May 30, 2018
“Life is made up of meetings and partings. That is the way of things.”
It’s sage advice… never mind that it comes from Kermit the Frog.
Loyal as you may be to your law firm, nothing lasts forever. Perhaps you find yourself on the cusp of change and ready to open a new chapter in your career.
If so, you’ll want to act wisely. Countless lawyers have left one law firm for another — or broken away to hang a shingle all their own. As many of those defectors might attest, however, leaving is one thing… but leaving without hurting feels or burning bridges? That’s a different matter.
You’ve invested a lot of yourself into your law firm, building up their business while simultaneously building your own career. Shouldn’t you take some of those accomplishments — namely, clients — with you when you go?
Then again, doesn’t the law firm have a stake in those same accomplishments (and clients)? Indeed, they do. So sayeth the rules of ethics.
So how does a parting attorney navigate the waters of departure toward a bright new horizon without any professional shipwrecks along the way?
First and foremost, mindset matters. Don’t let emotion take the wheel. (Emotion never sets the right course.) Rather, your departure is something to chart carefully, and thoughtfully, well in advance.
Nine times out of ten, when a lawyer leaves a law firm on bad terms, it’s because personal feelings, inadequate planning, or poor communication got in the way.
Today, we share 9 Rules for Leaving a Law Firm and Taking Your Clients with You — a guide to having hard conversations, following an ambiguous rulebook, putting your people skills to the test, and coming out with a better career on the other side.
The first thing you’ll need to decide is whether you really want to leave. Ultimately, no one can answer that question for you. But as a general principle, it’s important to remember that you’ve worked too hard, and reached too high a level of achievement, to settle for a life or a job you find unfulfilling.
If you feel in your bones that it’s time to move on, then perhaps it is. Certainly, you have options.
Still, you might want to check your motivations against those of the departing lawyers who came before you. To that end, some of the most common reasons for leaving a law firm include:
Before we delve into our 9 Rules for Leaving a Law Firm and Taking Your Clients with You, a preface:
You can go where you want. So can your clients.
Those two general principles are subject to some of the considerations we’ll explore below, but as a rule of thumb, remember that no one owns anyone else.
And as far as the Rules of Professional Responsibility are concerned, in every jurisdiction, the client’s interests supersede both the law firm’s and your own.
Your relationship with your clients, therefore, means everything.
If you have a really strong, personal, and direct relationship with them, it’s very likely they’ll follow you wherever you go. Knowing that will give you confidence, leverage, and freedom.
Don’t have that kind of rapport with many of your clients yet? In that case, depending on your situation, you might want to focus on developing those relationships before beginning to plan an exit.
With that prologue out of the way, let’s look at nine rules that can get you where you want to be.
Even though your state’s ethics rules are the “sacred texts of departure,” your employment or partnership agreement with the law firm matters too. So it’s time to dig it out. In particular, look for provisions relating to:
Does the firm have a policy manual in addition to the contract? If so, read that carefully too.
If there is a single golden rule when leaving a law firm, it’s this: always act ethically.
Take the high road. Be above board. Do the right thing.
Read your state’s rules carefully. Have questions? Contact the state bar and talk it over.
As an attorney, you might have ongoing duties to:
Act carefully to avoid overlooking any of your duties. For example, soon after announcing your departure, you might have to request that a court remove you as counsel of record for certain matters. You will probably also have to notify the bar of your change of employment, address, etc.
Others you might need to notify include:
We’ll consider some of your most pressing duties to the firm and to your clients below.
We’re only three rules in, and we’ve already arrived at one of the stickiest topics in the subject of attorney transitions.
Can you tell your clients you’re leaving before you tell the firm?
You’ll find a range of opinions on this matter, including one very important opinion: the bar’s. Rules vary here from state to state, so research thoroughly.
Even if you think of clients as “your” clients, they are probably the firm’s clients. And lawyers generally cannot solicit the law firm’s clients prior to notifying the firm of departure.
But can you have a hypothetical “what if?” chat with your closest clients? Say, for instance, something along the lines of, “You know, Mrs. Jones, I’ve been thinking a lot about my career lately. Our relationship is important to me. I just wonder, if I ever were to set up shop elsewhere or on my own, do you envision that you would want to continue working with me?”
In practice, attorneys have that kind of conversation all the time. Whether it’s right for you depends on:
The day you walk into your boss’s office and announce your departure is a day you’ll remember forever. You want it to go well. But it might not. Either way, be prepared.
Attorneys are sometimes surprised by their superior’s reaction to the news. For instance:
You might think they didn’t like you, but they might have envisioned you as part of the firm’s future.
You might think they already know you’ve been interviewing for other jobs or making plans to hang your own shingle, but they might be totally blindsided.
Even though it’s “just business,” these conversations can take an unexpectedly personal turn. Certainly, your law firm has made an investment in you, and no employer wants to turn an investment over to a competitor (even if that competitor is you).
A few pointers:
You never know when your past will become your present again, so try to avoid walking out on a sour note.
Anytime a lawyer leaves a law firm, clients are entitled to notice of the same.
Which clients? Typically, the letters will only go out to clients with whom the departing attorney has had substantial personal contact or who is actively involved in handling their case. Some law firms are more conservative in sending out notices than others.
There are two ways to handle this:
The latter approach is almost always preferable. It’s cleaner, more professional, and more likely to avoid resentment by one party toward the other’s letter.
Once the law firm has been informed of your plans and the notice letters are agreed upon, it’s time to start soliciting business for your new law firm (to the fullest extent allowed by your contract and applicable law).
Make the transition easy for your clients. Here again, you want to anticipate their concerns and have a solid answer for them.
A big worry for clients is their case files. These days, with electronic filing and cloud management systems, it’s easy for the departing lawyer to take a digital copy of the relevant files while leaving the original at the firm. But in some cases, you may need the client to contact the old firm and expressly request the transfer of their files from your old firm. Be sure your clients understand the process and be ready to assist them with it.
(Incidentally, the handling of client files is one of those sticky matters you’ll want to iron out with the firm as early as possible.)
There are attorneys whose entire practice is focused on representing lawyers in ethical matters or state bar-related issues. They can provide invaluable guidance before, during, and after your transition.
Even if a few of your best clients do agree to follow you right off the bat, growing a business takes time. Knowing that from the start will help you keep your expectations in check.
If you plan to launch a startup firm, create a business plan, complete with goals and metrics for measuring your success.
If you’re leaving to work for someone else, create a personal “career plan.” The idea is the same: to have a system for gauging your progress and an idea of where you want to be.
In all likelihood, the business you take with you from your old firm won’t be all the business you’ll ever need. So think about a mechanism for bringing in new clients on a regular basis.
Television ads, billboards, and other forms of traditional advertising might not be realistic (or the best use of your marketing dollars) but online advertising or digital marketing should be well within reach.
As it happens, we know just the company that can get you the clients you need. (Spoiler: it’s us.)
Black Fin is a team of legal marketing experts who do only one thing — help law firms attract bigger and better cases through digital marketing, website design, PPC, and SEO.
If you’re changing your career or starting a new law firm, we can help you make sure your first step is on the path to success.Remember: marketing results are rarely achieved overnight, so the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll see returns. Give us a call to find out how we can help you steer your new business to profitability right away. Contact us today.