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Successful Terminations

by Kathleen Brady

Legal administrators play a critical role in facilitating both the voluntary and involuntary departures of associates and staff. A well-organized departure checklist coordinating the administrative tasks ensures a smooth transition in both instances. However to mitigate the additional stress of terminating an employee due to economic factors or poor performance, it is also critical to be prepared for the emotional reaction. Having established termination guidelines and policies in place before you need them is helpful, but it is equally important to have a game plan for dealing with potential emotional outbursts.

Administrative Checklist

Departing employees should be provided, in writing, with the following information.

  1. Departure date and procedures. List what items need to be returned to the Firm, how to return keys, ID cards, parking passes, etc.
  2. Finances. Inform employee of any accrued vacation/personal time, pro-rated bonuses due, etc. and of any outstanding personal or business expenses.
  3. Transition work files/product. Confirm work has been transitioned properly. Remember to advise employee of the Firm's policy related to removal of work product files.
  4. Exit Interview. The goal is to obtain positive and negative feedback from departing personnel. This provides a sense of closure for the employee as well as valuable insights on firm issues like atmosphere, structure, policies and benefits. It should be scheduled on employees last day with someone with whom the person feels comfortable. And, if the departure is involuntary,
  5. Outline the severance package. Depending on the Firm's Termination policy, this can include things like extended benefits, outplacement services, use of an office/secretarial support, etc.
Remember to:
  1. Notify administrative departments. As soon as possible, inform Payroll/Accounting, Human Resources, Facility Management, Library Services, MIS, Security, etc. of the departure.
  2. Announce departure in firm newsletter. Be sure to check with the employee first, particularly if it is an involuntary departure.
  3. Confirm arrangements for farewell party and departure gift.
Termination Policy and Guidelines

Being associated with a particular Firm or organization can be such an important part of a person's life. Being laid off not only creates a tremendous sense of loss of structure and interruption of "normal" daily routines but also a sense of betrayal. The Firm or organization loses its family, caring atmosphere as the blame gets spread around and becomes anonymous, with nobody taking responsibility for the decision. The financial blow and the change in consumer status can be equally devastating. To help mitigate the emotional stress of being terminated, it is important to have a written Termination policy in place that covers:

  1. The length of time an employee will be paid through and covered by benefits. The timeframe can vary by seniority and/or length of service. The employee should be encouraged to use any outstanding vacation time during the time on the payroll so that the timeframe is not extended by vacation payouts.
  2. Billable hour expectations.
  3. Office Space and secretarial support.
  4. Professional outplacement policy.
When someone is terminated for poor performance, it is important to ensure that performance evaluations support the decision. Is there a record documenting that the employee was told of performance deficiencies and given the information about how and when to improve? And, is this action consistent with action taken in response to prior incidents of a similar nature? The method of delivering a termination message is equally important. Try to create an environment that will make it as easy as possible for the person receiving the message to maintain a sense of pride and dignity. Two people should deliver the message, preferably later in the day. Use a calm, factual, non-threatening tone. Be prepared for any number of reactions:
  • Denial and withdrawal. The employee may react by not reacting.
  • Your Strategy: State the message clearly and succinctly. Resist the urge to fill the silence with more information. End with "Do you have any questions?" If the employee still says nothing, stand up (indicating the meeting is over) and say, "If you think of anything over the next couple of days, let me know."
  • Anger. The person may react by trying to engage you in an argument, claiming unfair treatment, etc.
  • Your Strategy: Do NOT engage in an argument. Let the employee vent, and simply say, "I am sorry you feel that way." If you believe the person may become violent, make sure Security is informed of the meeting place and time. You may also want to consider having a professionally trained outplacement counselor on hand to help manage the emotions.
  • Bargaining. The person may promise to do better, or work harder, etc., desperately trying to get you to reverse the decision.
  • Your Strategy: Stop the person quickly and firmly by stating that the decision is final.
What is the Firm willing/able to say to support the employee's future candidacy? Is there anything positive that someone can say without lying? It may be helpful to try to deflect the question until the employee has had some chance to consider job options. For example, it may be easier to find something positive to say if the employee is transitioning to a different practice area or type of organization.

It is never fun to deal with termination-no matter which side of the message you are on. And, while no one would have wished for such turbulent times in the legal field, many actually can benefit from it. Individuals forced to give some serious thought to their careers can be rejuvenated by the experience. Similarly, institutions can benefit from being forced to realign business objectives and control costs more efficiently. People often end up happier after a transition. The challenge is living through it!

Reprinted with Permission from Brady & Associates Career Planners, LLC.

About The Author

Kathleen Brady has 20 years of experience delivering career development seminars and counseling attorneys on professional development issues and job search strategies. She is a recognized expert on topics including career planning for law students and experienced attorneys, networking strategies, interviewing techniques and recovering from a layoff as well as business management skills such as delegating, delivering feedback and effective mentoring. Brady has comprehensive industry knowledge. She started her career in the Placement Office at Columbia Law School and went on to serve as Assistant Dean of Career Services at Fordham University School of Law, National Director of Staff Recruitment and Development at Jackson Lewis and Manager of Associate Professional Development at Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, LLP. She is also a past president of the National Association for Law Placement and a founding member of the NALP Foundation for Research and Education. Brady is the author of two books, Navigating Detours on the Road to Success: A Lawyer's Guide to Career Management (Inkwater Press, 2005) and Jobs for Lawyers, Effective Techniques for Getting Hired in Today's Legal Marketplace (Impact Publications, 1996).

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.