I was fired and then offered my job back a week later

A reader writes:

I work for a small law firm as an attorney and left a higher paying job with a firm in another state to work there. I’ve been employed there for five months, but I’ve only been working for three months because I was severely ill and had surgery unexpectedly two months into my tenure, and was on medical leave for two months. I’ve been back to work for about a month.

I actually expected them to let me go while I was out, but all of the partners were very accommodating and said everyone wanted me back and that they would do their best to accommodate me. Of note is that I don’t think my leave was protected, as I haven’t worked there long enough and the firm isn’t big enough to be subject to leave laws. So, if they wanted me gone, I’m not sure why they didn’t just let me go while I was on leave.

Without any explanation, approximately one month after I returned from medical leave, one of the four partners took me out to lunch and told me “it’s not working out” and “they [the other partners] want [me] gone but will give [me] three months to find something else.” Of note is that I have not had ANY bad reviews, feedback, or personality conflicts with anyone, and I like my job and the people I work with very much. I expressed as much to this partner and asked for the reason behind this gut-punch. Nonetheless, despite a three-hour lunch conversation with this partner, I was never given any substantive reason other than that the firm has a “revolving door” and he’s had this conversation “many times before.”

After wallowing in feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, and doubt for over a week and informing my friends and family of my impending termination, however, said partner invites me out to coffee the following week. He then says the other partners feel like they “haven’t given [me] a chance” and they’re not firing me after all!

To say I’m confused, hurt, disgusted, etc. would be the understatement of the year. I don’t have any other job options at the moment, and lawyers don’t find new jobs easily in general right now, let alone after a few months’ tenure in this particular practice area. Having said that, however, the idea of continuing to work for this firm makes me feel ill. What do I do, and what on earth was this about? There really are no other details that I’m leaving out–I’m as confused by this as I’m sure you will be reading it.

Well, it’s possible that it was related to the medical leave, but most employers would be reasonable about that, and an employer ready to fire you over that would usually do it during the leave itself (“unfortunately we can’t let the position go unfilled this long”) rather than a month after you came back. I suppose it’s possible that they’re nervous about whether a health condition will pull you away for a long stretch again, and that would explain their vagueness since even if they’re too small to be subject to laws around leave, few people want to say “we’re firing you because of your health.”

But the partner’s remark that the firm has a revolving door and that he’s had a similar conversation many times before makes me think that’s not the reason, or at least that it’s not the full reason.

My best guess is that these people are terrible at one or more of the following:
* hiring people who are right for what they need
* setting clear expectations with new people about what they’re looking for and how to succeed (and so people inevitably don’t meet those expectations)
* understanding what’s realistic to expect from a new hire a few months in
* working with people who differ in some way from themselves

And no guessing is needed for this one: We know for sure that they’re terrible at communicating. We know that because otherwise they would have given you feedback all along about whatever concerns they had, or at least at a minimum would have explained those concerns when they decided to fire you. “It’s not working out” is rarely a sufficient explanation to give someone you’re firing; they owed you an attempt to put their concerns into words, even if it was difficult or awkward to do.

They especially owed you that because you left a job in another state to move there for this one. I mean, they’d owe it to anyone, no matter how soft of a landing that person was going to have, but reasonable employers know that there are extra burdens when someone moves to take the job. That doesn’t mean that they have to keep someone who’s not working out, but it means that they owe them a clear explanation (as well as some serious severance, which we’ll get to in a minute).

As for what to do now … that’s hard to say without knowing things like your finances, your other options, and how easily you’ll find a new job. Ideally, you wouldn’t return to this one, since it’s very unlikely that it could be a long-term home for you; in addition to what they’ve exposed themselves as, you’d always be wondering if you’d be fired out of the blue again.

However, if your financial situation doesn’t allow for you to say no, then it could make sense to return so that you have a paycheck coming in, while conducting the most aggressive job search of your life.

Either way, this could be an interesting opportunity to try to extract information out of them. You could say something like, “I appreciate the offer of my job back, but can you help me understand what happened? I’m still in the dark about why I was let go in the first place and if I came back, I’d want to make sure I understand what happened.”

Also, if you choose not to return, I hope you’ll think about trying to negotiate a severance package. This may be complicated by the fact that they’re now offering to let you return, but in general, “I left a higher paying job and moved here for this job, and you fired me without good reason” makes a pretty compelling argument for severance.

{ 95 comments… read them below }

  1. BRR*

    I’m sorry you’re in this position. I would definitely ask about it. I would also start job hunting in case.

    1. BRR*

      Also take care of your mental health during this time. I know a situation like this would wreak havoc on my anxiety.

  2. Gandalf the Nude*

    I may be completely off, but is it possible the partner that communicated the firing and unfiring was acting alone? Like maybe he jumped the gun–on either impressions or moving to fire you– and when the other partners found out he’d already told you that you were fired, they made him undo it. Something about “He then says the other partners feel like they ‘haven’t given [me] a chance’ and they’re not firing me after all!” just gave me that feeling. Definitely make sure that when you’re digging for more info that you talk to the other partners and not just this guy.

