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When Unemployment Comes Knocking

Tips and advice for coping with job loss.

By Tim Pareti

March/April 2002 Table of Contents


For 20-year paralegal veteran Donna Chance, the death-knell of unemployment came in February 2001. For senior litigation paralegal, Julie Wenz-Ramirez, herself an 18-year legal assistant, it was that July. And for Elonda Banks, a paralegal with three-years of experience, a pink slip came in August.

For a growing number of U.S. citizens in 2002, the specter of sudden job loss has become more realistic. From October 2001 through January, a number of prominent and diverse Wall Street players announced mass layoffs or creative corporate restructuring tactics. Among them were Ford Motor Company, Enron Corp., Nextel Communications Inc., Lockheed Martin, AOL Time Warner, Merrill Lynch & Co., General Motors, McDonald’s and Kmart Corp. And those are only some of the more recognizable names. Throughout the country, Americans are growing more concerned as they watch industry after industry institute cost-saving measures such as hiring freezes, early retirement packages and reductions in overall growth operations.

Amid the ruin of the largest economic expansion in U.S. history are the employees who must cope with such situations and attempt to rebuild their self-esteem and careers.

And the effort is no small undertaking.

Helene W. King, a psychologist and owner of Cope Inc., a workplace counseling and consulting firm in Washington, D.C., noted job loss can be one of the most devastating personal crises of a lifetime, along with divorce and the death of a loved one.

The Canadian Mental Health Association recently ranked job loss as fourth in major stress events, preceded only by personal injury, death and divorce.

In a number of cases, individuals who have been fired or laid off have related feeling a sense of loss, such as that associated with the death of a loved one. As King pointed out, that reaction isn’t without foundation in some cases.

She said many of those who become unemployed suddenly realize a loss of self-esteem, daily routine, purposeful activity, income, social interaction with co-workers and a sense of security. In many respects, especially where professionals have invested much of their time and identity in what they do for a living, these individuals find themselves more often than not mourning the loss of their jobs as if they had lost a loved one.

The trick, experts agree, is to manage the crisis and find opportunities for both personal and professional growth. The challenge is figuring out how.

‘A Total Shock’

Donna Chance has experienced several transitional challenges in her 20-year paralegal career. Last February, a large litigation law firm she worked at in San Antonio downsized its paralegal staff, leaving her without a job. She said she never saw it coming

“It hit me across the side of the head,” Chance said. “It was a total shock to me because I was always a producer. It was such an emotional time because I was without a job.”

The job loss was particularly hard for Chance because she had stayed with the firm when it split years before, and later when it merged with another firm.

Chance said she had developed many close relationships with other employees at the firm through the years of significant changes it underwent.

So when she was told her job was eliminated, she said she felt a gamut of emotions welling up, and at first, thought the termination might have been related to her performance.

“I realized it wasn’t personal,” Chance said. “It was a business decision. Half of the [firm’s] office staff was affected.”Once the initial shock wore off, Chance, a single parent, said her first order of business following the layoff was to cutback on her spending. Without a new job on the near horizon, she had to make sure she could survive financially until an employment opportunity came along. In addition, she joined an impromptu support group, consisting of many of her paralegal colleagues who were also out of a job. The group shared stories of frustration, along with the efforts and avenues each member had pursued to find a job.

Having faced and survived a similar layoff situation 14 years before, Chance knew that determination and a positive attitude were her best resources for getting back on her feet.

“You have to believe in miracles for a miracle to occur,” Chance said.

And it did. By last spring, Chance was again working as a paralegal, this time with another large San Antonio litigation firm.

When You See It Coming

Like Chance, many paralegals are not privy to the decisions of firm management until after the decisions are made. During a recession, management often re-evaluates costs by taking a hard look at staff, which can cause panic and stress among employees if word gets out. Just a hint of a cutback, hiring freeze or layoff could send shock waves throughout a firm, and lead some employees to quit. The best thing to do if rumors of cutbacks are circulating, according to Amanda B. Sheeren, a legal placement consultant with Update Legal, is to be calm, think clearly and offer to do extra work.

