Much has been written recently on significant changes in law firms are making to cope with the economic downturn. Each week the legal press mentions layoffs and other tough measures being taken. It has been a tough several months and the turmoil does not seem to be over yet. Just who will come out of this wrenching process stronger and with loyalty intact depends on the firm’s leadership. Firm leaders will need to skillfully manage the next several months. When the economy improves, so will the opportunities for key associates and perhaps even partners to leave the firm. Without sensitive leadership after the layoffs, low morale will continue to affect the organization and decrease loyalty.
Delivering the difficult news to those associates and staff whose jobs are being eliminated is not the end of the work. It is the end of one tough task and the beginning of a more important second task. The work required now is to help those who are staying to cope with the changes. A mentor of mine summed it up by saying wisely, “All change is loss, and all loss requires mourning.”
Law firms, like many other professional service organizations, are not usually accustomed to layoffs. For some, this is a completely new phenomenon and can signal a real shift in the culture of the organization. If your firm has never had a “downsizing” before, you have probably been proud of that record. Having to join the ranks of organizations that have had to make those kinds of difficult adjustments is an important organizational transition. It is critical that the change be managed carefully into the future.
Of course, the most important work for dealing with the aftershocks of layoffs is to manage the process well in the first place. Thinking through the process for your specific firm and considering the method of delivery – by whom, when, where, what is said, and so on – before implementing is critical. It is very important to be truthful. For example, do not disguise economically driven decisions as performance related terminations, and do not try to convince the rest of the law firm world that you are doing just fine but there was a need to get rid of “deadwood” or a few poor performers. While those whom you terminate may, in fact, be your less skilled or less productive associates, there is really no reason to add insult to the injury of the job loss if it is due to a slowdown in work within the firm and within the legal world in general.
Once the news has been delivered to the individuals who are being terminated, it is important to communicate early and often with the entire firm. The message needs to be clear that everyone being terminated has already been notified and that the process is now over (as much as you can be sure that this is not just the first step). This can be done as would be typical within your firm. There is no right way but it is critical that it be done immediately. If the news is delivered on a Wednesday, do not wait until the department meetings the following Tuesday to communicate. It is best to do it with a “live” meeting, allowing for interaction and questions. If it is not possible to structure a meeting contemporaneous with the notifications, an email message will work as a temporary measure. If you send an email, you should still plan a face-to-face forum where discussion can take place. If the notification happened a few weeks ago, just do it now – it is not too late if the other choice is to not do it at all.
It is important to recognize that regardless of how rational your decision making process was, how obvious it should be to everyone that the decision was correct, and how many other firms are doing the same thing, there will be residual feelings to which you will need to attend. It is not productive to argue with feelings, to try to prove to everyone just how crucial and reasonable the decision was, to convince them that they should not feel so bad. Feelings are not eliminated by reason, but rather by time and support.
You can expect a wide range of potential feelings, not all of which are negative. First, there are feelings of personal loss – the loss of colleagues and friends. Some might feel a mixture of sadness and anger. Some will feel the pain of a friend who has lost her or his job and, feeling sad for that person, some might angrily see your decision as causing their pain. At the same time, some associates will experience survivor’s guilt – “I survived this but the person who was laid off didn’t deserve it any more than I did.” This feeling can cause them to withdraw from or avoid contact with the person who is leaving. That can make things worse for both parties. They will feel very badly for those with families, debts, and limited job prospects.
Even more difficult to deal with is the sense of anxiety and mistrust that can develop. “Waiting for the other shoe to drop” creates anxiety. It is not possible to reassure the associates that it is never going to happen again. If you feel reasonably comfortable that you have made sufficient reductions and that you do not plan to make any further cuts in the foreseeable future, you can say that; but to say never would, of course, be unrealistic.
On the positive side, associates and others in the firm realize that times are tough. While leadership decisions can hurt, most employees recognize that they must be made. Leaders may be given a great deal of credit for making tough decisions, especially if the whole process is also handled well. You need them to be on-board with you and to work even harder. The only way to do this is to have open and honest interactions.
So, what can you do?
First, you need to understand that bad feelings, including anger at you – the firm’s management, are normal. In fact, it doesn’t hurt to tell them how you feel. If the decisions were painful for you to make, tell them that. Tell them that you understand and accept that everyone has a mix of feelings and that you are willing to hear about them directly. If some take you up on that offer and tell you how they feel about the decisions, don’t react or challenge. Just listen and try to keep in mind that change and loss are difficult. Don’t take it personally. Keep in mind that the feelings will eventually diminish if they are acknowledged and accepted, but they are likely to be exacerbated if you dismiss them or take issue with their expression.
Second, be honest. Share as much information with associates and staff as you reasonably can. Explain the economic realities. This doesn’t mean you have to provide sensitive financial information. Your message needs to be that you will tell them everything that you are able to tell them and that you will answer questions to the best of your ability. This is where the trouble begins if the economic realities driving the layoffs are masked by the use of performance as the criteria. Too often openness is short circuited by a fear that anything that you communicate will end up in the local legal press or on the internet. While that could happen, it is much more likely that trusting the group with information that is helpful but not proprietary will foster loyalty to the firm, rather than incite the associates to “trash” the firm in chat rooms.
Third, be available. Don’t beat a strategic retreat and justify it by thinking that you are the last person people want to see. You are the person they most need to see. If you are the managing partner, attend meetings of departments and practice groups. Ask how people are doing. Ask if there is anything that you need to know. Tell them that while it might be too early to solicit
feedback on how the process was handled, you would welcome such feedback. If you are a department head or chair of a practice group, hold a meeting shortly after the layoffs are announced and see if there are comments or feelings that others would like to express. If that is atypical or you don’t believe it will be productive, consider meeting with associates over lunch or meeting with associates and partners separately. It is not the formula that is important, it is the attempt. If little is said in such a meeting, don’t conclude that it was a failure – sometimes offering to listen is enough. Remember Woody Allen’s line that “80% of success is showing up” and stop by people’s offices just to touch base. The psychological concept of “contact comfort” makes it likely that your simple act of contact will be a comfort to those who are feeling bad, regardless of what is or isn’t said.
You are busy and it is natural to want to get the decisions behind you. It is easy to assume and you might also hope that after a week or so of not hearing any problems it is back to “business as usual.” Maybe it is – but sometimes we see and hear what we want to see and hear. Check your perceptions.
Yes, you can be sure that “this too shall pass” but it takes time and effort to make certain that it passes well. Healthy organizations can go through tough times and actually come out stronger – what you do (or don’t do) during this time reinforces the kind of culture you would like to reinforce within the firm. Your availability and openness will have a lasting positive influence on future interactions.
Residual angst, if any, is often not obvious. Think through who might have been most affected by the terminations – for example, an associate who lost colleagues with whom she or he had worked closely, a support staff person who had a great relationship with someone who lost her or his job, or a partner who had been a mentor to one of the associates. Go to those individuals yourself or make certain that their practice group chair or someone who works with them closely goes to them to acknowledge any bad feelings and also that you respect their feelings.
Finally, to get through any change process people need ample doses of the two most critical ingredients – information and support.
- Information includes letting people know when the process is completed.
- Information includes telling members of the firm everything you can and acknowledging that which you cannot discuss.
- Information is best provided as soon as practically possible and should always be honest and free of “spin.”
- Support is given in the meetings that you schedule to inform and to hear from those affected by the losses.
- Support is given by being available and by listening.
A few months down the road your efforts will pay off. Many will acknowledge that it was a tough time but that it was handled well.