    1. some1*

      I was thinking the partner’s decided they need the LW to do the work until they can find a replacement.

      1. Gaara*

        If I had to speculate on the reasons, that would be my guess, too. In fact, given the “revolving door,” I wouldn’t be shocked if they hire “permanent” attorneys on what is really a project basis.

        I think what really matters, though, is that the OP knows their job is not secure. I would go back to work and act like I was trying to make it work, but actively look for a new job. Keep the pay check, get the experience, and get out ASAP.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        But they gave her a three months notice. I’d think that was plenty time to find another attorney from what I’m hearing about the market here all the time.

        1. neverjaunty*

          You’d think, but if their hiring process is as dysfunctional as everything else, they might have trouble. “Why can’t we hire people with 5+ years of experience for this job that pays a third of market rate with no clear future career path?!” Gee, guys, I dunno.

      3. Artemesia*

        This sounds right to me and the OP should be aggressively seeking a new position. They gave him 3 mos to relocate; they are likely to actually dismiss him with little notice 3 mos from now as the ‘re-hiring’ doesn’t come with any long term guarantees. Do your best to contribute so they want to keep you and do your best to find something else so you don’t have to keep them.

    2. Isben Takes Tea*

      I don’t know why, but I immediately thought of that too. It may be worth asking each of the partner’s individually for feedback.

    3. Donna*

      I second this. I’ve actually had this happen to me before.

      In my case, I worked for a family business and a new marketing director come on board. After a week, this guy called me at home and said that they’d decided to go a different direction and wouldn’t be needing me anymore. I was surprised, because I was on good terms with the VP and it seemed like he would’ve handled it himself. Four hours later, the VP called me, apologized, and offered me my job back. He was honest, and said that he and the marketing director had a general “what if” conversation about eventually phasing out my position, but that no plans were ever made. He wasn’t sure why the marketing director had interpreted their conversation in such a way and taken it upon himself to fire me.

      OP, if I were in your position, I’d try to talk to one of the other partners to find out where they stand on the issue. It could be that the partner you’ve been communicating with has completely misrepresented the situation. (Or is completely crazy. I’ve known more than one attorney who had to dump a crazy partner.)

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Wow I can’t imagine how terrible it feels to return to work after something like that and have to look that person in the eye. (for you and Op)

      2. TrainerGirl*

        This happened to me in my first job out of college. I was so green that I didn’t realize how dysfunctional the place was. I was fired when I came in one morning. At the time, I was working for a temp agency, and by the time I got to the agency office, the manager called them to say, “Can you send her back? I’d like to try again.” Turns out that the manager was having a bad day and her response was to fire me. I did go back and was hired but got laid off after a year. I didn’t realize at the time, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was so anxious and stressed out after the firing that I developed OCD until I left that place. That company was eventually sued for firing someone, sending out a memo to the company detailing why she was fired and the denying her unemployment claim by saying that she voluntarily quit. OP, start your job search and don’t look back.

      3. AdminMeow*

        Did he fire the marketing director after this horrible lapse in judgement?

    4. Disillusioned*

      No, he insinuated that one of the other, more senior partners was behind it, and it seems this partner is behind all of the “changes.” I know that partner has zero tolerance for frustration, meaning that if my medical leave inconvenienced that partner in any way, no matter how justified it was (or even if I were dying, which I could have), I could well have landed on that partner’s termination list. That’s my best guess, given the circumstances. I think they just made this other partner do the dirty work because he happens to be the most diplomatic, which isn’t saying much.

  3. Ivy*

    Actually it seems OP has not left yet, so it’s a strong argument for staying where you are while looking for other opportunities. And why not make an attempt to gather better info on what the problem was – by setting a “feedback” chat individually with each partner and trying to get a bit better grasp on where their expectations were not being met

    1. Product Person*

      Yes, I noticed the same thing. Alison’s answer seem to assume the OP has already left, but the letter says the OP was given 3 months to find another job and is still working (joined, worked 2 months, took 2 months of leave for illness, returned for 1 month, at the 5-month mark was notified that the job will be gone in 3 months) . In that position I’d start aggressively job searching, in hopes of being able to leave after the 3 months, or as soon as possible after that (now a possibility since the firing after 3 months is no longer on the table).

  4. MentalEngineer*

    I hate to bring this up, but I guess one of Alison’s bullet points touches on it. Does your demographic/socioeconomic background differ significantly from theirs? The reluctance to discuss reasons could easily be because they don’t want to say “We didn’t really want to hire someone from Background X in the first place.”

    1. MK*

      I don’t know, if that’s the case, why did they hire her? And why are they rehiring her now? I would think that if that kind of fit is so important to them, they would screen for it beforehand or even hire only recommended people. And it would take a pretty determined snob to immediately resort to firing to correct the error. Not to me ntion that the rehire makes no sense in this scenario.

    2. Mazzy*

      You think they are now retroactively discriminating? That doesn’t make much sense. If you read further, I learned something about the way law firms operate and there are much better explanations for what went on than falling back on the same explanations for everything. Apparently some law firms just operate like this.

