Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

A Bad Review

with 8 comments

Total Black: $88.02
Total Red: $229,287.77

Of late I’ve taken to sporadically checking Above the Law, a legal gossip blog tailored mostly to corporate law firm culture and climate.  Once upon a time I scanned it religiously, especially during times of law firm unrest: layoffs and firm shamings, bonus season, and even when salary increases were being announced way back in 2007.  Crazy days of youth it seems now.  But today as I glanced at the site during an electronic stroll, I spotted an article about law firm reviews that took me back to my earlier days at the law firm and when I received my annual review.

Reading about a bad review on The People’s Therapist prompted me to come clean today.  See, I was slated to be let go before the firm started lay-offs.  Three months before I was laid-off, the firm pulled four associates aside, sat us down, and told three of us that we had until the end of the year to find a new home.  The fourth associate, whom a stern warning was given, was my officemate.  The two of us along with another of the soon-to-be-let-go associates were all working on the same project reviewing documents in an internal conference room.  So, naturally when I announced my confusion to the room that partner so-and-so, someone with whom I’d not worked yet, had just called me and asked me to stop by his office, and then when the other person in the room reported a similar call—well we all put two and two together and started looking about the room for that ax.  Once our fears were confirmed—for all but my officemate—we suspected that perhaps calling my former officemate in for a meeting was really a “save face” move by the partners after they realized their colossal blunder by not checking on what projects the three soon-to-be-laid-off associates were working on before scheduling us all for impromptu back-to-back meetings in to the same office with the same two partners on the same day.  I saw who was in the office before me and who was waiting to go in after me.  It really doesn’t require much in the mental skill-set department to become a partner apparently.

At any rate, needless to say—I was devastated by the news.  The hours I devoted to that firm, the time spent living abroad, the lost relationships (friends and lovers), the missed holidays, the sleepless nights.  Devastated.  Just devastated.  Devastated is the only word to describe just how . . . devastated I was.  And ashamed.  I felt like I had failed my law school, my family, perhaps even my colleagues.  I didn’t consider having failed myself.  My suspicion that I didn’t really belong there and that somehow my surreptitious sneak into the law firm had finally been discovered.  I was a traitor.  A stow-away.  All my inner fears were vomited up on the floor for them to see.

A year prior, I received a mid-year review: something the firm did for first-year associates part-way through their first year.  A chance to learn how you’re doing generally and whether you were on track or not.  I was told I was doing well, was on track, and was given great praise—curious how these reviews tend to be so general when it comes to the positive feedback and so specific with the negative.  The firm prided itself, nay beat its chest in boasting praise, about its efforts to solicit constructive (read: negative) feedback as well.  So, I was also told that I needed to work on time-management skills and that I should work on my self-confidence.  Self-confidence?  Yes, it struck me too.  There I was, a six-month associate who had spent the bulk of that time worrying whether I passed the bar and adjusting to a completely new climate.  And roughly two months after starting, I was sent abroad to work in one of the firm’s European offices, forced to acclimate to an entirely new pace and office culture.  Anyone with self-confidence in their first year at a law firm is really masking fake bravado.  For me, I was just trying to get things down pat.  In retrospect, I don’t know how that passed as any sort of constructive criticism.  It still befuddles me.  Self-confidence comes in part from repetition and knowing that you’re doing things right.  It’s a matter of time, literally.  The firm would have done more for my self-confidence by not telling me I needed more of it.

Six months later came annual reviews.  This time, I was again told that I needed to work on time-management but that I also needed to improve my writing.  Time management is something everyone struggles with, especially in this ADHD age.  But law firms are notoriously inefficient behemoths, saddled with the gross mismanagement of time.  It’s laughable that I was given that as feedback, but of course I took it seriously.  My mistake, I suspect, was not that I didn’t work more quickly or more efficiently but instead that I honestly reported—and honestly believed the firm during our orientation when they told us to report—our time as we worked it.  “If you worked it, bill it.  Don’t cut your time,” we were told.  I suspect other, more “successful” game-players didn’t follow that directive.  I did.  What’s more, much of the work I had during the six months subsequent to the mid-year review involved managing a document review project.  In effect, babysitting.  How can that time have been managed more efficiently?  The hours were set each day from open till close and I billed for the time I sat there.  So it was a nonsequitor of sorts.  And, besides all that, I received a full-bonus, minus the special bonuses firms were handing out that year.  In that typical monkey-see-monkey-do style, my law firm announced it too would be handing out what was dubbed “special” bonuses that year—one-time lump-sum bonuses stacked on top of our yearly bonus, purportedly because the law firm did well that year.  It did.  Internationally we were one of the highest firms for gross revenue.  But the firm, I suspect, didn’t really pay out that bonus.  They announced they would, but didn’t.  Or at least I didn’t receive it at any rate.  Many people I learned didn’t get even their annual bonus or not all of it.  And if bonuses equated to work performance, then more of it should have been withheld to truly send the message that I was not up to snuff.  If that were the case.  But, like a good little boy, I took the assessment to heart and did my best to improve and to show them I was listening.  I met with the firm’s external writing coach.  Twice.  He said my writing was excellent.  Everyone has room to improve, but he didn’t spot anything that set off alarm bells or raised flags, of whichever color you choose.  That jives with my experience: I received an A in all but one writing class I took in law school, oftentimes the highest grade in the class too.  In the other class I earned a B+.

