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How to Own Your Career Transition

HR Column
P erhaps it is not surprising that there are no aggregate statistics for how many in-house lawyers were laid off in the past decade. If not you, lawyers you know may have had this experience. Gone are days when legal departments were immune to market forces that affect the rest of the corporation. Headlines reveal the calamities of prominent law firms, while some companies quietly dismiss lawyers as they close their doors. So, what do you do when you are the lawyer at the wrong end of a dismissal?

Be still and listen

Companies vary in handling layoffs. While all must comply with the law (which can differ greatly by country), employers have latitude in defining policies that determine layoffs. Even if you knew, or should have known, the end was near, the shock of reality can be overwhelming. Notwithstanding, be still and listen closely to the terms of your severance package. Areas covered can include:

•    Your last day in the office, compared to your last day on the payroll, including any garden leave if your country provides it;
•    Whether you must assist during the transition period;
•    Whether severance payout is in lump sum or installments;
•    Treatment of unused paid time off and potential bonus payouts;
•    Restrictive covenants;
•    Insurance, unemployment compensation, and outplacement services;
•    Terms of any settlement release you must sign to receive your severance; or,
•    Return of company property and collection of personal property.

Pay attention to what you are being offered, and ask questions. Then review the package, compare it to the policies in your corporate handbook, consider what you really need (besides your job back, of course), and plan a clearheaded negotiation strategy. If you live in a country that offers Works Councils or are covered by requirements such as WARN, you may receive longer notice periods and more due process.

Cross the bridge gently

This is it! The time you can finally let your good-for-nothing employer have it. Right? Wrong! Nail your tongue to the roof of your mouth if that’s what it takes. On the other side of this layoff, you are leaving behind friends and colleagues you still like and respect, and you might encounter other employees who have left the company.
Never burn bridges. If the bridge explodes, let it not be because you lit the match.
People watch you most closely when you aren’t expected to be nice. Whatever you do in that moment will forever define you in their minds. Never mind how wronged you feel; colleagues who could otherwise assist you will shrink away if they perceive you to be angry, bitter, and negative.

In the life that follows your transition, you will likely encounter some of your former colleagues and be surprised who turns into a friend or reference. No matter how tempting, you will be happy you didn’t burn those bridges. A helpful strategy is not to focus on where you are right now; rather, look ahead one to five years, and decide how to chart a path you won’t regret.

Decide how you'll react

Owning your transition is about recognizing that regardless of what happens to you, only you choose how to respond, and you are no one’s victim. Choices that may present themselves in your period of transition include:

Career transition chart

As isolating as unemployment feels, remember that you’re not alone. As of March, the unemployment rates in Europe ran as high as 20.6 percent in Greece and 16.1 percent in Spain. Twenty percent of US workers were laid off in the last five years. Connect with others who are going through the same experience. Groups like the ACC In-Transition program can provide networking opportunities and moral support at reduced membership rates. Be sure to help others before, during, and after your transition. Your contacts may provide valuable opportunities for someone else.

About the Author

Spiwe L. JeffersonSpiwe L. Jefferson is general counsel of ChristLight Productions Ltd., LLC, Patron Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and board secretary and legal advisor to The BrandLab. She is a member of the ACC employment and labor, law department management, and litigation sections.

The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.