    3. Disillusioned*

      Not in any significant way, except that I’m a single parent and that was mentioned regularly, even though it had nothing to do with my job. Comments that it must be “so hard” and the implication that it would be easier if I weren’t (translation: I need a man, I guess?) were the norm. And I’m not the type of person to discuss my personal business at work, so they knew this out of necessity, not because I spent time discussing it.

  5. Snarkus Aurelius*

    “It’s not working out” is how you break up with someone who has bad breath or is a terrible kisser or some other reason you don’t want to reveal to spare the person’s feelings.  That excuse doesn’t work in the workplace, especially if you are in a protected demographic because that may be the first place your mind goes to.  

    If you need the job for money in the interim, LW, go back.  I know it’ll hurt your ego, as it would anyone’s, but you should temporarily go back because…

    These aren’t people you can trust.  Regardless if it’s malicious or clumsy, you can’t trust them to know and consistently act on any of the things AAM listed.  This shaky foundation is also bound to affect your work because in the back of your mind, you’re always going to be wondering.  

    If you go back and you’re able to mentally recover from the flip-flopping, I admire you, but I’m not confident many people can.

    1. fposte*

      Obligatory reminder that we’re *all* in a protected demographic. It may seem like nitpicking, but there’s so much sneering talk about “protected groups” that I think it’s really important that people understand they’re in protected groups too.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes! To expand on this, the protected group isn’t Race X or Race Y — it’s “race.” In other words, you cannot discriminate based on race, period — any race. Same thing for religion, sex, national origin, etc. So because everyone has a race, religion or lack or religion, sex, etc., everyone is in a protected class.

        1. PollyQ*

          What about age though? I thought only those older than 40 (?) were protected. Also, curious about disability/ability? Could you be treated differently for NOT being disabled?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Those are the two exceptions — age only protects people 40 and up, and disability protection doesn’t apply to people without disabilities.

            1. Temperance*

              One minor point: people who are “perceived as” disabled are also protected, although that’s an extremely narrow exception.

              1. alex*

                Could you please explain what this means? Do you mean like visible differences that don’t cause any functional hardship (such as, say, a skin issue that has no health effects but could draw unwanted attention) or something totally different or what? Sorry I just don’t understand and am curious.

                1. Ultraviolet*

                  [I am not a lawyer.]

                  I think an example like yours would qualify, since one of the purposes of the “regarded as disabled” provision is to protect people whose disabilities limit their ability to work only because of other people’s attitudes toward them. The other big type of situation covered here is when the employer thinks that an employee’s disability prevents them from doing some specific type of work (e.g. lifting heavy things), but the disability does not actually prevent the employee from doing so. And also, if the employee does not have a disability at all but the employer mistakenly thinks they do (like maybe the employer believed and acted on a totally made-up rumor about the employee).

                2. Temperance*

                  It’s sort of a catch-all – the general gist is that you might have an unrelated disability, or the harmless skin issue, and someone assumes that because of those issues, you are unable to do the job.

          2. MK*

            Well, we are all going to belong to the protected against age discrimination demographic eventually!

        1. Artemesia*

          I don’t think it is a misconception except technically. The fact is that it is harder to fire a minority, someone who is disabled or an older person than someone who is not in those categories. Yes, firing someone for being a white middle aged presbyterian would be discrimination and so he is in a protected class — but that isn’t what happens and the EEOC isn’t going to be jumping on that case. Having a minority or disabled employee greatly complicates things if they are slackers or incompetent.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            It doesn’t! At least not anywhere that’s competently managed. You give clear feedback, you document problems, and you fire if that doesn’t work. Race doesn’t need to enter into it.

            The problem with people framing it this way is that it leads to really horrible racial shit — like someone assuming that Bob only has his job because of his race, or being hesitant to take a risk on Jane because we’ll never be able to fire her if doesn’t work out. So it’s important to push back on this.

          2. Mags*

            “Having a minority or disabled employee greatly complicates things if they are slackers or incompetent”

            No. It absolutely does not. Please stop perpetuating these harmful falsehoods.

          3. Blanche Devereaux*

            Yeah, what Alison said.

            As long as an employer has documented any issues with the employee beforehand, there’s no reason for this to be difficult regardless of the employee’s minority status–unless of course, the employer is the one who acts funny about it.

            The “complications” of firing minority employees are imagined.

          4. Mookie*

            The fact is that it is harder to fire a minority, someone who is disabled or an older person than someone who is not in those categories.

            Can you explain what you mean here and then cite some data that supports that assertion? Everything I’ve read indicates that in the US black and hispanic people are more likely to be laid off than other , experience historically disproportionate rates of unemployment and are more likely to see their unemployment benefits disappear because they can’t find a job. If that’s true, it seems difficult to reconcile what you’re saying with what the statistics suggest.

