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Commentary: Departing your law firm

The tide is turning in law firms. The conventional practice of starting a career with a firm and remaining until retirement is no longer the norm. According to a recent National Law Journal article, “the market for lateral partners is the most robust it’s been in 22 years.”

Whether it is a single attorney shifting laterally to another firm, attorneys branching out to start their own firm or a group of attorneys leaving to join a competitor, attorney departures often send ripples throughout the legal community. If not handled properly, departures can negatively impact reputations and client relationships.

Law firm splits are not dissimilar to divorces of couples with children, leaving the clients in the middle. The best way to deal with the split is to put the client’s interest first. Communication is the key, and a collaborative approach is better for everyone concerned.

First and foremost, attorneys must ensure they meet their ethical duties toward their clients. Then both departing lawyers and remaining attorneys should focus on fostering a constructive working relationship as they work through the logistics of a departure. The finesse with which the departure is managed will play a huge role in whether or not it is an amicable split or a contentious falling out.

How do you ensure that things go smoothly, particularly when emotions are involved? The lawyers who are staying may experience feelings of betrayal or dislike toward the attorney “jumping ship.” The departing attorney may feel that the friends he practiced with for years will no longer make eye contact in the hall. But despite the temptation to act emotionally, objectivity is the best approach to a smooth transition. David Maister, a widely recognized authority on professional services management, former Harvard School of Business faculty member and author, offers the following suggestions:

  • Provide adequate notice to the firm;
  • Make yourself available to the firm to assist in your departure;
  • Collect client receivables before you depart to make the transition of files easier;
  • Organize your files, and if necessary write memos regarding the status of matters, in the event the client does not transfer with you;
  • Visit key clients personally;
  • Don’t disparage the firm, its management or the remaining attorneys;
  • Don’t run up firm expenses before your departure ;
  • Don’t take firm trade secrets.

Attorneys that handle departures with grace and tact will protect the single most important thing they have – their reputation. While it may be tempting in some situations to burn bridges, don’t. When both sides are willing to work together towards a seamless departure while also minding their manners, the reputations of all will remain intact.

It is not uncommon for the relationships of departing attorneys and their former law firm to thrive. After all, isn’t one of the best ways to build relationships with new clients through referrals? How better to maintain a positive relationship than by parting ways gracefully?

Michelle Friedman is the Director of Marketing and Business Development at Davis & Kuelthau. She is responsible for the marketing, communication, public relations and business development efforts of the firm. She is also a veteran of the United States Army Military Intelligence Corps where she served as an Arabic Linguist.

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