Interviewing after Being Let Go

Q: The summer before my final year of law school, I clerked for a firm, which I joined as an associate upon graduation. Nine months after joining the firm as an associate, they let me go with a very generous severance package. I had consistently received positive feedback on my work both as a clerk and as an associate; however, when informed of the firm's decision, I was told by various partners that they thought my work was sub-par and that I was not aggressive enough for that firm. I have since discovered that two partners (out of ten) were behind the decision, and that at least one partner fought to keep me at the firm. As expected, potential employers inquire into my reasons for leaving the firm. I'm wondering how best to answer such questions in interviews.

A: It seems that it would be advantageous to have a conversation with your former supervisor. Let this person know that this job has been a learning experience for you, but the fact that you've been let go is a hindrance in your pursuit of new employment. Ask this person what he or she might be saying in a pre- or post- employment reference check. How is he or she describing your leaving the company? Would he or she be willing to say that you resigned? A good starting point may be to simply inquire whether the company has a policy regarding employment verification and references. Many companies have instituted policies that prevent them from providing information beyond verifying a job title and period of employment in order to avoid potential liability for defamation. If you former employer has such a policy you needn't ask for anything additional.

On the other hand, your former employer may be willing to deal with your departure even if the company hasn't previously instituted a policy of this kind. If you handle this in a mature and calm manner, perhaps your former supervisor will agree to this humane approach and say that you resigned (after all, this type of response saves potential headaches and lawsuits). If not, how about asking one (or more) partners who backed you for references. In fact, you may want to request this regardless of your former supervisor's response.

You don't really want to advertise being fired but you do need to always be honest while trying to package it in a positive way, such as (of course, assuming that this is a true statement):

  • Feedback I had gotten on my previous position indicated that I could have been more assertive on the job - which proved to be a learning experience. Since then I have worked on this aspect of myself and believe I've improved appropriately. References I've included can validate the strength of my contributions in this position.


For additional interviewing strategies consult:

  • Knockem Dead: The Ultimate Job Seekers Handbook, by Martin Yate (Bob Adams Inc., 2000), and
  • Sweaty Palms: The Neglected Art of Being Interviewed, by H. Anthony Medley (Ten Speed Press, 1992).