  6. alter_ego*

    I’m probably looking for zebras here, but is it possible that this is a tactic to try and make you stay in a dysfunctional workplace? Like negging? Because if they say hey, we don’t like you, but here’s this long lead time to find a new job, so that you’re still working there when they come back in a week and say “hey, we’re going to give you a second chance”. And now you work three times as hard to prove yourself because they’ve told you that they’re willing to fire you at the drop of a hat, with no feedback leading up to it, so the only way you can be sure that you’re in their good graces is to never turn down overtime or beg out of a project you don’t have time for. You wouldn’t want to end up back in that “revolving door” would you?

    1. JMegan*

      That sounds both horrific and plausible. Either way, OP, I’m with everyone who is saying stay there as long as you need to in order to maintain financial stability, and also to GTFO as soon as you can regardless. Good luck.

    2. OlympiasEpiriot*

      Yeah. I am wondering this, too, in addition to the possibility that Partner was acting alone. IANAL, but I have rarely heard good things about working for them. Too many personalities with Loose Cannon Capability and a general lack of management skills. Best situations I’ve heard about are very small offices (ie: one step up from sole practitioners where all the personalities mesh well) and very large ones (big corporate firms, often with international offices — they have professionals handling HR and have more checks and balances in place).

      Of course, what do I know. Despite my interest in Law, I stayed away from it due to too many tales from friends about fellow law students stealing notes and sabotaging each other on projects and in exam time. Engineers are required to work together cooperatively, even if it kills us. So, I donate money to the Center for Constitutional Rights instead.

      1. neverjaunty*

        The stealing notes and sabotaging projects thing is really not a widespread and inevitable thing. But a decision on whether to go to law school shouldn’t be based on ‘what is law school going to be like’ but on what your career as a lawyer would be like. Way too many people go to law school because they think it will be just kind of a shorter and more interesting version of college, and then find out too late that the practice of law is pretty much nothing at all like law school.

        1. OlympiasEpiriot*

          I *was* thinking about what the career would be like. If I study with people who I can’t trust, and they are going into the same field, it means I’m going to be working with those same people. I know a lot of lawyers socially, many I knew when they were in LS. ALL of them said that BS was present even though it wasn’t all students. I was not willing to deal with it. Intellectually, I really like law. My favorite class in engineering school was Contracts and Specifications (dumbed-down for us). I am good at writing them.

          I chose engineering which demands collaboration with other engineers, with other professions, with clients. I do often end up in an adversarial (forensic) position, but it is within a collaboration of a project.

      2. Temperance*

        Honestly, as an attorney, I purposely chose a law school with a collaborative environment and I’m glad I did. There was one wannabe badass in my class who said he would sabotage us DURING ORIENTATION … and we went out of our way to avoid him like the cancer that he was.

    3. Michelenyc*

      It is actually quite normal for law firms to give extended lead times to find a new job. I have a few friends here in NYC that are lawyers and this how it was handled at the firms they worked for.

      1. sam*

        Yes – unless there is some sort of “cause” for firing, law firms tend to do a “soft” landing – 3 to 6 months of “notice” to enable people to find new jobs and let them represent themselves as still employed.

        Because the law firm model is designed to only “promote” a very limited number of people to partner, letting people go is painful, but is also often expected at a certain point.

        1. Christopher Tracy (formerly Doriana Gray)*

          They never did this for the attorneys who worked at the firm where I used to work. The attorneys were laid off/fired without notice all the time. I think the firm did this because they thought it would stop the attorneys from going to one of our competitors and sharing firm secrets with them.

        2. Michelenyc*

          One of my friends that was not partner material but did a fabulous & was well liked amoungst the partners was given the you are not on the partner track talk but was told she could take as long as she needed to find a new position. I think she stayed another year before she found her current position.

      2. Lily in NYC*

        My office has taken to giving employees three months to find a new job unless they are being fired for cause (we aren’t a law firm). At first I thought it was a nice gesture, but I quickly came to realize that we do it to save on severance pay.

        1. sam*

          That’s the other thing it does – when I got “laid off”, I got six months notice. But what that meant was that instead of getting severance up front (or even in installments), I basically got paid as an employee with no work responsibilities for six extra months. If I had managed to find a job two weeks into my notice period, they would have stopped paying me.

          Of course, I would have ultimately preferred to find a job, but no such luck. I got paid for the full six months (plus 14 days of accrued PTO). That’s what they get for laying me off in the middle of the financial crisis.

    4. Christopher Tracy (formerly Doriana Gray)*

      This is exactly how it used to work at the old firm I worked at, alter_ego. Attorneys, and the support staff, were routinely fired and then sometimes rehired for that reason (and sometimes budget concerns as well, but mainly the power trip).

  7. College Career Counselor*

    Honestly, to me, this sounds like a small law firm acting like Big Law. From what I understand, the law firm is not going to tell you what you need to do to improve because it’s not really about that. You could be doing just fine, but if the business loses a client or the partner doesn’t like you, or you’re too expensive vs. a new law grad, they’ll do whatever they think maximizes their profit. So, the “revolving door” and “had this conversation many times before” demonstrate that they’ll bring someone on for awhile and then let them go when it suits their business needs.

    Because I am also a cynic, I think that the reversal of the firing may be because someone in the firm belatedly thought that they were at risk for a lawsuit and/or a large severance package. I’m sorry this happened to you, OP, and I hope you’re able to find something else because this doesn’t sound like a stable situation.

