Facing up to redundancy with the Agony Aunt

Given the UK has been doing ‘ok’ for a while now, or at least a bit better than many other countries (source: my holiday in Greece last year), our latest official redundancy figures raised more than an economic eyebrow here at the Attic this week.

Government records show that in the three months leading up to January 2016 (which obviously includes Christmas and the season of good will) 111,000 people were made redundant in the UK.

That’s equivalent to the entire population of Exeter being dismissed in just twelve weeks. 111,000 people losing their jobs, their income and their security – not to mention their dignity, as they return home to tell their loved ones the devastating news.

It’s not a sweeping statement (which is rare for me) to say how rare it once was for lawyers to be made redundant. Being a lawyer has always been synonymous with both security and high salaries. The old saying was that lawyers are always busy, in recessions and booms.  But with the legal sector now as exposed as any other side of the British economy to competition and change, lawyers are no longer immune to work’s version of being dumped – making this week’s question for the Agony Aunt – “What are the best steps to take when facing redundancy?” – all too real and relevant.

This column is all about the real world – your real world – so if I asked you ‘How safe is your job?’  or ‘How safe is your firm?’, what would your answer be?

This growing lack of job security in the legal profession was confirmed by The Law Society at the start of this year, set out in black and white in its ‘The Future of Legal Services’ report.

“It seems inevitable that solicitors and lawyers face a future of change on a varied scale, depending on area of practice and client types. Business as usual is not an option for many, indeed for any, traditional legal service providers. The combination of a number of factors including the recession, market liberalisation and reform to legal aid make it extremely difficult to predict the future size of the profession in the long-term.”

That phrase ‘the future size of the profession’ has a chilling edge to it. With so many lawyers and firms increasingly surrounded by change – as businesses and economies around the world still try to adapt to the new order post 2008, as more clients buy legal services in new ways, as technology continues to change how lawyers work and with new kinds of firms creating new kinds of competition for the old guard – the future has never been more unsure.

So, as the legal sector prepares to shrink, or at least downsize, let’s prepare ourselves for what redundancy can bring – so we can cope with the immediate impact and then rebuild our careers once the dust has settled.

The immediate impact will hit you personally and emotionally. No matter how much the writing was on the wall, redundancy often comes as a shock. Nobody likes rejection. Despite all the talk about innovation within law firms, most lawyers are conservative types and very at home with rules and systems.  It is hard for some, and impossible for others, to picture waking up in the morning with no job and no office to go to, no salary at the end of the month (but some fairly substantial bills to pay) and no route to partnership any more.

You and your life can change, overnight. Whereas life was once all about being part of the firm, and having five Jermyn Street shirts beautifully ironed and on hangers on a Sunday evening, post-redundancy your horizon can be framed by anger, frustration, blame, worry, anxiety and a sudden loss of self-esteem.

Last week (when looking at bullying in the legal sector) I wrote about a new report that claims “lawyers have the worst mental health of all professionals” which leads to higher levels of alcohol abuse. Redundancy – that slap in the face, after all your effort and all those hours – can spark even greater personal problems. So it’s critical you don’t turn to alcohol to escape from this situation. It’s vital you don’t let redundancy make you redundant.

My advice is feel free to open a good bottle of red wine with family or friends when you first get the news that your services are no longer required. Have a glass or two (or three even, if it’s really good bottle of wine) and talk with the people who care about you most about how you feel about being made redundant. Don’t bottle any feelings of anger or shame up inside. And in today’s economic climate and changing world, remember redundancy is more about the re-shaping of law firms than the failure of individuals. In today’s project-based, contract-led, flexible world of work, moving on from one job, or being out of work for a short period of time, the stigma around being made redundant has gone. Your position was made redundant; not you and your skills.

Inspired by your human heart-to-heart with family and friends, allow the practical, talented lawyer to take over once more. Keep your dignity and your work ethic intact. Because, despite how you or others may define it, there’s work to be done.

Here are five key steps you can take to when facing redundancy;

  1. Read your contract

It’s the perfect place to start for all lawyers – checking on your firm’s policies and your entitlements.

Is your redundancy legally fair? Would you like to stay at the firm, if you could? Would you or they accept a pay cut, or a reduction in hours? Is there an alternative to redundancy? And are you getting all your redundancy pay? If you have worked at the firm for more than two years you’re entitled to statutory redundancy pay of a week’s gross salary for each full year of service if you are under 41, or 1.5 weeks’ gross salary for each full year of service if you are 41 or over. Your contract should set everything out for you to check.

  1. Work out your financial position

Work out your savings, plus how much you are owed through salary, holiday pay and redundancy pay. Then calculate how much money you will need for all living expenses for the next three months. A talented lawyer will be back in employment within three months. Making a financial plan like this will instantly give you a workable strategy to survive now, and then move on to your next role.

  1. Refresh your CV and social media profile

It may well have been some time since you put your CV and story together. Make sure all your relevant skills and specialisms are detailed. And make sure your story is consistent across all platforms, from your traditional CV (try to keep this to one or two pages …) to your Twitter and LinkedIn profiles. Set out a clear story to tell about why your last firm made you redundant. Get references from your last firm, recommending you and your abilities. And use this moment to spot any skills you would like to get, to add to your CV so far. This could be the perfect time to take a break and put yourself through new training to completely refresh your CV, making yourself as relevant as possible for the market today.

  1. Start looking for a new job straight away

Regardless of how financially secure you may be, look for a new job as soon as your redundancy is announced. Future employers are more likely to take notice of someone in work rather than out. So use the time between the redundancy being announced and your actual departure date to seek out new employment opportunities. Use recruitment agencies, job advertisements and your own contacts and network to find out about new jobs. And take this opportunity to find a job you really want to do.

  1. Be active

Exercise. Read. Spend time with loved ones. Enjoy your hobbies. Use the time you have to stay active and immerse yourself as much as you can in the things you love most about life. With a financial plan to get you through the next three months, dedicate yourself to finding a new job and living life.

One more strategic step you can take, is taking a new approach to law. For those of you who are made redundant from private practice, this could be the right time to move in house. One in four lawyers are now working in-house, with a growing number of specialists moving from law firms to major corporates. And, going one step on from this, more and more lawyers are taking th e very modern and very wise step of working flexibly, via legal services providers such as Obelisk Support.

Obelisk Support is driving real change within the legal profession by supplying lawyers to law firms and in-house legal departments within major corporate clients on a flexible basis. Men and women get paid the same salary at Obelisk, with most lawyers earning over £40,000 a year working fully remotely, at home, based around their family commitments.

So, given time, redundancy could be a very positive thing – acting as a springboard for you to enter a new, better job, or new training, or a new, flexible way of working. It is no longer something to be ashamed of, so don’t take it personally. But if you need more support, there is lots of help around within the legal sector. You can call The Law Society for example on 0207 320 5795

Solicitors can call for information on personal, financial, professional and employment problems. The Law Society will then refer you to the most suitable helpline for your needs.

If you have a story or an insight to share with the Agony Aunt about being made redundant, please get in touch via the Contact page on the Attic. All emails are treated with care, anonymously.

Next week’s question: “Is the time and emotional energy it takes to care for elderly parents starting to effect your career?”