Times got tough.  Work dried up.  I took on that pro bono case I’ve mentioned repeatedly in prior posts.  And it consumed much of my time.  Won me recognition from the New York Legal Aid Society as well.  None of that mattered to the firm though.  When it came time to start addressing the holes in the sinking ship, me and the two others mentioned above were the first to go.  Well, no that’s not accurate.  Weeding had already begun at the more senior associate levels.  People were off on maternity leave and then didn’t return.  Or they soon lateraled somewhere else.  And all along, printers or photocopiers or styrofoam cups started disappearing.  The firm had brought in “The Bobs”—well, just one Bob, I suppose.  Or Roberta actually.  She kept eliminating surplusage all over the firm.  As well she should have, until she got to me.

During that final review, the two partners I met with informed me that I hadn’t improved on the feedback I’d been given at my annual review some eight months earlier and so I had until the end of the year to find a new job because it just “wasn’t working out.”  As if we had been in a relationship and they’d lost that lovin’ feeling.  They offered me all the firm’s resources and suggested checking if one of the firm’s clients would be willing to bring me in-house—which got me wondering why the firm would consider passing me on to a client if they didn’t want me around themselves.  Guess they don’t think too highly of their clients if they wanted to hand over their own sloppy seconds.  And that’s when I started to smell a rat.  See, I hadn’t really billed time to anything but the pro bono case.  Despite making myself available for work.  There just wasn’t much to go around.  So, who was assessing how much I had improved if I hadn’t really worked for anyone.  And when I pressed a bit further, trying to understand—truly understand—what it is I wasn’t doing well and how I could improve generally speaking—for my career development—the partner who conducted the meeting gave examples: that I made the partners uncomfortable, that they didn’t want to work with me.  He also told me that I was fidgety—and he then proceeded to shift around in his chair to demonstrate.  Fidgety?  Yes, fidgety.  He also let slip that I had the lowest hours of the department.  When I asked if that included my pro bono hours he stammered and stumbled over his words and changed the subject.  Clearly this was about saving money.  The firm saw the coming storm and was stopping leaks.  But at the time I couldn’t see that.  I was too focused on the break-up.  And that partner’s fidgety comment; it prayed on my mind for weeks, so much so that I sought the analysis of a psychiatrist for ADHD, which he subsequently diagnosed me with.  My internal jury is still out on the accuracy of that diagnosis, but it wouldn’t totally surprise me (and would jive with the time-management assessment if it were valid feedback).  But the assessment occurred too quickly for my taste: forty-five minutes.

Two months later it came as no surprise when the firm informed me that I was being laid-off and had four days to clear out, this time along with a number of other associates.  They also let me know they had decided to include me, and the two mentioned above, in with this new group even though we had been talked to months earlier and told something different.  Uh-huh.  Sure.  They were being generous, you see, by lumping us in with the others, thus giving us a severance package as well whereas previously we didn’t get that lil’ perk.  I suppose that point is true enough though because I was actually happy about that news, as were the two others, I’m sure.  Instead of just collecting a paycheck until the end of the year, we were now freed of having to report to work every morning and now were getting severance on top of it.