    1. Kelly F*

      Yeah, this was my thought as well. Law firms hire (and sometimes fire) based on the amount of demand from clients.

      It’s also possible that right after the firing conversation, they found out there is a matter coming up that will require a lot of man hours or something.

    2. Pwyll*

      Yeah, law firms can be pretty bad at their own employment practices (and if they practice employment law, for some bizarre reason, they’re probably VERY bad at it). And I agree, unfortunately many small law firms do act this way without any real thought to sound management practices.

      I agree with everything Alison said, though. I actually have a bunch of law school friends who started at small firms and left within their first year to larger firms/government/etc. At the time they labored over their decision to leave before the 1 year mark, but in the end it all worked out. And really, in an interview you could say something like, “There’s been an indication that the firm will be reducing its headcount, and as one of the newest Attorneys I thought it best to get in front of that. I’ve appreciated what I learned there but am looking for more stability.”

      1. Strange Kitty*

        “There’s been an indication that the firm will be reducing its headcount, and as one of the newest Attorneys I thought it best to get in front of that. I’ve appreciated what I learned there but am looking for more stability.”

        Great line!

    3. CM*

      Ugh, law firms are the worst at treating people with decency and respect, and small law is worse than BigLaw because there is less accountability.

      If you’re willing to accept that your firm may not treat you like a human being, I’d go straight to Alison’s second-to-last paragraph and ask what you can do to avoid a situation like this in the future, and then continue working as if nothing ever happened. In my experience, law firm partners respect people who take a beating and are unfazed by it, and who in general show total dedication to the firm even when treated like crap. I can totally imagine everyone laughing over this, with cigars, in a few years. Can you imagine pretending this is funny one day, while restraining yourself from putting a cigar out in someone’s eye? If so, this job could work out fine for you in the end.

      (I don’t mean to sound bitter, I actually had a decent law firm experience, but I have seen and heard a lot.)

      1. R2D2*

        There seem to be some personality traits that are rewarded in the courtroom that are absolutely poisonous in normal office settings — law firms have a surprising number of people problems, especially in the part of the office where lawyers interact with non-lawyers.

        1. neverjaunty*

          Those traits don’t work as well in the courtroom as well as the people who have them think they do, tbh.

          But yeah, law firms can be the worst. I think it’s more a function of lawyers having a tendency to assume that they can master any skill with a little effort, and don’t understand that practicing law is VERY different from managing a law firm.

    4. pope suburban*

      Agreed. OP, for what it’s worth, this is A Thing that happens. Not that that makes it okay, but that it’s very probably got nothing at all to do with you. My first “real” job out of college was at a large firm, and no one was really surprised when they started cutting interns (Me, among others) or couriers or copy-shop employees in late 2008, because no one had had billable hours for a good three months. Was *was* a surprise was the “it’s not working out” talk in the middle of a workday, and the absolute farce that was their denial of my unemployment claim (They lost so fast, it nearly broke the sound barrier). I came to find out later that this was how that firm operated, which accounted for the large number of attorneys who had once worked there and then moved on. I think it’s a terrible way to operate, but clearly I am in a minority there, since I hear variations on this story all the dang time.

    5. Meg Murry*

      Yes, this is what I thought. Combo of either the partner doing the initial firing went rogue, or that partner + one other partner decided OP should go, then another party got up in the mix and said “Wait! You are setting us up for a lawsuit for firing OP because s/he is a woman/minority/because of her medical condition! Go undo it!”

      Or this is how this firm plays mind games with people to get them to quit rather than fire them and offer severence.

      Any way you look at it, the writing is on the wall and this isn’t a place you want to stay, OP. I’d do the minimum necessary to not get outright fired again (if you even have a clue what that is in this dysfunctional an environment) and focus the rest of your effort on getting out of there.

      If this place really is a revolving door, maybe you can find other people via LinkedIn that have worked at the firm in the past and see if they might be willing to meet with you to give you the scoop? It sounds like this isn’t the first time this firm has done this (given the “revolving door” comment) so it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that this firm has a reputation in the area (and hence why they recruited you out of state). If there is a reputation, if OP interviews elsewhere she probably wouldn’t even have to bring it up, she could probably just refer to the reputation and everyone would know why she’s leaving (it’s not her, it’s them). That’s how it was when I left a terrible job that was known throughout the industry for being a terrible place – when asked why I was leaving all I had to say was “well, I’m sure you’ve heard about OldCompany’s reputation, and I’m sorry to say it’s well deserved. The position at NewCompany interested me because [blah, blah, including something about having a good reputation]”

      The only thing that might give me a little pause would be if OP’s moving expenses were paid by the firm and if they would expect her to pay them back if she moves on. However, even that might be negotiable with the person who originally told her she only had 3 months before she was let go, and even if not it would probably be worth it to get out.

      OP, I’m so sorry, this is a terrible situation. I hope you can get out of it and find a less-bad one, if not an outright good job.

