Question & Answer
October 23, 2012
I am a "senior" associate (10 years) who got "asked to leave" the firm. I have a confidentiality agreement so I am not supposed to let anyone know they "let me go," or, of course, bad-mouth the firm. Now in interviews for a new position, how do I answer the question, "...why did you leave your old firm...?"
Although you have left out a number of really important facts (clearly due to your confidentiality agreement), you have told us the most critical issue we need to know. Thanks to what I suspect was some terrific negotiating on your part, you have secured this confidentiality agreement and so, whatever the reason was that caused the firm to let you go, no one is ever going to let you know that this was not of your own doing.
Now, first and foremost, confidentiality agreement or not, of course you would not bad-mouth the firm, right? We all know the 11th commandment pounded in the minds of all interviewees: Thou shall not speak badly about one's former employer.
There are so many reasons for this that I don't even know where to begin. Just put yourself in the shoes of the interviewer. You are interviewing someone and the candidate starts bad-mouthing his/her last employer. It just so happens that this is your best client and you have had nothing but a great relationship with this client. Or, you start thinking wow, if this person has so much to say about his/her last employer, what will s/her say about me someday? The last thing anyone should be doing is ranting on about their previous employer and portraying themselves as a victim.
Since we don't know why you were asked to leave your firm, I am at a loss to give you a specific answer to your question. But the good news is that since you don't have to ever tell anyone that you were asked to leave, it would seem that your old firm is allowing you portray your exit as being your decision.
You just need to hope that everyone at your old firm is either aware of the confidentiality agreement or believes that your departure was indeed at your request because clearly references will be checked at some point. I am assuming you have covered this issue with your past employer? How does this firm plan to cover the matter of references? This is something that you need to cover prior to going on any interviews and make certain that your stories are the same. In other words, if you are going to tell potential employers that as a senior associate with this firm, there clearly was not a future for partnership and that has always been your goal then you had better be certain that your last employer is willing to say that the reason for your departure had to do with the fact that currently associates are not being elected into the partnership.
Whatever you do decide to say and remember, the question as to why you decided to leave your job will definitely be asked be sure to practice in advance and know the answer to this question backwards and forwards.
Your answer needs to be short and to the point. This is not the question on which to spend a lot of time on and deliberate. Besides, the more you talk the more you are liable to get into some areas that will lead to some issues on that confidentiality agreement. Focus more on the achievements you have accomplished and why this potential new employer offers what you are seeking. If your confidentiality agreement allows you to say that you have left on good terms and if you really have make sure you offer up this information.
One question you probably will encounter will be why you left your job before finding a new one. Again, make your answer short and sweet but I would suggest you acknowledge that this might not be the traditional route but in this difficult job market you did want to focus all of your time on your job search and you did not want to short-change your employer on your work schedule.
The most important issue for you to deal with here is to work on what you are going to say as to why you left the firm. It might be the non-existent partnership track, a lack of challenges, a desire to face new challenges, etc. All of these reasons do not reflect poorly on the old firm and in fact, make sure you speak well of your past employer. Just be sure, as I have suggested, to practice your answer, keep it short and move on to what you have to offer to this new employer. Best wishes!
Ann M. Israel