“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:
- You want to move to a new market where your firm doesn’t practice.
- Your current law firm is floundering, and has been for some time.
- You simply aren’t compensated fairly (or adequately) in your current job.
- Your law firm keeps you busy working on other lawyers’ cases, but there’s no mechanism in place by which you can build up your own book of business there.
- The partners, supervisors, or managers in your firm are people you decidedly do not want to become. After all, the track you’re on right now leads you to their position (at best).
- There’s prolonged infighting in the firm or an especially toxic working environment, or perhaps you’ve unfairly earned a reputation you just can’t shake.
- The firm has gotten too big — or isn’t big enough — to match your career goals.
- The law firm’s work culture and your individual personality are simply mismatched.
- Your interests have gravitated toward a practice area your firm doesn’t handle.
- Point blank: you’re unhappy.
No One Owns You. No One Owns Your Clients.
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.
Rule 1: Read Your Contract
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:
- Non-Compete Agreements — In many jurisdictions, law firms are more limited than other employers in their ability to restrict attorneys’ future employment. Check your contract against the latest rules and ethic opinions in your state. Does the provision hold up? In most cases, a client’s best interests will trump any covenant not to compete. (Even in the face of a lock-solid non-compete, if you’re on good terms with the employer, you might be able to negotiate your way out of it.)
- Notice Requirements — Does the firm require a specific time period or manner of notice before leaving?
- Winding Down, Termination, Departure, Etc. — Review all the provisions pertaining to ending one’s employment, even if they don’t seem to apply. (For example, even if you’re leaving to start your own business, you should still review any sections pertaining to termination, retirement, etc., to find any language that might be relevant.)
- Benefits — Lawyers are often entitled to a variety of employment benefits, but some of those benefits might be tied to particular accomplishments, calendar dates, etc. Make sure you understand how the timing of your notice could impact your entitlement to benefits and compensation.
Does the firm have a policy manual in addition to the contract? If so, read that carefully too.
Rule 2: Mind Your Duties
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:
- Your clients
- Your law firm
- Court(s) at which you or your clients have any pending matters
- The state bar
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:
- Your malpractice insurance provider
- Opposing counsel
- All the other state bars / bar associations you might belong to
We’ll consider some of your most pressing duties to the firm and to your clients below.
Rule 3: Talk to (Some) Clients in Advance (…Maybe)
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:
- What you feel comfortable with
- What the rules in your state say
- What your employment agreement(s) say
Rule 4: Prepare, Then Pronounce.
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:
- Practice the speech. Anticipate a range of responses.
- Give at least two weeks’ notice (more if possible), but be prepared to pack your things on the spot if they tell you to.
- Offer to work with your employer to make the transition peaceful and smooth, being mindful of court dates, filing deadlines, malpractice insurance policy requirements, etc. Don’t leave them hanging out to dry.
- “It’s not you; it’s me” — a classic for a reason. As law firm breakup speeches go, this isn’t a bad one, however cliché it might seem.
- Compliment your employer. Thank them for the opportunities and experiences they’ve afforded you.
- Even if you’re unhappy with some aspect of the firm, don’t harp on those complaints. Your objective is to get in and get out without burning bridges.
- Try to predict their concerns and address them in advance.
- Be prepared for them to offer you a promotion, better compensation, etc., as incentive to stay. What would it take? (Be skeptical of any dressed-up empty promises… you don’t want to have this same conversation again in six months.)
- Timing is everything. Friday afternoon is probably best. Monday morning is probably worst. Steer clear of big trial dates or other high-stress periods if possible.
You never know when your past will become your present again, so try to avoid walking out on a sour note.
Rule 5: Send Out Effective, No-Mess Notice Letters
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 firm sends out one letter, the departing lawyer sends out another (after all, both have duties to notify the clients), or
- The firm and the departing lawyer agree on a single letter to send out jointly.
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.
- Draft a sample joint letter so the firm doesn’t have to. Write it in a way that’s fair to both parties.
- Make sure the clients understand they can stay with the firm, go with the departing lawyer, or take their case somewhere else altogether.
- Provide your new contact information (This might be a hard pill for the law firm to swallow, but couch it in terms of the client’s best interest — the client really does have a right to know how they can find you at your new firm.)
- Avoid disparaging anyone or going into unnecessary detail.
- Do not directly solicit business in the letter.
Rule 6: Help Your Clients Help You
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.)
Rule 7: Consider Hiring Legal Counsel to Advise You
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.
Rule 8: Set Realistic Expectations for Your New Business
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.
Rule 9: Make a Marketing Plan
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.)
Hire Black Fin to Bring in New Clients Through the Internet
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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.