Update (5/10/08) – I have changed my position on this and updated it here.
Update (5/7/08) – a commenter points out that the associate did not send the memo to Above the Law, but instead, that it was circulated by another attorney. This makes the story more unfortunate, because the associate may not have wanted so much widespread publicity. On the other hand, in an Internet Age, most of us have to assume that any inflammatory emails that we send are destined for broader publication.
Make no mistake, mega-law firm Paul Hastings acted insensitively, boorishly – and possibly even unlawfully – in terminating this associate six days after she suffered a miscarriage and then pretending that the firing was merit based. But by publicly venting about about her termination at the heavily trafficked Above the Law website, the associate made her own situation far worse than the firm that let her go. Here’s why.
According to its website, Paul Hastings has 1200 lawyers, some of whom might have tried to help this associate find a new job. Some might have sent her referrals had she gone to another law firm or started her own, thus helping her build a porfolio of business which could advance her career. And while the work might have come because of a belief in her merit or out of guilt for having done her wrong, what’s the difference? In any event, this associate will never find out what could have been, because she burned those contacts with her incendiary post.
In fact, so intent was this associate on lashing out that she rejected the firm’s offer of three months of severance pay – probably around $50,000 with her biglaw salary biglaw dollars – to avoid signing a non-disparagement agreement that would have precluded her from posting the email about the firm. Imagine the kind of law firm this associate could have started with a $50,000 nest egg.
Now, as I said at the outset, it’s true that the firm may have acted unlawfully. As some commenters at Above the Law suggested, the firm may have decided to fire the associate quickly after her miscarriage to get rid of her before she could get pregnant again. And the associate claims that her previously stellar reviews were downgraded in her last months at the firm, which might also suggest that the firm used her alleged lack of merit as a pretext for termination. If that’s the case, the associate should retain competent employment counsel and file a lawsuit, because law firms won’t change their conduct otherwise. But even if she has a viable claim, she [needs to stop blogging – redact] should not air it publicly – which will only cost her good will and most likely to hurt her case rather than help it.
However, most associate terminations aren’t the result of unlawful conduct. In most cases, firings are based partly on economics (the firm could afford to keep an around if it had money) and partly on merit (let’s face it, when economics dictate terminations, the firm dumps the lower performers first). And for most lawyers who are accustomed to easy success, rejection hurts.
I feel sorry for the associate because I’ve been in her shoes. As I reveal in Solo by Choice, my law firm gave me my walking papers which eventually lead me to start my own firm. I’m sure that she’s smart and talented, but frankly, I’d never hire her. If a public “f-you” to her former employer represents her best way of dealing with adversity, how is she going to help clients solve their problems?
As a final note, if you find yourself in the same position as this associate, go ahead and write that email and cleanse the anger and hurt and frustration from your system. Then hit the delete key and move on with your life.