sad for these six people - suddenly unemployed in a tough economy after all those years with the firm. I was upset by how it had been handled. I decided that I would call my practice group leader the next day to find out more information.

Although the head of our office staff handled the firings, I don’t know him at all. I do know my practice group leader, and I assumed she was part of the decision-making process. Though I am normally nervous about meeting with our practice group leader, it did not occur to me to be nervous about this because I wanted to talk to someone.

So, I called our practice group leader and explained that I was very surprised and saddened to hear about the after hours staff, and asked whether she had the time to meet and talk about it. To her credit, she carved out the time to meet that day and gave me a bird’s eye view into some of the more mundane aspects of running the office. She explained that the utilization hours for our after hours staff had been very low for the past four years. Also, none of the other satellite offices in the firm maintained an after hours paralegal staff. It basically came to the point where we could not justify the cost. She also explained how the work flow would still accommodate night-time needs. After this meeting, I had a better understanding as to why the decision was necessary. And that helped.

On the other hand, I still felt very bad for the people. I wanted to do something to let these paralegals know how much I appreciated their work. But what?

My first concern was whether any of the paralegals would want to hear from me, or for that matter, from anyone at the firm. After all, they had been fired by the firm. I could not picture a telephone call being anything but awkward. But, it just seemed wrong for these people, people I had worked with, to slip away without any acknowledgement. I decided that I would send each of them a thank you card. That way, if they were angry and didn’t want to hear from anyone they could tear it up and put it in the trash. On the other hand, maybe it would be nice for them to know that they were not forgotten.

What Do You Say?

First, I had to get home addresses for each of the paralegals from our human resources department. That was easy enough. Then, I went to a Papyrus store to pick out six different thank you cards. I love card shopping so that was easy as well.

Then, I hit a roadblock. What was I going to say? It was surprisingly difficult to formulate my thoughts. A card with a thought like "Thanks for all your work and I can’t believe you were laid off!" did not exactly seem uplifting. When something bad happens to a colleague, like getting fired, the desire to reach out is at least equal to the desire not to create an uncomfortable situation. And it’s not exactly clear how to accomplish the first goal, without fomenting the other.

In the end, I wrote a very brief note to each person. I thanked them for their work on various cases. I said that they were missed, and that we all felt the loss of their skill and support. I asked them to stay in touch and told them they could always count on me for a great reference. Then, with some trepidation, I mailed the cards. I am so glad I did it, because I needed to acknowledge their work and say farewell.

The results? Two people emailed me to say thanks. We agreed to stay in touch and now I have their email addresses to do so. Another sent me an invitation via Linked-in so we can stay in touch that way. One person called to ask if I would write a letter of reference for a graduate program – which I was glad to do. All four paralegals who responded were glad to hear from me. I have not heard anything from the other two paralegals, but that is all right. Maybe someday they will want to reach out, and if they do, they know I will respond.

February Resolution Conclusion

I was not thinking about networking when I sent out these thank you cards. I just wanted to treat my former colleagues with the respect they deserved, and to let them know I appreciated them. It wasn’t until I received the Linked-In invitation from one paralegal that it hit me – staying in touch with people who are laid off is networking, too. I hope I do not have any more reasons to send out similar thank you cards this year, but if so, I will not hesitate to reach out.

Also, I encourage you, if you have colleagues who have been laid off, to think about how you can network with them as well.

Possible Upcoming Resolutions:

Schedule one lunch a week with legal professionals not at my firm.

Try to meet five new people at a professional lunchtime event.

Create a list of my professional contacts and email, call, or write three people from that list every week.

Attend a networking event…without a buddy.

Propose and present a CLE program.

2 Comments

Peg

I definately don’t want to sound harsh but your post has made me want to remind  you to also network internally.  It is said so often that it is almost cliche but associates have two sets of clients—your clients that use your legal services and pay the firm for it by the hour and partners and senior attorneys within your office that also use your legal services.  It is important to maintain relationships with each of these existing client bases and then, of course, you must also network outside of these groups to get more of the sort of clients that pay.
In order to network among your internal clients, you’ve got to get out of your office, get to lunch meetings, attend after hours "social" events and generally be seen.  You are probably already doing internal networking but if not, I hope that your need to get comfort regarding the layoffs wasn’t one of the only times you’ve had something to talk to your practice group leader about.  You said that you are usually nervous to talk to the practice group leader, which makes me think that this may not have been the best thing to require their attention on if your interactions are limited. 
Now this will sound harsh, but one of the things that makes partners crazy is associates that feel entitled to anything from them.  This sense of entitlement is partly a generational issue and also partly due to organizations that fuel it like abovethelaw and NALP.

Impey Biggs

Peg-
Thanks for your candid comments- it made me realize that I should have been more clear about the source of my nervousness in talking to my practice group leader. I actually work closely with her on a couple cases so we have regular contact. My nervousness stemmed from that fact that I am nervous talking to her about “personal” issues as opposed to work.  I was not asking “Why did you fire these people?” but “Can I just talk to you about the night staff? I am really bummed that they were let go.” Her response was generous and helpful.
 

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