A young attorney, out of law school only a few years, faced tough news and asked us how to deal with it. After working his first two years after passing the bar exam, all of it in the same mid-size law firm, he received news recently that his full time job was going part time. With student loans looking over his shoulder, he could only start calculating the hard economic reality of losing 40% of his income. His 5 day a week job was cut to 3 days, with no guarantee it won't get cut more in the coming weeks or months.
"I can't live on what I make now but I don't want to lose my job. I like what I do and where I do it but there's no guarantee it won't get worse. What do I do now?" His questions echo the fears of many young attorneys. Are you in that spot? Well, there's a few things to keep in mind.
First, keep in mind that most law firms don't like cutting associates or cutting their hours. The cost of replacing a trained associate, even one with only a few years of experience, is horrible for the law firm. The fear of losing a good young associate is as real for the law firm as is the fear of losing employment for the young associate. If cutting hours was avoidable, it would have been avoided. But the simple fact is that in an economic downturn, sooner or later the loss of business affects even the best broad-based, diversified law firm too. It may not be consoling, but consider yourself lucky you didn't get your hours cut sooner.
Second, get a grip on the present and move on. Okay, so you've got less income next week than you had last week. Figure out what you have to do to deal with it. Don't dwell on it and don't commiserate with others who are sulking and doing nothing about it. That won't help. Find a way to adjust your living expenses first. Don't just give up and start looking for another job. First, the job market is crowded with all those associates who lost their job, or got their hours cut, before you. It's tough. Second, even if you are only working part time, that's better than no time. Don't walk away from a job you like during tough times if you really want to keep it. Find a way to budget yourself by either reducing your costs of living or increasing your money to live with. In other words, look for a part time job to supplement your law work. That may be hard to find too, but it's likely better than walking away and hoping for the best.
Third, stand up. That's right. Stand up. The reason your hours were cut is probably because you were "sitting down" in the crowd. If you want to be the last person they cut, make yourself so valuable to the law firm that they can't afford to cut your hours and risk your departure. But if your hours were already cut, then turn the situation around. Show that you have a value they don't want to lose. So, how do you do that? What do you say? What do you do? Well, standing up is the starting point.
Okay, you've got a choice. You can start showing up 3 out of 5 days a week, just as you are scheduled now to do. Or, you can stand up and stand out.
If you want to keep that job, and get back to full time work sooner, make sure the law firm realizes that you can face adversity and overcome it. You need to prove you will not quit. You need to show the law firm that you value your work more than even the firm does. Don't take the loss lightly. You want a job? Fight for it.
Ask your employer if you can keep working your regular schedule and make it clear that they only have to pay you for the days the law firm can afford right now. If you understand that times are tough, then tell the firm that you understand but you value your work and don't want to abandon your clients or serve them less than what they need and that you're willing to do whatever it takes to support the firm. Note that we didn't say "you're willing to do whatever it takes to keep your job."
The reality is that you get to keep your job by supporting the firm.
The firm is concerned about tough times too and your willingness to help the firm get through tough times and still be successful is, itself, proof of your remarkable value to the law firm. Associate attorneys come and go. The ones the firm wants to keep are those who are dedicated as much to the firm as to the profession itself. Of course, all this assumes that you like where you work. If you don't, then take the cut in hours as an opportunity to move on and find a job that fits you better.
But if your hours were cut and you like your job, then start thinking about what you can do to get your employer back on its economic feet because that is what will get you back to full time work. More importantly, in the process of it you will prove to your law firm that there is no associate attorney who is willing to work as hard, work as long, work as loyally, to help the firm achieve its success.
And why should you want the law firm to succeed? Because, at the end of the day, if the firm doesn't succeed, neither do you. And if you help the law firm increase its success, then you will succeed too.
Ronald L. Burdge
Helping attorneys achieve success, every day, since 1978.