How To Avoid Burning Bridges When An Attorney Leaves

Sending a lawyer away in a less than desirable fashion can hurt a law firm's reputation, cut off the possibility of a future relationship with the individual attorney, and create anxiety and even discontent among those who remain.

When an attorney leaves a law firm but has a substantial notice period, typically in the case of a pink slip, the firm has a chance to make an impression on the attorney who will almost certainly be asked about the firm in the future. And what those former employees have to say will likely be considered an authoritative opinion to outsiders, according to Matthew Martin, a senior partner at legal recruiting firm Lucas Group.

"If an attorney leaves a firm and has negative things to say, word will get around and it can impact future representations, business development and growth," Martin said. "Not a week goes by without an attorney telling me that their impression of a particular firm is impacted by someone they know who worked at that firm and left."

And when someone is on the way out, there is an opportunity to foster future business relationships with the attorney — an opportunity that is shattered if the law firm doesn't handle the situation with care.

For example, if the law firm helps find the departing lawyer a job in-house, there is a good chance the attorney will be grateful to them and refer work their way, creating a mutually beneficial work relationship, said Raj Nichani, founder and president of legal recruiting firm The RMN Agency.

"There is no reason not to appreciate these attorneys for their service to your firm and understand that there may be a better fit somewhere else," Nichani said. "This compassion through the transition process is advantageous for firms because it fosters stronger relationships among colleagues and shows that firms care about their attorneys."

Don't Treat the Transition Like an Afterthought

Above and beyond being cordial to outgoing attorneys, law firms should offer substantial help to them where needed as they look toward the next step in their career in order to maintain goodwill, according to Art Gunther of Chicago legal recruiting firm Gunther Group.

That help can be offered in the form of job search assistance and substantive references, Gunther explained.

"While typical outplacement services are helpful, actual goodwill can be created by partners making special efforts to utilize their networks to introduce the departing attorneys to potential employers," he said.

And, when it comes to references, "Transitioning attorneys will truly appreciate the firm's willingness to provide substantive references to assist in their job searches," he said. "On the other hand, a refusal to provide a reference hamstrings the lawyer's search and undercuts any goodwill the firm had previously created."

Martin said that one of his best clients is a law firm at which he used to practice — a firm he still maintains a strong relationship with 15 years later.

"Each firm has a different approach to the process of transitioning attorneys out of the firm, and while some go to great lengths to cultivate a positive relationship, others treat the process as an afterthought," he said. "There is no doubt that the individual circumstances of a departure will have a significant impact on the nature of the departure, but from what I have seen, any firm that does not approach departures as a potential opportunity is missing out."

Offer Clear Expectations and a Clear Off-Ramp

According to Diane Rifkin of Rifkin Consulting, promoting a positive transition must involve a respectful and honest discussion between the outgoing attorney and employer about the reasons for the departure. That conversation should define clear expectations for both such as how long the working notice will last, work expected during that time, and salary.

In addition to obligations, it can be helpful to discuss how the situation will be represented to inside and outside parties to avoid unnecessary drama or damaging the relationship for possible future dealings, she said.

"Both [the law firm and attorney] should remember that reputations are at stake. Handled well, separation can be a positive step moving forward, leaving dignity and egos intact," Rifkin said.

Barbara Mayden of Young Mayden Legal Search said that providing outgoing attorneys a specific off-ramp is "just good business."

"Back in the day," the associates who weren't promoted to partner were taken care of, Mayden explained. Firm partners would discretely reach out to their institutional clients and the clients would find slots for the attorneys in their legal departments.

"Maybe institutional clients are relics of the past, but this concept isn't," Mayden said. "Help find your transitioning associate a landing place, and the gratitude will follow — in terms of referrals, if to a firm, or business if to a client."

If there is no good current client fit, consider reaching out to the firm's trusted outside recruiters to outsource the off-ramping, Mayden advised.

"Assuming the associate isn't being given his papers because he is a total loser but because of a lack of capacity in that specific department, then bring in assistance to help with the outsourcing," she said. "But be honest with the recruiter in terms of the whys and shortcomings. It's in nobody's interest for someone to land in the wrong place."

Communicate Effectively and Follow the Rules

Timing and effective communication are essential in pulling off attorney departures without a hitch, according to Colleen Torell, vice president and senior consultant at Keystone Partners.

Law firms can provide outbound lawyers with practical job advice by assigning group leaders who can offer attorneys actionable feedback on their resumes, elevator pitching and professional goals, she said, fostering goodwill as a result.

Additionally, those in charge should not say, "Let me know how I can help." Instead, she said, they should say, "This is how I am able to help you."

"Be specific about how you and the firm will be helpful; many attorneys on their way out are skeptical about exactly what 'Let me know how I can help' really means," Torell said.

She offered an example of a client she worked with in which the departing attorney complained that no one had helped in the transition. After looking into the situation, the recruiter learned that a managing partner had wanted to help, but hoped that the associate would come to them asking for it.

"One person avoids bothering the other and both are frustrated," she said.

Finally, it is important that law firms comply with all applicable professional ethics laws when an associate or partner is leaving.

When an attorney is leaving for a client, the transition is usually amicable, but if the attorney is headed for a competitor, things can get tense, and sometimes law firms make bad choices in the heat of the moment, said Chris Batz, a legal recruiter at The Lion Group.

One way that can be avoided is by creating a road map for the transition that draws clear boundaries where ethical concerns come into play, and then following the map, Batz said.

"Policies and procedures keep the firm safe from bad behavior. Follow those procedures and don't let emotions in," he said.