by Wendy R. Leibowitz
(Published in January/February 2002 issue of
ABA Law Practice Management magazine)
The hardest thing any employer has to do is to fire someone. (No, switching from WordPerfect to Word doesn't come close.) Even during good economic times, someone may have to be let go because of a personality conflict, poor work quality, or their habit of using their office time mainly to make personal calls or to access sports sites on the Internet. It happens.
The trouble is, lawyers and law firms usually don't handle people very well, and they handle employment terminations terribly. Poorly-handled terminations cause unnecessary disruption in a legal practice, causing morale to plummet among the employees you'd like to keep. At best, poor management practices can adversely affect recruitment and reputation. At worse, hurt feelings can cause someone to threaten to sue for wrongful termination, or to actually sue (they're unemployed--what else do they have to do?) And how can lawyers counsel clients about business strategies and techniques if we can't begin to put our own houses in order?
The current economic climate seems to indicate that some of your best friends may be fired soon from a law firm near you. It pays to be classy in all aspects of a business. Some people, particularly lawyers, need to be taught how to be classy, and then they can improve their own employment practices and help their clients to do so. Here are a few pointers:
1. Firings should be done personally, on a one-to-one basis, with a clear, preferably written explanation of what benefits the person can expect after they leave your employ.
I'm ashamed to have to write this, but never, ever fire anyone by e-mail.
People who leave your firm will talk a lot about your firm. And if they're out of a job, they'll have a lot of time to do so--on e-mail lists, Web sites, to competitors, etc. Two people should meet privately with the person who's being let go, preferably outside normal working hours, to minimize gossip. Let the person vent--about the unfairness of it all, about how you stink like all lawyers. There may be tears and threats--ignore them at this stage. Inform the person, preferably in writing, about what they still have: any severance; their 401 (k) plans (an amazing number of fired people think they forfeit their retirement funds if they are fired). Explain how to continue health-care coverage and how to apply for unemployment; and, if remotely possible, provide the name of someone who will serve as a reference for the person in their search for future employment. It's in everyone's interest for the fired person to get another job as quickly as possible and move on with life. Any support you can provide, such as a letter of recommendation and access to telephone messages from outside the office, goes a long way.
Here's an excerpt from a newsletter called Partner's Report, at www.ioma.com, about a firm that handled it right. Fifty-six administrative employees had to be let go from a mid-size firm because of a merger.
"The firm's HR director and managing partner met individually with the laid-off employees before a firm wide announcement was made. The firm also set up an outplacement team, headed by a recruitment management who was among those laid off, to coordinate training, counseling, and support. This team helped place 27 of the employees by mid-May. Among the steps it took were sending bios on laid-off employees and letters of recommendation to 2,000 clients; establishing a career center so displayed employees could look for job leads and work on resumes; creating a binder in the career center with clippings from newspaper classifieds and other job leads; and offering lunch-and-learn sessions on interview skills, salary negotiations, and resume building."
If this is too much, at least let fired employees use their work telephone extensions (to access messages from outside the office). This will allow them to keep up the appearance of having a job and can make it easier to land work, get on with their life and say nice things about you. It is a small expense to the firm and pays off (after a while, when the hurt subsides) in gratitude.
Don't Do What the Dot-Coms Did
Sadly, the dot-com industries, which were going to reinvent the workplace, seem to have invented the cruelest ways of terminating people. Last spring, as your bankruptcy practice picked up, the following occurred, according to the March 18, 2001 issues of the New York Times:
If you counsel the high-tech industry, or any company with young people in management positions who are facing their first economic downturn, explain the importance of treating people decently. You can actually garner a good reputation during down times by doing the right thing. During the last Bush recession of the early '90s, some law firms laid off dozens of young people in December, some of whom they had just hired in September. Some of these firms pretended that the firings were based on performance. But the New York office of Latham & Watkins not only let people use their work telephone numbers while hunting for jobs, but gave letters of recommendation to all of its terminated associates, explaining that the associate was highly regarded, but that economic conditions required that the firm let them go. Ten years later, people remember that consideration.
2. See if part-time, flex-time, or voluntary time-off options are possible.
When business dries up, some law firms only consider firing people to save money. But it's impossible to downsize your way to greatness. If the people are those you'd like to keep if you only had the money, offer a part-time arrangement or an unpaid three-month long vacation. Some people, particularly young people, might jump at the offer.
It does pay to keep in touch and on good terms with employees whom you'd like to keep if you could only afford to. One large Manhattan firm laid off dozens of associates and support staff in an abrupt, cruel manner that was typical of layoffs at law firms ten years ago. About two weeks after everyone had left, the firm landed a huge client and had to scramble for contract lawyers while they interviewed for new associates. They looked like inhuman dopes. The laid-off employees were delighted to ridicule the firm in lengthy telephone conversations (e-mail was not then in widespread use). Ten years later, people like me who had a friend laid off there are still talking about it. One of the terminated employees, who now has his own business, says he will never refer business to his old firm.
3. Do provide a reference if the person deserves it.
There was a trend during the last Bush recession of the early '90s to refuse to provide a reference for fired employees, for fear of liability from a future employer ("You said she could type.") Despite one or two highly-celebrated cases, the spate of lawsuits based on overblown recommendations never materialized. Obviously, if someone has been fired for stealing, or for gross misconduct, no recommendation is appropriate, and if contacted you can just confirm dates of employment and say that it's not your policy to provide a recommendation. But otherwise, find someone at the firm who can say something nice about the person and the tasks and assignments he or she handled well. First, it's honest. Second, if people need you for a recommendation, they are less likely to bad-mouth you or your firm in any medium.
I wonder if lawyers have learned anything since the recession of ten years ago. Sadly, I fear most law firms will not treat people decently when firing them. This is mostly due to lack of management skills, which can be learned, or the lack of a firm procedure for terminating people, since no one wants to face the matter. (If we just don't deal with the issue of firing people, maybe they'll just go away by themselves). I remember one excellent paralegal at my old firm who was fired the day a trial on which she had worked had ended. A junior partner, who was particularly clueless, turned to her and said, "Do you want to leave now, or wait until the end of the day?" He caught hell later from senior partners, but the damage had been done and she did not return to the firm. The rest of us were shocked and started our resumes circulating.
There's a saying that you haven't lived until you've been fired at least twice. Well, if this is true, a lot of folks are doing a lot of living lately. Let's try to soften the blow by following decent firing practices that respect people's dignity.
Some have said that it's "thin soup" to those who are fired with dignity-- they're still out of a job. But the soup comes in many different flavors, and the legal world can be small. E-mail and message boards on the Web make it seem smaller still. It pays to be decent, and if you are, word will slowly get 'round. If you're not, word will spread like wildfire.