As anyone who’s been fired knows, being fired is difficult to deal with. It’s not at all like quitting. Well, maybe they’re just a bit alike in that both involve you no longer having your job. But, that’s where the similarity ends. Quitting is proactive. It’s freeing. It’s liberating. It’s you telling your boss to “take this job and shove it.”
Being fired is not like that at all.
It’s not proactive. It’s not freeing. It’s not liberating. It’s your boss telling you to “shove it.” Being fired is being victimized. Someone with power over you is controlling you and telling you what to do. And, what they’re telling you to do is “get the hell out.” It doesn’t matter how nice they say it. It doesn’t matter if they tell you that you’re an awesome person and that you’re not really being fired, you’re just being laid off for financial reasons that have nothing to do with you.
That’s nonsense. The reasons have everything to do with you. Somebody somewhere in the hierarchy (not necessarily the Angel of Doom who has given you the pink slip) decided that you are expendable for whatever reason or reasons. So, you’re out. You don’t get a say. It’s not open to debate. You’re just fired. So get your box of stuff, get to stepping and don’t let the door hit you in the behind on the way out.
I know this sounds harsh. I know this sounds bleak. I know this sounds like I’m comparing being fired to being the victim of a crime. Well, if you’ve been fired you know – that’s what it feels like. You feel like a crime was committed. You feel like your boss just mugged you and stole your dignity and your confidence. Oh, and while he or she was at it, they stole your income, your benefits, and your standing amongst your colleagues. And, then for good measure, he or she took a sledgehammer and went to work on your resume.
You think I’m kidding? You think I’m exaggerating? Then, you’ve never been fired. Because let me tell you from personal experience – from the perspective of someone who’s been fired and/or laid off from 4 different law firms – as much as you hate being a lawyer, as much as you may loathe the office, your clients, your colleagues, the judge, and 28 U.S.C. sections 1 through infinity, you still identify yourself as “a lawyer.” It is what you are and who you are. It shapes how you absorb information, how you process that information and how you react. It defines you to others. You may not want to acknowledge this, but if you’ve been practicing law for more than 3 seconds, you know I’m right. And, when you get fired, all of a sudden someone – someone other than you – has cast this all into doubt. Someone – without asking your permission or getting your authorization – fired you and in so doing has taken action so clear and decisive and surgical that you are left to wonder “Am I a lawyer any more? Am I capable of being a lawyer? Am I good enough to be a lawyer?” You are left feeling shaken and abused and, quite possibly, in shock. All the same feelings that victims of actual crimes – such as muggings and robberies and burglaries – feel. I know, because I was mugged once too.
And, the part about your resume? Well, as much as being fired is an assault against your person, it’s also an assault on your property—i.e., your resume and your career. It’s no different than if someone rammed your car or blasted your house with a bazooka. Not convinced? Okay, then you try explaining a 6-month absence from the labor force to a legal industry employer. You try explaining why your resume has this gaping hole between your last job and the one you’re currently applying for. It’s no different than trying to convince a potential home-buyer that they should “nevermind the termites” or explaining to a prospective car-buyer that the car you’re trying to sell to them works fine, even though the hood is crushed in, and the fender seems to be touching the wheel.
So what do you do when you’ve been fired? Unlike victims of actual crimes, you can’t go to the police. There’s not going to be a perp walk or lineup where they bring in your boss, and you get to finger the bastard who did this to you. There’s not going to be a Law and Order episode that is eerily reminiscent of what just happened to you (unless that episode involves a lawyer being fired).
So, again, what do you do? Where do you turn? How do you pick up the pieces and move on with your life? Do you pick up the pieces and move on with your life?
If you’ve ever been fired, you know that knowing what to do next is not easy. Being fired is a shocking event. And, your system needs time to process that shock. Thing is, no two people react to this kind of shock in exactly the same way. Some people become giddy. Some people fall into a deep depression For others, it’s red-hot rage. Others still, try to avoid confronting the pain by drinking, doing drugs and/or engaging in other potentially addictive and potentially self-destructive behavior. Me, personally, I did a little of all of that. First time I was fired, I was devastated. I yelled. I screamed. I cried. I threatened people with bodily harm (though never when I was in their presence because I was too much of a chicken to do that). I drank too much. And, I went on a skirt-chasing binge that was only mildly successful, but was extraordinarily expensive and entertaining to everyone but me (except when I was drunk, when it seemed like some sort of adventure, even when I struck out).