“If you have the opportunity to work in different areas and you have some free time, offer to work in other divisions,” Sheeren said. “A manager is less likely to cut someone who can move into another area. Those people are more marketable.”

Sheeren, a former legal assistant with 16 years experience, started out in real estate transactions but ended up in litigation after she offered to help an attorney in the firm’s litigation division. She said her cross training helped her survive firm mergers and layoffs.

In addition, paralegals should stay busy and work as efficiently as possible to remain valuable to supervisors, Sheeren said.

“[Paralegals] think that if they’re not working and are available, it will make it more desirable for an employer,” Sheeren said. “It doesn’t. It creates a cloud around them that they’ve created themselves.”

It’s also important for paralegals to know what type of work they enjoy, enroll in as many educational courses as possible, network among colleagues, join a legal association, and always search the job market, Sheeren said.

Many times the next job you land isn’t based solely on what you know, but also on who you know. Keeping the lines of communication open both in your local legal assistant association and with former co-workers and colleagues exponentially increases your possibilities for finding new employment opportunities.

The Battle Ahead

“E-mailing friends has been good therapy for me,” paralegal Julie Wenz-Ramirez said. “Sharing my feelings with former legal assistants that I’ve worked with has helped me cope.”

Like so many others, Wenz-Ramirez didn’t see the shadowy figure of unemployment standing in the distance until it was too late.

Everything seemed to have been coasting along for the senior litigation paralegal. She said she was doing well with a large Washington, D.C. law firm when management abruptly decided to downsize its paralegal program last year. Wenz-Ramirez and a handful of other senior paralegals got the pink slip that July. The layoff was a devastating blow, Wenz-Ramirez said, because she had a well-respected reputation in the firm as a competent and hardworking employee.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow when you really enjoy working for someone and then they let you go,” Wenz-Ramirez said. “I was told it was strictly economics and it had nothing to do with my work. Not in a million years did I expect this to happen. It hurts, but I think it’s their loss.”

As time goes by, however, their loss is also hers. Wenz-Ramirez, who is currently collecting unemployment, said she is having a difficult time finding a job that can incorporate her 18 years of paralegal experience and offer the flexibility she needs to spend time with her children. She said she has sent out countless resumés and had only two interviews since last summer. Part of the problem, she thinks, is that she is overqualified. Combined with a tight job market and the desire of many employers to keep costs low, Wenz-Ramirez is facing what may be a long battle to regain control of her career.

The Psychology of Unemployment

Not long ago when the economy was buzzing, corporations and law firms alike were handing out incentives to lure quality employees, including paralegals. Unemployment was its lowest in decades. Now, the job market, in the grip of a deep recession, is tight — even in the legal industry. Job searches can be a long and protracted quagmire given the economics of the moment. For paralegals without the advantage of advanced warning, suddenly losing a job can be a harrowing experience.

Often the interview process is over before it begins when potential employers sense a negative or defeated attitude from an employment candidate. In economically lean times, Sheeren advised unemployed paralegals, more than ever, to maintain a positive attitude and exude a glowing confidence, both in their search for employment and during the interview process. That isn’t an easy task after a job loss, which can stir a range of emotions and cause immediate panic, Sheeren said.

In order to keep the wealth of emotions related to job loss from overwhelming you, psychologists and recruiters alike recommend incorporating some diversionary practices into your schedule while continuing your search for a new job.

Daily exercise — which can range from a brisk 20 minute walk to a more involved gym routine — is a great way to take your mind off the urgency of your situation, even if only for a short period of time. Gardening, leisure reading and visiting friends are also ways to give yourself a mental break without taking too much time away from your necessary search efforts. Ideally, a long weekend trip or just an afternoon spent getting away from it all are excellent ways to decompress and refocus your energies on the task at hand, Sheeren advised. While developing a hobby will not find you a job, it will help you cope with the loss of one.

