How to Avoid Burning Bridges When Leaving a Law Firm and Checklist When Leaving a Firm
By Linda Oligschlaeger
Reviewed by Sara Rittman, Legal Ethics Counsel
It's a huge decision to pull up stakes and move to another law firm or to leave and start your own firm. Besides the economic uneasiness that may come from both sides, there are considerable emotional issues that, frankly, should be acknowledged.
Under some circumstances, leaving a law firm has been compared to the break up of a marriage. After all, you spend countless hours working very closely together, oftentimes for years. The reality of today is that law partners won't spend their entire working careers together as in the past. However, moving on doesn't have to be unpleasant if it is done right.
First and foremost, there are the departing lawyer's clients to consider and they should not be the rope in a tug-of-war. When partners or even associates leave a firm, law firm wars can develop that can combust into self-destruction for the firms involved. These situations can oftentimes be avoided by taking the necessary measures for an easier transition. The checklist below is a tool that can be used to focus on a more amicable separation for the law firm and clients.
Checklist for Leaving a Law Firm
This checklist is not considered to be all inclusive and should be used merely as a guide. Individual lawyers should rely on their own independent judgment as well as the ethical rules, and seek independent advice when leaving a law firm.
- When you've made a definite decision that you're leaving the firm, devise a plan for you to function should you be asked to leave immediately upon giving notice. This might include the availability of a computer, copies of items on your calendar and task manager, telephone for clients to reach you, etc.
- Compile a list of clients, past and present, that includes their current contact information for future conflicts checks and list the firm's clients and matters on which you might have an ongoing conflict. This list would also be important to notify clients of your departure in case you need to notify clients on your own.
- If you are a partner in the firm, review your firm's partnership agreement concerning provisions made in advance for departing partners.
- Read and review the following case: In the Matter of Cupples, 952 S.W.2d 226, 234-236 (Mo. banc 1997). This case will guide you in taking the correct steps regarding clients when leaving a law firm.
- Compile a list of clients that you want to give the option of going with you or staying with the firm, including funds deposited into the firm's trust account that have not been earned or expended, any outstanding accounts receivable, unbilled disbursements, work in progress, and any case management issues.
- Give notice to the firm you are departing as soon as possible.
- Discuss with the firm the best procedure to notify clients regarding your departure. It is best for the firm and the departing lawyer to jointly notify clients by letter. If not possible, clients may be notified separately by the firm and the departing lawyer. The notification should advise the client of the change in the representation, and should not be in the form of a solicitation for the client's business.
Note: Per the Cupples decision, it would be a breach of the fiduciary duty to the firm for the departing lawyer to notify clients before s/he notifies the firm of his/her departure.
The notification letter should be professional in nature and tone and include the following elements:
- Inform the client that the departing lawyer is leaving the firm and when.
- Indicate where the departing lawyer is going.
- If it is an option, notify the client that they may stay with the firm.
- If it is an option, notify the client that they may go with the departing lawyer.
- Include a form authorizing the transfer of the client's file and trust funds if the client's choice is to go with the departing lawyer, or authorizing the client's matter to remain with the firm. Include a return envelope for the authorization.
- If the client will not have any of the above options because the departing lawyer is not continuing the same area of practice, the new firm may have a conflict, or the firm from which s/he is departing does not have a lawyer that handles that area of practice, it should be clearly explained to the client as well as offering an alternative option.
- Notify the client that they may elect to choose any other lawyer or law firm.
- Clarify any critical information regarding the client's matter.
- Explain what will happen to client funds deposited in the firm's trust account or balances that are due.
- Inform the client where their file is currently located and how they may retrieve it, if they so desire, or how the file may be transferred.
- Notify the client about the lawyer who is currently handling their matter in the interim.
- If you are a partner, negotiate the terms of your withdrawal, if not already provided for in your partnership agreement.
- If your compensation is based on a percentage of fees collected, negotiate the basis for your compensation for work-in-progress that has not been billed and accounts receivable not yet collected by the time you leave.
- Wind up, bill and collect on as many files as possible.
- Agree on how staff will handle calls from clients or potential clients after the departing lawyer has left the firm. The old firm must not mislead clients or withhold information.
- Notify The Missouri Bar/Supreme Court of Missouri of your change of address or change your address on the state bar's website.
- Change your email address on listservs, magazines, publishers, and other legal organizations to which you belong.
- Arrange for your name to be removed from the firm's bank accounts, if applicable.
- If you and the firm from which you are departing are not able to resolve differences concerning your departure, consider using the services of the Lawyer-to-Lawyer Dispute Program at no cost or hiring an independent mediator or arbitrator to assist with a resolution.
For assistance with practice management issues, contact Lucas Boling at The Missouri Bar at (573) 638-2276 or email@example.com.
Linda Oligschlaeger served as the Membership Services Director at The Missouri Bar from 1991-2012.