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        (and hence why they recruited you out of state)

        Someone I know who was not a lawyer was hired at a big multinational company because the boss/manager had such a toxic reputation, no one in the continental US would work for him. Or so my friend found out once he started working there.

        So yeah, I can see how if you’ve poisoned your own well, you have no other choice but to go elsewhere to find the water you need.

        1. Disillusioned*

          This is a very interesting and very intuitive point that I hadn’t considered. It makes so much sense, though, especially since their newest victim…ahem, employee …is also from out of state.

    6. Temperance*

      I work in BigLaw, and have friends who work at small firms. Their universal experience is that very small firms are far, far worse than BigLaw. I’d much rather work at my firm, or a similarly large one, than ever work at a tiny firm.

      1. kat*

        It may be because I’m in Canada (Ontario), but I’ve worked at a few medium/small firms, and they’ve all been great, – but the smaller the better.

        I articled at a 20-lawyer firm, and they gave me a 6-month contract afterwards (reduced to 5 months on a 1-month notice). Not much explanation given, but none needed either: everyone at the firm had connections to the small town it was in; I was from 700 km away.

        My next job was with 2 and then 3 other lawyers, and I’ve nothing but good things to say about it. One boss, who was always considerate and flexible. I was sad to leave it (for family reasons), and I do miss my boss. He valued establishing good personal connections with clients, so I always felt that my work mattered.

        The next was a 12-month term with 10 other lawyers. They didn’t offer me to stay, but I knew that they didn’t have enough business at the time either. And even though I do a great job, I’m not a person who would bring them much business (which they could probably tell). So again, no explanations needed.

        Now happily employed with the government.

      2. Cat*

        I think there’s more variation. Big firms are reasonably predictable in their levels of dysfunction. Small firms can be fantastic or horrific.

          1. Cat*

            There’s plenty of other companies in here that is dysfunctional too. It’s hardly unique to law. And I work at a twenty lawyer firm and love it.

            Big firms are a different thing. I chose not to go that route because I knew I couldn’t hack the hours or atmosphere and have never regretted it. But people are paid very, very well for it.

          2. Temperance*

            I worked in shared office space before law school, and that was far, far more dysfunctional than any other place I’ve ever worked. Hands down.

        1. Sarahnova*

          I think that’s true of all companies, though…? Mega-big companies are rarely wildly dysfunctional all through, although they can certainly have toxic depts and teams. Small companies can be awesome, or the stuff of WTF Wednesdays. I’ve had both experiences: started my career at Big Corp plc, which was political and hierarchical but reasonably functional, moved to Toxic Smallish Firm, and now work for Awesome Smallish Firm. (IANAL of any kind.)

  8. matcha123*

    I’ve been in almost the exact same situation. Except the person that initiated the firing didn’t like me. In my case, I didn’t have many options and kept working there while filling out applications. I found a new job a few months later.
    I should add that unlike the OP, when I was asked to continue with the company, I didn’t feel “ill” or anything like that. The best ‘revenge’ was showing up to work everyday and knowing how angry it made the guy that wanted me gone.

  9. EA*

    I’m sorry, this really sucks.

    I also know a bit about the legal market, so I know it will be difficult for you to find another position. I think it sounds like a small firm that is not run particularly well. FWIW- I have some former colleagues who had success transitioning out of law- a few in consulting, another in compliance. They are much happier and feel the environments are more stable.

  10. MsMaryMary*

    I’m wondering if it’s a financial issue for the firm. The “we need to terminate you for vague reasons” closely followed by “oh, wait, we want you to stay” makes me think the partners were going to have difficulty making payroll but unexpectedly found some additonal revenue. A friend of mine was a paralegal for a one attorney law firm, and her boss was terrible about laying off staff one month and then trying to hire them back the next month when she got a new case. The partner’s comment about having conversations like this many times before reminded me of my friend’s ex-boss. OP, you didn’t say if your medical leave was paid or not, but if it was unpaid the partners might just now be realizing they can’t afford another associate.

  11. sam*

    I had a friend who experienced something like this years ago. We were early on in our careers at my first firm, and the firm did a round of layoffs when the dot-com bust happened. My friend was on the chopping block for vague “reasons”. We were pretty sure at the time that some of those “reasons” had to do with my friend’s somewhat colorful personality and a rather conservative person having decision-making input.

    Of course, the people who made the decision were not the people who he actually worked with, and when they found out, all sorts of sh*t hit all sorts of fans. The layoff was rescinded the following Monday.

    I won’t even get into the brilliance of having layoffs in the middle of the summer, with all of our summer associates present. Or that my friend was actually sharing his office with a summer associate. That made an *excellent* impression.

    Needless to say though, my friend went immediately into job search mode, found a new job at a bigger firm with a much better reputation, and made partner, while our original firm (which I also left a few years later) went bankrupt (note – for those who know me around here, yes BOTH major law firms I worked at went bankrupt. My resume is *tons* of fun to talk about in interviews).

    But it was a lot easier (both then and now, I imagine) to find a new job as an “active” employee than as a recently laid-off one. So I agree with everyone else who has said to put your job search into high gear, but stay put in the current place (and with your current paycheck and health insurance (!)) until you find something else.

