Ten years after the 2008 financial crisis, I find myself thinking about that time in my life again and reflecting on how I was able to navigate the treacherous, hydra-like waters of financial crisis and law firm drama by being both proactive and lucky (but mostly lucky). With markets pushing all-time highs while debt is piling up across the world, I have some thoughts on my experience that fall and into early 2009 which I hope will serve me – and you – well if we enter another similar downturn in the near future.
Back in 2008 I was a mid-level associate at a Vault 100 law firm in Manhattan and had just gotten engaged to my now wife. While the financial crisis was brewing that fall, I was mostly oblivious, busy working on a bunch of real estate matters (little did I know that none of our clients were paying their bills –but that’s another story.)
Making matters worse, the partners whom I was doing most of my work for at the time announced just before Christmas that they were leaving for a smaller firm, and weren’t asking me to go with them. I wasn’t unhappy about them leaving – they were, to put it mildly, two real jerks – but in terms of my workload it was like being cut loose at sea without a life preserver. I remember billing less than 90 hours in December of 2008 and thinking that if I didn’t figure something out quickly, I was going to be in real danger of losing my job.
As luck would have it, there were a few other partners within the same practice group at the time who were relatively new to the firm and didn’t have a dedicated associate. The two partners who left had essentially blocked me from doing any work for that group (one of the many reasons why they were jerks). So when they announced they were leaving, I moved quickly to introduce myself to the other partners, explained the situation and my background, and essentially begged them for work. I also remember fighting my way through the litigation department for more documents to review on a major internal investigation for a large corporate client, which kept most of the associates in the firm busy for a few months. When it all added up, there were enough hours to keep me afloat through the first quarter of 2009.
I was a fierce Above the Law reader as an associate and, in early 2009, the news on the site went from talk of “stealth layoffs” to summer associates getting deferred, to outright layoffs, including rumors within our firm. Sometime in February, I remember getting a random email, out of the blue, late on a Friday afternoon, from a senior partner in another office. He asked me to prepare a research memo by first-thing Monday morning about a very esoteric issue. Reading between the lines, I realized that the assignment was essentially for my job. I never got confirmation of it, but I strongly suspected that it had come down to laying me off or somebody else, and it was essentially a Hunger Games-like competition to see whom the firm wanted to keep.
So, I went into the office that weekend and worked really hard to produce a well-reasoned and well-written research memo, which the partners were pleased with. And I kept my job while in the next few weeks a bunch of other well-qualified associates were terminated. It was a frightening time and I’ll never really know who – if anyone – went to bat for me behind the scenes in the partner meetings. But looking back, I realize how (mostly) oblivious I was to how high the stakes were. If I had blown that memo off, or done poorly with it, my legal career probably would have been over.
Instead, I was able to stick with the firm for another three years until I landed my first in-house counsel position. I still think about how differently things could have turned out for me had I not been proactive about looking for work outside of my practice group or been lucky to have those other partners vouching for me and my work product.
Now, with pundits predicting another financial crisis on the horizon, what are the lessons I learned in 2008 that I’m thinking about today to make sure I survive in the event of another early 2009-style lawyer massacre?
Keep your head down and work hard. Acknowledging that so much of what happens is outside of your control, try and control what you can control. And that’s working hard for your clients – whether they be external or internal at an in-house gig. Deliver value every day and treat your job like somebody is trying to take it away from you (because somebody probably is.) You might end up losing your job anyway, but at least it wasn’t because you were slacking off. I love the story about Larry Bird shooting baskets in his driveway after practice and telling somebody that he wasn’t shooting baskets, but “making luck.” I believe that advice applies everywhere in your life, including law practice.
Always have enough liquid savings to get you through at least six months of living expenses. Much easier said than done, but have savings somewhere (preferably not tied up in the stock market) that you would be comfortable liquidating to cover living expenses in the event you lose your job. Hopefully if that happens you will get a few months of severance and, because you’re proactive and thinking about this stuff already, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running on day one after you get notice looking for a new gig.
Always have a Plan B. I keep a list of five people that I would immediately call or email if I lost my job to see if they could help me out. I update this list periodically and make sure that these people always know what I’m working on, professionally, and what my long-term goals are. If I got notice that I lost my job they wouldn’t even necessarily know that it happened because we are always in touch. Follow companies you might want to work for on LinkedIn and subscribe to their job alerts. You never know what can happen in your life – stay positive and make your own luck!
Never burn bridges. I’ve said this so many times here at Dollar Barrister but two out of the three in-house roles I’ve had came through warm connections with prior coworkers or colleagues. There is simply no reason to ever burn bridges in this profession – it’s a small world, especially within practice areas, and you just never know how things will unfold or who will be on your team in the future. There’s a difference between being an aggressive advocate for your client and being a jerk – when in doubt, err on the side of the former.
What are your memories of the 2008 financial crisis? Have they changed the way you think about your job, your finances, or anything else in your life? Let us know below in the comments!