“Above all, avoid the empty hours,” King advised. She noted that idle time spent on nonproductive or emotionally unrewarding activities only allows you to dwell on the negative aspects of your situation and should be avoided.

“One of the first things a paralegal should do when they lose their job is limit the amount of news they watch and listen to,” Sheeren said. “It can create a spiral of negative thinking.”

In an effort to boost confidence, Sheeren also recommended doing “things you never had time to do,” such as painting the house or planting a garden. “It doesn’t help with the job search but it helps you feel better; that you are accomplishing something,” Sheeren said. And sometimes an occasional and productive distraction is just what is needed to avoid excessive panic regarding your unemployed status. Just make sure not to lose sight of your primary goal, which is to rejoin the working world.

Practical Matters

After the short break of a day or two (or more should your financial circumstances allow for it), the job search should begin in earnest by first setting financial and employment priorities, Sheeren said.

The first step is to cutback on personal expenses, set up a daily budget and stick to it, she said, adding you should determine how long you can hold out without a job or a paycheck. King called this process developing “a plan of action,” that both establishes priorities and assists in boosting confidence and a sense of achievement.

“If you get severance, don’t deplete it before looking for a job because if the money runs out and you’re looking for a job, you’re going to be overly anxious and it comes across,” Sheeren said.

You might also consider filing for unemployment benefits, Sheeren said. The best way to determine qualification for benefits is to contact the local unemployment office or your previous employer’s human resources department, she advised.

Acknowledging that many middle income families might not be more than two or three paychecks away from financial crisis, King advised those who find themselves unemployed to carefully consider their financial situations as a first course of action.

“If you think money is going to be tight, go to your mortgage company and try to negotiate a lower rate or payment vacation. Mortgage companies don’t want to lose money either, so they will most often work with you to help protect their investment,” King advised. She also advocated contacting the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a universally accepted organization which works with those who need to better manage their credit card debt, especially following a loss of regular income.

Above all, be persistent in your search and contact with employers, King advised.

Call employers back to check on the status of your resumé. Even if you have been turned down, ask permission to call the employer back in a month or two months to see if other employment opportunities have opened up in the interim.

Temporary Alternatives

Depending on your financial needs, and considering the current job market situation, it might be necessary to work for a temporary agency or as a freelance paralegal, Sheeren recommended.

Taking a temporary job might not have been necessary a few years ago in a strong economy, but with a recession in full swing, jobs are harder to come by, she said. The plus side is a temporary job will bring in a paycheck, boost confidence and maintain your work skills, Sheeren said.

“Right now it’s better to look for a permanent job while working as a temp because it will meet your financial and psychological needs,” Sheeren said. “Taking a temp job should not hinder your search.”

When seeking temporary or freelance work, the best method is to contact between two to four placement agencies that specialize in legal recruitment. Many law firms and companies hire directly from placement agencies, which screen the applicants. Legal recruiters are a good resource because they usually have a good relationship with hiring managers and know a company’s needs and culture.

“Make sure you go to a reputable agency, and make sure they call you before they send off your resumé,” Sheeren said. “What you don’t want is three resumés sent to the same place. Then there are conflicts on which agency represents you. It may knock you out of consideration because the firm doesn’t want to get into the middle of it.”

Another key consideration is to determine what type of job has similar requirements to your paralegal experience. Because job choices are slim in a flat economy, it’s important to be creative and search for positions that might not be in the legal industry but are conducive to paralegal experience such as an insurance claims adjuster or a contracts administrator. Expanding a job search beyond the paralegal position increases the chance of landing a desirable job, Sheeren explained.

A Proactive Response

Elonda Banks quickly found that if she was going to reignite her career following a layoff, she would have to be more creative and industrious to cope with a more restricted employment market. She also said she knew that the standard of simply sending out mass resumés and calling old friends might not be enough in a down economy.

She had been working as a senior paralegal for a Houston-based commercial litigation firm for about a year when, last August, management called her and about a dozen staff members into the firm’s conference room. The staff was told the firm was going to cutback because of the slowing economy. Some employees were let go that day. Banks was laid off six days later with two weeks severance.