I’ve not shared this experience with many people, including many of my colleagues—whether current, former, or formerly current—because I was embarrassed by these reviews.  Especially the “self-confidence” comment.  How demoralizing to tell a man that he needs more self-confidence.  I understand.  No one wants to send a bunch of Eeyore associates to meet with clients.  Not very impressive.  But I hadn’t been assessed for client interaction and I had had a lot of by the time I was laid-off.  Instead this comment came in the context of assignments and actually referred to the mistaken view that I was not confident in the results of my research whereas I was really trying to vet whether the associate had thought it through.  I tend to see many more permutations of facts and law than others.  But people often don’t want to know variables.  They just want to be told, “I looked into what you asked and this is the answer.”  I’d want to be told, “I looked into what you asked and here are the three scenarios if x, y, and/or z happened.”  The problem was that I had mistakenly assumed that the law firm had my back and was actually interested in grooming me.  I believed that they cared about my career development and wanted to mentor me.  If they said my time management skills needed brushing up or my writing needed improvement, then I took it to heart and worked on bettering myself.  And if they were breaking up with me, then it meant I wasn’t good enough.

But once their input began to clash with facts on the ground, once that fishy began to smell, that’s when my brow furrowed and my inner Pooh said, “Think.  Think.  Think.” And by the time we all were laid-off, I realized that I had just been another victim of the Great Recession.  Because, truth be told, in times of plenty, when there were mountains and mountains of billable hours to go around, no one really cared about how efficient you were.  Even contract attorneys know that.  Efficiency only matters, sadly, in times of lean.

That post by The People’s Therapist really got me thinking back on this today and it made me realize that I’m not unique.  Others have shared similar stories: everything’s going well for them, they seem to be doing fine at the firm, then—wham!, they’re being told the exact opposite in their “reviews” and a paper trail is being developed to back-up the firm’s assessment of your development should the associate want to sue.

So yes . . . the truth is, I was let go before I was laid-off.  What of it?  It did hurt then.  And it can still sting now when I think back on it.  Maybe because it smarts a bit to think I couldn’t fit in somewhere.  But no one fits in everywhere.  And frankly I’m better because of the whole experience because I learned what constructive feedback really is, how to better manage and lead a group of people, and got the chance to further hone my skills—and may have learned of an actual disability.  All because of a bad review.  So don’t be afraid to meet that bad review head on.  We all have something to improve upon.  It might mean that you’re not fit for that firm, but then again, would you really want to work there if they don’t want you around?  I sure didn’t.  And in that sense, it was a good review.  I didn’t fit in there.  Firms have got that much down pat.  They know their own culture and can spot the fish that swims upstream versus those that go with the flow.

Personally, I never go with the flow.  Just not my thing.

8 Responses

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  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    Heather

    February 25, 2010 at 10:27

  2. terrific post, I’m glad you shared this.

    the folks at that firm screwed with your head and with everyone else who actually took “feedback” at face value. they were cruel and deceptive. while the paycheck is nice (and important), being “let go” by people like that is a reflection of them, not you.

    govtlawyer

    February 25, 2010 at 11:38

  3. Thank you for sharing that. And you’re right. Ultimately, it was their loss as much as yours.

    Jim in Chicago

    February 25, 2010 at 13:35

  4. This reminds me of my own review experience. I got four reviews from attorneys more senior than me…. that I had worked on one project with. 3 were raving… and one was HORRID. How could I do so good a job and so bad a job on the same project. In retrospect, I feel the review was planted so I could be let go for cause. It had no merit.

    Whatever.

    Angel the Lawyer

    February 25, 2010 at 14:09

  5. I remember reading about these practices back in 2002. Thus, I am a little surprised that this did not cross your mind. Does no one discuss these issues?

    Craig

    February 25, 2010 at 18:57

  6. Sometimes it good NOT to fit in. Yes, it hurts now but as you growm older you will be glad you did not fit in a NEST OF VIPERS – which is what most law firms are. It takes a certain personality to fit in these places. Warm people with consciences never do well here. It’s true. Don’t worry – there are many good things out there for you. You sound like an alive small-town person – the glacial environs of a large corporate law firm may not be fer you. Lots of reptiles there.

    Ladybug

    February 28, 2010 at 00:13

  7. p.s. don’t worry about the bad reviews. Once the partners have decided they do not want certain “personalities” – people that make them uncomfortable because of their conscience, lifestyle, not looking like them – they pick anything to get you out. I wouldn’t lay too much store by their review.

    Ladybug

    February 28, 2010 at 00:15

  8. Very good post. You really bared your soul. And it takes a lot of courage even though you are anonymous.

    Prince Michael III

    February 28, 2010 at 16:52


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