    1. Temperance*

      That’s so difficult. I work with a few former Wolfies at my firm, and they all had a fairly difficult time securing new employment, especially those who were kept on after the firm closed to help with the transition.

      My firm went through a small layoff last year (targeted), and it did seem that most of those chosen were for “fit” reasons. One of the pool was universally known as strange/weird to the point where people would ask me not to work with him at certain events, or to keep him away from our important clients.

      1. sam*

        My entire group moved from Thelen Reid & Priest to Dewey Ballantine. Some of the partners still had some financial repercussions from the first when the second hit because of the way partnership finances can take years to completely unwind.

        1. swingbattabatta*

          Fellow dewey survivor here. The silver lining was that it was very easy to explain why I was job hunting in interviews…

  12. Allison*

    They’ve proven themselves to be fickle, one day they seem to like you just fine, then you gotta go, but then they’re like “wait no, stay here!” Don’t stay with them. It would be like staying with someone who breaks up with you and then takes you back right away, you might be relieved at first, but you’ll never be able to shake the fear that they might do it again, and it might be permanent next time.

  13. Paloma Pigeon*

    I love Alison’s checklist of what they are bad it – so helpful. FYI I worked at a small nonprofit for 2 months and was let go with no warning either; and this place is a notorious revolving door. They hire/fire people within 3 months constantly. Glassdoor is your friend here, though it can be hard if a company is too small to be listed. OP, so sorry this happened to you.

  14. JustAnotherHRPro*

    I recently read an article about how law firms are the worst offenders of discriminatory workplace practices….I think of this because our attorneys are always telling us that you have to be careful when letting someone go so close to a medical leave of absence, even if it wasn’t protected leave. Letting someone go for a medical issue is still discriminatory and therefore illegal, not to say that is what is going on in this case.

    And yes, my guess is that this isn’t an employment law firm the OP works for…

  15. Greg*

    Agree with AAM and the commenters that you should go back (if you can) and start looking right away. As for what to say to potential employers, I would just say something vague like, “The job wasn’t what I expected” (which is certainly true!) And if you find a new job relatively quickly, you can leave this one off your resume, especially since you have the built-in excuse of your medical leave to cover that time period.

  16. Dixieland Lawyer*

    Ditto to the other lawyers in the bunch – this is (unfortunately) par for the course in Small Law. When I worked in a small firm (apprx 25 lawyers + 15 support staff), I saw more people fired than I did working for a 500+ person non-profit research institution. I think I saw at least 20 people fired within my first three years (granted, some of this was due to high turnover in certain support positions). With few exceptions, the fired employees seemed to be doing just fine work-wise, but my impression is that they did not wow (or worse, angered) a powerful partner, usually over something stupid, which left them at the mercy of the powerless HR director (who catered exclusively to the whims of the equity partners). For example, I once had a partner I didn’t even work with come into my office on a 30-minute tirade over the informality of my emails – his concern was about two internal emails I had written that he didn’t like – I had the gall to admit that a certain assignment was in a practice area I had never worked in before (I’ll note that his emails were rarely written in complete sentences). That day, I truly felt he was going to fire me over this.

    All this to say: you likely were a great employee and are a great lawyer objectively, but it’s just as likely that you didn’t meet the esoteric subjective expectations that they had for you (which, of course, they never communicated to you because lawyers are notoriously bad at doing so).

    1. Jellyfish*

      “but my impression is that they did not wow (or worse, angered) a powerful partner, usually over something stupid, which left them at the mercy of the powerless HR director (who catered exclusively to the whims of the equity partners).”


      If a partner brings in enough money to a law firm, other partners and HR look the other way if said partner behaves badly. I’ve worked for several difficult partners – at firms small, medium, and large – including one who went through 3-4 assistants every year, and another who became enraged if I didn’t leave a large “Went to Lunch” poster on my desk every day when I, ya know, went to lunch. As I did every day at 12:00 p.m.

      OP, this is a horrible situation and you have my sympathies. Hard as it may be, try not to take this personally. It’s probably much more about Kooky Rainmaker syndrome than about you. Best wishes!

  17. Anon21*

    “Three months to find something else” may be the partner’s way of offering three months’ severance–i.e., they don’t want her to work there anymore, but will pay her for that time anyway. In law firm layoffs I’ve seen, that’s sometimes how the situation is characterized.

  18. DMC*

    Maybe they ARE big enough to be encompassed under the ADA, which has a lower threshold than FMLA/CFRA, and realized they might be exposing themselves to liability.

  19. Althea*

    I smell partner politics…

    Personally, I would have some conversations with the other partners at the firm at get their take on what Crazy Partner said. I’m wondering if Crazy Partner didn’t like the OP, and did this to get her to leave, all the while blaming it on the partners and trying to look like the nice guy.

    It’s still probably a good idea to job search, but it could yield valuable information during whatever time OP stays. Plus, it could help with staying on the good side of some of the partners, get some perspective on Crazy Partner, and provide a good reference. They could ALL be crazy, of course. But if it’s just the one guy, there’s a lot to be gained by having conversations with the other partners.