Banks said she was initially surprised, but not exactly devastated. She said she strongly believed her skills were marketable, her resumé was appropriately updated, and to top it all off, she had been looking for another job even before the announcement.

After relaxing for about one week, Banks, armed with three years of paralegal experience, planned a two-front approach in finding a job.

First, she contacted several placement agencies and methodically compiled a list of top Houston law firms through the Internet, matching her particular skills to the type of work the firms were doing.

Second, she broadened her search beyond paralegal positions by considering jobs such as a human resource specialist, a labor relation manager, public finance analyst or a lobbyist.

Banks said she also identified and researched companies in several industries that she wanted to work in. She regularly visited the Web site,, which provides a type of snitch line for employees to talk about their employers and share office gossip and trends.

“It’s an awesome Web site,” Banks said. “People were telling you what was going on in their company. You don’t want to go into a war zone, especially in this economy.”

In the process of her search, Banks said she was offered several permanent positions, but the pay was less than what she had made at her previous employer. She was aware the job market that August was tight in Houston. However, shortly after she was let go from her last employer, Banks sat down and carefully reviewed her finances. She determined that her financial situation would allow her to go without a job for a maximum of three months if she needed, thus affording her the opportunity to be selective in her choices. She was so confident, in fact, that she decided not to apply for unemployment benefits. In addition, she had a small severance to rely on. So she rejected early job offers that didn’t fit with her exact career goals. Banks said her rejection of less than perfect offers might not be an advisable approach in the current job market.

“I would definitely jump a little higher if I were out of a job [in Houston] now,” Banks said, noting the discouraging effects of the Enron bankruptcy on the local economy in Texas.

But after her severance vanished in her third week of unemployment, she said she got nervous.

“I got a little shaky,” Banks said. “I knew that if you don’t toot your own horn no one else will.”

With nearly a month of joblessness almost behind her, Banks said she decided to become even more aggressive in her efforts to find the right job. She physically went to more than a dozen placement agencies to speak with placement specialists. She continued sending a steady stream of tailored resumés by e-mail and fax. In addition, she went to the companies she wanted to work for and filled out applications on the spot.

She said she even sent a cookie in the shape of a shoe with a note that read: “I got one foot in the door, can I bring in the other?”

Before the month was out, and after a meticulous and creative job search, Banks accepted a temporary position as a senior paralegal with a Houston-based energy corporation with the option of becoming a permanent employee in four months. She said the new job is more challenging and pays better than her previous position, where, ironically, she had also worked as a temporary hire before being hired as a permanent employee.

“I think it absolutely worked out,” Banks said. “I’m in a better position now than before.”

The layoff experience taught Banks the importance of preparation, and that law firms and companies will cutback to protect “the bottom line.”

“I think there are a lot of good companies out there but when the economy gets bad the priority goes to the companies interest. That’s business. That’s the way it goes,” she said.

Outlook For the Profession

While the long-term outlook for the legal assistant profession remains bright, the more immediate impact of the economy and business adjustments clouds the short-term forecast. Current predictions are at once positive, negative and downright contradictory as experts grapple with a growing profession and the first recession in a decade.

Paralegals are getting more substantive work because of cost cutting measures, said to Camille Grabowski, marketing manager for The Affiliates in Menlo, Calif. Law firm managers, sensitive to billing costs, are increasingly relying on paralegals because their hourly rates are lower, she said.

“We’re seeing a shakeout with the economy,” Grabowski said. “Our research shows that law firms are giving paralegals more responsibility and substantive work.”

Heidi Gottberg, a placement specialist for StaffWise Legal in Chicago, disagreed somewhat, noting there is still a demand for paralegals, but warned the market could get more competitive. More colleges are developing paralegal programs, and there is an increasing number of people switching careers and going into the paralegal profession, she explained.

Because of a slowed economy, demand for paralegals has leveled off in 2001 compared to the previous year, Gottberg said. The result is less of a choice of paralegal positions.

