Redundancy is often perceived as tarring the reputation of both lawyers and law firms, but with the right approach any stigma can be left far behind when new opportunities arise, writes Sarah Sharples.
With no one able to predict when the credit crunch might ease, many lawyers are facing concerns about the stability of their employment. Law firms have already made a number of redundancies, both locally and internationally, as well as freezing salaries and offering options for flexible work.
Practice areas such as banking and finance, M&A, corporate and real estate have been affected by the economic climate, and lawyers of all experience levels have not been immune from a slowdown in work.
Matt Harris has witnessed this in his role as a consultant at Taylor Root, having met with junior and senior lawyers who have been made redundant simply due to cost-cutting measures. He says lawyers are anxious about the reflection that a redundancy has on their capabilities.
"I think people should be up-front about the fact that they have been made redundant. I don't think people should be afraid about that. I certainly don't get the sense that there is any stigma attached to it.
"This is a time where it's a common problem faced by lots of people," he says.
Peter Buck, consultant at First Counsel, echoes Harris' advice, emphasising that lawyers should be mindful of the definition of a redundancy.
"I don't think it's a signal to the market necessarily that there is something wrong with you or your skills. What, technically speaking, redundancy [means] is your job or the role that you are playing is no longer required by the business for whatever reason. It's not a reflection on you," he says.
Graham Seldon, founder of professional recruitment services company Seldon Gill Consulting, also believes that employers will understand that 2009 was the year when job security was low. He says, however, that employees can ensure their reputation is protected.
"If you are made redundant, the best thing to do is to get some letter or acknowledgment at that time which clearly states that you were made redundant because your practice group was closed down or the office that you worked in was closed down or it was a cost-cutting initiative so you can overcome that ... market perception that only people who are underperforming are losing their jobs," he says.
Where to from here
According to Geoff Officer, managing director and CEO of career management company the Donington Group, lawyers' job-hunting strategies need to change, especially considering the drop in internet and newspaper advertising.
"Jobs are there, but they are often harder to find because they are not always advertised ...Treat your job search as a full-time activity. Getting another job then becomes a very disciplined process of accessing your network and looking for hidden job opportunities and talking to lots of people about what are the opportunities," he says.
While finding a job may take longer, there are still ways to keep the CV developing. Seldon recommends volunteering in the not-for-profit sector, which is massively under-resourced and crying out for high-level skill sets.
"So, if you're a lawyer ... and you're at a loose end, then look for a local charity to get involved with on a project basis.
"There's a very good website set up called goodcompany.com.au which is a broker for charities who are looking for help and ... it's done on a project-by-project basis so they might want a lawyer to get them through a particular transaction," he says.
"Not only does it keep you engaged intellectually but it's also another project - another string to add to your bow. Employers like to recruit people who have demonstrated that they have kept themselves focused and busy."
Buck agrees it's important for lawyers to continue to maintain and upgrade their skills and says they can do so through courses and seminars as well as writing industry articles and case commentaries.
"Particularly for lawyers, staying on top of developments in the law is really important. It's a moving, fluid industry and the knowledge base is always changing," he says.
Employers are assessing potential employees on whether they are up to date with current issues, says Buck, and if lawyers have not kept up their momentum they are not such an attractive hiring prospect.
Harris concurs that lawyers need to ensure they are still visible within the industry and warns against opting out of the industry for an extended period of time.
By all means, take a holiday, but be focused on getting the next job and getting back into the workplace as soon as you can because a) you don't want to be seen as having opted out for six months and just given up and b) if this situation continues any longer, the longer you're out of work, the more competition there is going to be when you decide it's time to come back to the workplace," he says.
Giri Sivaraman, associate at law firm Maurice Blackburn, advises lawyers starting a new job to be astute when negotiating their contract of employment because it is the best time to put measures in place to protect them.
"People don't think about what could go wrong until it goes wrong, and in actual fact, you're better off trying to set those protections in place at the outset.
For example, you could negotiate a clause in your contract that requires the company to try and redeploy you in circumstances where the work you are doing is no longer required," he says.
"You could negotiate a severance pay agreement. People don't realise that it's not actually a given that you'll have severance pay, even if your position is made redundant, and that will change in 2010 with the passing of the Fair Work Act."
Employers don't be so quick
Joydeep Hor, managing partner at Harmers Workplace Lawyers, says the firm has been giving commercial guidance and advice to law firms and companies about the future shape of their organisations - advice which attempts to direct strategies towards more long-term thinking.
"[We say] 'Look ... you're talking about getting rid of 30 people now, but do you think that there's a possibility that if you wear a little bit of pain over the next three months, then you might not lose 10 of your best people?'" he says.
"[We ask] 'Is there something that you can do with those 10 people who we recognise are pretty good and who you'd be paying a premium for in 12 months time through to recruitment agents?' These are the kinds of questions we're trying to work through with businesses."
Officer believes some jobs are being axed as a reaction to the unpredictability of the downturn because wages are generally the biggest bill in running a business.
"With professional services, the IP [intellectual property] goes up and down the lift every day. You don't have any other assets so, unfortunately, you have to cut people to maintain a cost or revenue structure or maintain a profitable structure that you think is respectable," he says.
Officer argues that if redundancy is the only choice, companies should, as part of their corporate social responsibility, consider outplacement support for people they have let go.
"There is a huge reputational risk issue - you want your company to be seen as a place that people want to work.
"We know two firms in the recession [in the 1990s] that just dumped people on the streets and it took about 15 years to really recover their reputations. People wouldn't go and work there and consequently their competitors had a field day because all the best people went to the competitors," he says.
"So it's very short-term to say 'I don't need to look after people now'. From a sustainability point of view, you want your reputation to go on and people have long memories and they talk all the time.
"Politicians work on one person equals 10, so if one person is aggrieved, they say there must be 10 others [also aggrieved] and it's the same ... if people lose their jobs."