  20. Ruffingit*

    How would collecting unemployment work in this situation? I mean, technically OP has a job offer, but…I just can’t imagine returning in such a scenario.

  21. Slippy*

    I would also watch to see that the paychecks keep coming in the same amount. As mentioned earlier they may be trying to treat the OP like a per project employee or a faux 1099.

  22. stevenz*

    Just for the record, taking someone to lunch to deliver this kind of news is really bad form, too. Exactly how is this good for the appetite?

  23. Disillusioned*

    I am the letter writer. First, thank you very much, Alison, for your thoughtful and accurate response. Also, thank you to all of the posters for your insight and opinions. It took me a while to respond because I was dealing with what occurred shortly after I wrote with my question. I was given a “six-month review” (another term for the “conversation during which we tell you we’re unhappy but don’t offer any substantive reasons nor any ways by which you can redeem yourself”) during which I was told that I had “a general appearance of dissatisfaction,” “seemed flustered and frazzled,” and “work too many late hours but don’t come in early enough.” My response was calm and collected, as I expected something similar, given the bizarre conversations I’d had with the partner previously. I did, however, ask why I was supposed to “appear satisfied” after first being told I was being fired and then being told I wasn’t. I also asked for examples of looking flustered, of which I was given none, other than that they knew I’d done my first trials without any supervision, which wasn’t ideal, but “anyway, [I] looked flustered, according to the client.” I also asked what time they wanted me to arrive in the morning, as I was never given a set arrival time, our informal policy is that if we work late we adjust the following day accordingly, and I always arrived at a reasonable time and was available 24/7 by phone, text, or email. They told me they were unwilling to give me a specific time, just that I needed to come in earlier. Mind you, when I began, the office administrator gave me a suggested start time, which I followed, except when I had been working late the previous night or had a doctor’s appointment.

    I left the meeting as confused as I had left the weird lunch meetings with the partner who first spoke to me about the issue. I had no better idea how to improve my performance than I did walking into the meeting and resigned myself to continue looking for another job while doing the best I could under the circumstances. That was a Friday. In light of their comment that I looked “flustered and frazzled,” I went to a salon the following morning to see if getting my hair done wouldn’t improve my looking “flustered.” (Yes, really. Mind you, I have a pretty polished appearance in general, including wearing suits or button-up shirts and dress pants, subtle makeup.) That was when I got a text message from the partner who originally informed me of the possible firing that he and the more senior partner needed to speak to me “right away.” I told them to email me whatever it was and I’d address it immediately (we normally don’t speak by phone on weekends, and I handle any urgent assignments by email). He said no and that it couldn’t wait. I knew then it was bad news, so I asked if it could wait until Monday. He said no and then said I was forcing him to “do it this way,” and he proceeded to fire me via text message. Yep. The only reason given was, “it’s not working out.”

    So, I’m now unemployed, disgusted with the practice of law at the moment, and looking for a job in a more normal environment. Frankly, after several years of practice, I don’t know if that’s possible working for lawyers. I want feedback, even if it’s bad, because how else can an employee improve? I also don’t think that I’m any special snowflake, but as a side note, all of my feedback up to that conversation had been positive. The only comment I’d ever received was that I write a lot (because of my lack of familiarity with the practice area, which they knew hiring me, I tended to provide more information than perhaps necessary). I am a hard worker and actually seek out feedback, good or bad, because I want to know. This has shaken my confidence and made me question everything, as I still don’t know what I could have done differently other than maybe not have gotten sick.

  24. Gregory Antoine Toussaint*

    My name is Gregory Toussaint and I’m in a difficult situation because I recently got fired from Macy’s at Roosevelt Field for stealing a orange Polo hoodie. I made a mistake in my mind that cashiers weren’t allowed to take 100 dollar bills. However loss prevention got a video of me and the more I think about it the harder it is for me to get a job my confidence goes low. One part that wasn’t true was the accusation of $100,000 they claim I stole but I didn’t. I need your help on redeeming myself over the mistake I did as a challenge for 6 months so I don’t do it again and it’s hard for me to get another job since I’m unemployed again. How many months and years can a person be fired? I also need help with my confidence because my life is upside down.

  25. Wallum Butchar*

    I was fired from a job because of unreasonable expectations. Shortly afterwards and a couple “replacements” later, plus profit loss and nobody (including the employer) able to fill in my position, I get asked back. My response is that they should have listened to me rather than put more pressure on me. (Forgot to mention that I made changes that increased productivity over double and broke all time profit records.) Some people are more greedy than grateful. So if they want me back, it’ll be on contract with a 60% pay increase. (Less than 1/4 of what they will continue to lose each month since I left.) Main actual problem is a personality conflict. Boss is buddies with a worker who everyone wants to see gone and who complains about everyone. My record for fixing this guy’s mistakes has hurt his pride too much. Though I loved my job and my co-workers, I really can’t see myself elf going back without (1) a formal apology, (2) a 60% raise with a written contract and (3) termination of a certain problematic employee. Done playing games for brats who own businesses.

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