In the end, after I went through all that, I had nothing much to show for all that flailing about. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have an income. I didn’t have confidence in myself. And, I didn’t have a clue as to what to do with the rest of my career, such as it was.
And, you know what? That’s an okay place to be. It’s a difficult and painful and lonely place to be, but, at the same time, it’s still an okay place to be. Being forced to look into the abyss isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes you need to stare into the gaping metaphysical maw, face your fears, and ask yourself the really difficult questions: “Who am I? What do I enjoy? What makes my life worth living? What do I really want to do with my life? Am I prepared to make compromises, and, if so, which ones am I prepared to make?”
There are many other questions as well. Those are but a few.
But, it’s important to answer them. All too often, we lawyers don’t. We cruise through grammar school, junior high, high school, and college, never asking what we’re doing, why we’re doing it or whether we like it. We just know we’re supposed to do well in school. And, then there you are, senior year of college with not a clue of what to do, so you take the LSATs and apply to law school, figuring that you’ll figure it all out during those 3 more years of school, and even if you don’t, there’s no real harm, because a law degree will always come in handy.
And, all that time, not once did you stop and think: “Is this what I really want for myself, for my life?” And, by the time you figure out it’s not, it’s too late. You’re $100K in debt (or more), you’ve gotten used to a certain income, and you’ve grown accustomed to having a secretary and a staff of paralegals (not to mention junior associates) to boss around. Then along comes Joe Partner, and he fires you. BAM! And, now you’re out there in the cold with nothing, and you don’t even know who you are or what you want because you never stopped for one second to ask.
So, now’s the time. Yes, it’s true. You’ve just been mistreated. You’ve just been victimized. You’ve just been mugged. It’s awful, and it’s terrible, and feeling sorry for yourself feels pretty damn good right now.
But, I’ll tell you something – crying doesn’t put money in your pocket or bread on the table. Moping isn’t attractive to people you want to date. Lying in bed staring out the window wondering whether you’re more depressed than Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath won’t get you another job or a career you enjoy. And, none of it will make you feel happy or fulfilled or glad to be alive.
So, take a deep breath. Get up. Put on your shoes and take a long, brisk walk alone (and without wearing your iPod) and think about you. Take as long as you need. ou certainly don’t need to worry about getting to work on time. You’ve been fired, for pete’s sake, so time is one thing you do have.
Just walk and think. Don’t force it. Don’t get down. Just ask questions. If you don’t have the answers immediately, don’t worry. They’ll come. Just keep walking, breathing, thinking. Open your mind. Think outside the box. Don’t limit yourself to “what’s realistic” or “affordable” or “do-able.” Be bold. Be daring. Be unafraid. Keep reminding yourself that you get one shot at this life, and it’s entirely within your power to have as good or bad time as you want to have. Think about what you would advise someone else if they were in your shoes. Eventually, the answer to “what comes next” will come to you. It may not come in one neatly-packaged box. But, more often than not, there is an “a-ha” moment.
Second, after the initial moment of crisis has passed and the worst of the pain has ebbed slightly, sit down and look over your bank account and your expenses. Figure out what you need to get by till you get your thoughts together and you decide on your next move. If your expenses are very high, ask yourself whether there are some things you can do away with (at least in the short term). If you have some immediate financial needs that can’t wait, ask yourself whether there are available contract positions or other temporary jobs you might be able to obtain just to meet these immediate needs. Don’t worry if the temporary position isn’t glamorous or isn’t your dream job. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a pit-stop, something to just tide you over. If you have enough money saved to pay your bills without having to get a temporary job, and you’re comfortable living off of savings, by all means do so. You need the time for yourself.
In the meantime, and I mean this as the voice of experience and with sincerity and genuine affection for anyone facing this situation – remember that you are not alone. There are many, many people out there who’ve gone through what you’re going through, and many of them have gone on to have amazing careers that they absolutely love. Sometimes, they go on to enjoy fabulous careers not as lawyers but as something else, as I can attest. Because the key to coping with being fired it to remember most importantly and above all else — being fired is the end of a job, it’s not the end of your life.
I wish you great happiness and much success. And, if you’d care to share your experience with me or with the readers of Lawyerist, please do write in.
Originally published on September 1, 2011 and updated on July 18th, 2019