“I think it’s still a good field to get into, but I think a lot of people are trying to get into it and it could get saturated,” Gottberg said. “[Fortunately], I haven’t seen that yet.”

While the difference of these opinions might seem grossly at odds, there is some measure of acknowledgement for both positions from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Notwithstanding long-term “faster than average” growth projections for the profession through 2010, the Department of Labor has also forecast growing competition for the positions that develop.

“Despite projections of fast employment growth, stiff competition for jobs should continue as the number of graduates of paralegal training programs and others seeking to enter the profession outpaces job growth,” according to a report by the Labor Department dated Jan. 14, 2002.

The good news for the profession as a whole is it has gained more legitimacy through national organizations and standardized certification programs, which help foster the idea that paralegals are an integral part of the legal profession, Sheeren said. Paralegal organizations provide guidance and training while continuing education and certification programs create “a cohesive front to the business and legal community.”

As a result, the profession has grown over the years because attorneys and employers believe paralegals have measurable skills. And that growth is expected to continue, Sheeren said.

“When a paralegal resigns or retires, employers no longer think they can just ‘get by,’” Sheeren said. “They are generally, immediately replaced. Perceptions aside, the profession would not have grown to the mainstream if paralegals had not proven their ability to significantly contribute to the overall effectiveness and profitability of the business.”

Although some firms have cut jobs or initiated hiring freezes, many have set aside more money to pay for freelance work in order to control costs, Sheeren said. In a slow economy, firms are more likely to outsource work to pay for short-term projects, she said. That is good news for unemployed paralegals who have a better chance of landing temporary work, and possibly getting hired by the firm once the economy turns upward.

In the End

When all is said and done, you are not helpless in an unemployment situation. Options abound, although in the thick of things, it may not seem so. A willingness to accept a temporary or freelance position are just two methods among many for coping with the loss of your job. Traumatic though unemployment can be, if you can successfully resolve your practical and emotional issues and develop a plan of action, you will regain the confidence you need to carry on.



Coping With Your Loss

According to psychologist Helene W. King, the first reactions to job loss are pain, fear and lowered self-esteem. “Next, denial of these feelings serves to cushion the discomfort temporarily. Acknowledging these feelings can be a helpful first step toward making efforts to cope successfully.”

A study prepared for Iowa State University in 1997 noted the effects of job loss are beyond mere economics, and impact a person’s emotional and social well-being. Titled, “Stress, Taking Charge,” the study called unexpected unemployment “one of the most stressful events in a lifetime.” And while King agreed it’s not unusual to go through a type of grieving when you lose a job, she added job loss isn’t an irrevocable situation. Usually when there are other aspects of your life that are weighing on you — illness, relationship issues — that is when coping with a job loss is even harder, and for some, devastating.

“The trick is to convert that energy spent on grief into a more positive energy,” King explained. Other experts agree. Catalyst Career Strategies Inc., an Ontario, Canada-based company published an online guide to dealing with becoming unemployed. The guide advises that aside from conducting a job search and organizing your finances, you should work to maintain a normal lifestyle.

“While [a job search] should be a full-time job, it should not be a 24-hour-a-day obsession. You and your family need to socialize and make time for recreation and play to give you the energy for the period ahead,” the guide noted.

By keeping your life in balance and your options open, you can successfully work to maintain a positive outlook. Talking to you peers — professional or otherwise, can also serve as a way of working through your emotions. Networking within your professional circle will not only help you cope, it may lead to your next career opportunity.

“As long as you have your strings out there, you have a chance. If you don’t have your strings out there, you don’t catch any fish,” King said.



Tim Pareti is a Chicago-based freelance writer. He has written articles for the American Bar Association, Chicago Tribune and Texas Lawyer. Pareti holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Texas A&M University at Commerce and a paralegal certificate from Harper Community College. He is a member of the Lambda Epsilon Paralegal National Honor Society. His e-mail address is [email protected].


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