Don’t you want me?

A lawyer's guide to proper etiquette
A lawyer's guide to proper etiquette

Dear Sandra,
I was one of four articling students at my firm not hired back. I’ve heard horror stories that this will follow me for the rest of my career. For the past five months I have yet to get past the first interview. Even when I avoid the topic, hireback always comes up and it all goes downhill. Will I ever get a fair chance? Outlaw

OutLaw, the good news is that you are getting interviews. The bad news is that you may be sabotaging yourself. You should always be truthful when asked a direct question during an interview. The best way to deal with questions about one’s unpleasant past is to be succinct and positive. Remember the old joke about law firms: “Nobody ever gets fired. They leave.” Same story. Both truthful. Different connotations.

Whether you’re laid off, fired or not hired back, losing a job can be one of the most traumatic life experiences a person can have, right up there with divorce, the death of a pet and your dad stepping on your veil during the wedding ceremony (I’m a survivor). It is natural for anyone, especially overachieving lawyers, to engage in self-deprecation. Remember that you are not alone, particularly in the current challenging economic climate.

Unfortunately, in the legal profession, there is a misguided, short-sighted and unfair stigma that people who have been let go are “damaged goods.” You cannot allow that to be how you see yourself. It’s possible that the hireback stumbling block has been magnified by your own anxieties and you keep feeding this monster with self-doubt. The question comes up and rather than dealing with it artfully and moving on, you shine the stadium lights on an epic tragedy and cast yourself as victim or hero. The more you talk about it, the more doubt you cast in the interviewer’s mind. Nobody wants to hire a problem.

A friend recently shared a story about a senior associate that her firm had been wooing from a competitor. Everything was going brilliantly during the interview until he said, “I’m sure you’re wondering why I want to leave?” Before anyone could indicate they were wondering no such thing, he launched into a lengthy diatribe about the horrible work environment, long hours and inability to please the demanding partners. And voilà! He blew it.

In an otherwise flawless interview, all can be lost in one minute. Lawyers have a keen nose for desperation. We only respond arrogantly to tepid expressions of interest that are sufficient to arouse desire without giving offence.

There is no reason to offer up the skeletons in your closet during an interview, especially if the question does not come up! If the question does, you should have a brief script prepared in advance to prevent rambling. Respond candidly and briefly with a positive conclusion about what competencies you acquired or skills you developed in that job. Don’t trash the firm and don’t trash yourself, Outlaw. One day not getting hired back will be a distant blip in an otherwise distinguished career. When you are sitting in your next interview, look ahead to that confident, accomplished and successful person. That’s who you are.

Surviving being let go
Your step-by-step guide

  • Schedule your pity party from start to end. Allow yourself to mope around in your jammies feeling sorry for yourself for a couple of weeks, then move on.
  • Figure out what to do next by going from the general to the specific. Start with big questions about what you want from life and from a job and narrow it down to a list of options.
  • Go on the networking offensive. Meet with everyone you know, reboot your LinkedIn account and boost your Twitter presence. Attend Law Society events, industry forums and seminars.
  • Avoid people who drag you down. Surround yourself with supporters, cheerleaders, mentors and positive people who will boost your mood and ego.
  • Market yourself. When interviewing, you are selling your skills, not defending who you are. Make them believe that they need you.

Sandra Rosier is a tax advisor in Toronto. Need advice? Email

Illustration by Bob Hambly