Let me begin by confessing: I am not a law firm lucky charm. I’ve worked for 2 different firms over a period of 18 months, both of which went into administration or merged with another firm, which left me unemployed twice in a short period of time.
Unfortunately, my story isn’t unusual: changes in the legal market mean that these sort of events will happen more and more frequently, especially in the mid-sized law firms. My Nostradamus moment now is to predict that most mid-sized firms won’t exist within 5 years, as they get eaten up by the bigger firms, or split down into smaller, niche firms.
So if you’re working in a small or mid-sized firm: you’re in a very risky position right now. So what can you do to both plan for the potential experience of having a job that disappears, and to get through it successfully? I’m going to give you some tips on what to do, when, and how to get through this. And I’ll be honest: a lot of this is unpleasant, but you can get through to the other side intact.
See the signs: You need to be plugged into the internal gossip machine, for your own benefit. People talk – it’s wise to listen, and look for the oddities that signal problems. Listen for fee-earner gossip: are junior staff in all sorts of departments complaining about not being able to meet their target for billable hours because there’s just not enough work being passed to them? Are partners hiding in their rooms or working from home, to avoid having to really speak to their teams? Watch out for those odd “partners from different departments who don’t normally have anything to do with each other” meetings starting to happen. Secretaries being asked to block out many hours in diaries for people…with no client meetings or reasons given. Or the all partner, off-site meetings…that go on for two days. Librarians at other firms that may be merger partners will be noticing odd activities too, or may have been asked to research your firms finances. Make sure you’re open with your professional network about unusual activities at your firm, as it gives other information professionals the chance to volunteer information that they’ve gathered. There will also be a mysteriously delayed issuing of the annual accounts, with various “interesting” excuses being given, and getting more abrupt as the lateness increases. There will be firm denials in the press by management of there being any trouble internally. Credit checking companies will be red flagging you as a risk because you pay bills so late. Suppliers will not be being paid, but you will only find this out if you contact them directly to check, or they contact you to complain, because your Finance department will insist that they’ve been paid. Honest. Cross their heart.
Prepare for the worst: go through your work, and identify your useful/transferable work. Gather non-sensitive work you have produced/remove to cloud storage if possible. If you can’t move it off your firms network by upload, try and get a record of it some other way: download, screenshot or photograph it. The administrators or merger managers are not interested in the work of support staff – it will be ignored during these processes, and holds no financial value for them. The only value it holds is for you, for the future, for generic activities such as training materials you’ve developed for educating internal users on subscription databases. ( Disclaimer one – Only you can make the decision on what materials it is legal for you to remove. Disclaimer two – some of these content tools might be blocked by your employer.). If you don’t have one already, get a “professional” email address (gmail is fine) – if your name/initials combination isn’t available, create one using information and knowledge-related terms. Move all account contacts to the new account: social media, mailing lists, LinkedIn etc. You can’t predict when your access to your work email will stop.
Prepare for the best: It may well be that any merger partner firm needs information staff, so there could be a place for you in a new structure. However, like any other employer, they’ll want you to be able to prove to them that you’re good at what you do, and your salary will take that into account. So now is a good time to gather statistics and evidence to show what you do, and what you can do. If you charge out for your time, gather the information that shows exactly what money you’ve brought in. Equip yourself with any facts or figures that help you to make a business case to demonstrate why you and/or your team are an asset.
Make yourself visible to the world: if you aren’t already using social media, now is the time to start. Create a Twitter profile, where you can show your awareness of relevant issues by tweeting links or discussing them with others. Most importantly, create a LinkedIn account, and make sure you organise it to show your best skills and achievements (LinkedIn content layout can be personalised). This is useful for both internal and external promotional purposes: if your firm is going into administration, other law firms need to be able to see immediately what your skills are, and why you’d be an asset. If you’re merging, you want to be able to easily give the takeover firm as much information about your usefulness as possible. They won’t know about the awesome projects you’ve been responsible for internally, they’re highly unlikely to actually come to you to ask about your skills, so you need a place they can look at that hosts all your achievements, to be able to show them. Ask colleagues to endorse you for useful activities – people will be doing their best to help you, so agree the text in advance to ensure it shows your best skills in the best way.
Build up an application bank: create a variety of clear descriptions of your specialist and transferable skills. If you struggle with this, ask workmates to identify what they think your key skills and achievements are. Use these to help speed up the process when applying for jobs by tying these relevant phrases to frequently requested skills. Create a tailored base CV for each role type you’re targeting, drawing out different elements of your skills as appropriate.
Expand your vocabulary: yes, right now you’re a specialist librarian, but your skills are also incredibly wide-ranging and your employment prospects are too. You’re experienced in doing targeted research: use those skills now on your own behalf – compile a list of search terms and work them on search engines! Develop a level of awareness of key potential employers, and start monitoring vacancies before you may think you’ll need to actually apply to anything – knowing how long jobs are advertised for, and how quickly after they appear they can disappear, can help focus you on being prepared and able to apply for jobs as quickly as possible after they’re advertised. Be organised about your applications: a spreadsheet helps manage and prioritise relevant jobs (and ensures you know when your submission deadlines are). It didn’t used to be easy, but it’s far more achievable now to move between a variety of sectors, as” information management” becomes more clearly recognised as a relevant skill, rather than being buried within the term “librarian”. Jobs I was interviewed for: Open Access Publications Assistant, eHealth Project Officer; Grants Officer; Awards Administrator; Research and Information Officer, Contracts Manager, Information Officer; Research and Information Specialist, Legal and Business Intelligence Analyst, and another Project Officer. And don’t rule out the Intelligence Services too – I won’t say how far I got in their application process, but let’s just say your skills at assessing information sources and extracting relevant information from them are useful in all sorts of roles! 😉
Don’t be ignored: if your firm is merging, nobody will be sparing a thought for you, or about asking you to be involved in any discussions. This creates a huge risk that your department and team will be forgotten about in the frantic activity that goes on during the merger process. This is the point to start jumping up and down in front of the right people, with big signs pointing towards you that say “I’m wonderful!”. If you have a library partner, you can try and get them to ensure that you’re involved in relevant discussions, but remember, you will never be their priority, they have a “core” team that they will be trying to ensure are safe first, before they can spare any time or energy to help you.
Focus your energy: In a merger I was involved in, we began the process of creating the business case for our retention in the new firm, but quickly decided to use our energy in looking for employment externally when we realised from discussions with the library staff on the other side that there was no intention of moving my team across.
Play nice: if your firm is merging/being taken over, make sure that the information professionals on the other side of the merger get all the information they need from you, as soon as possible. Spend any time needed to tidy up your materials, both physically and digitally – it’s good manners and reflects well on you professionally, and at this point your professional reputation is one of your main assets. Contact your suppliers directly if you can: they will have questions about your subscriptions and services, and you can give them the appropriate information on who to contact, and a realistic assessment of the chances of them receiving payment or a subscription being continued. Again, being polite and helpful to people, especially when you don’t have to be, means that your professional reputation is enhanced with people who may be of use to you in future.
Professional support: this is the bad bit – there is none, in practical terms. You will watch as the lawyers are offered hardship funds and training support from their professional bodies and groups, and their professional bodies issue press releases to the media about how excellent they are, and how quickly they’ve all been re-employed, but there will be nothing equivalent for you from any of the professional bodies you may be a member of. Sympathy, yes, but no practical help. You’re on your own.
State support: the Job Centre staff will not be of any help. They do not know what to do with specialist librarians. Even your existence baffles them. Learn about the various rules, procedures, and entitlements available to you, but expect no actual, direct help: you’re on your own. Again.
Network and talk: You will almost certainly feel traumatised by these processes, either insolvency or redundancy. Learn to separate your sense of worth from your employment – you are not responsible for what happened to you. Tell people what happened (while maintaining a professional “I don’t blame anyone” front). Make people aware you need employment. Let them help you. Be active on LinkedIn (and be amused at the ridiculous amount of people who’ll check out your profile during this period).
Now, this isn’t a foolproof guide, just an attempt to give anyone facing what I’ve been through a bit of guidance, help, and support to know that it’s survivable. Others who have been through similar situations have had input into this too, so hopefully, it’s now as useful a collation of information as it can be.
And finally, just remember: illegitimi non carborundum.