Lawyer Transitions: Departing Your Firm

The days of spending an entire career at one firm are long gone.  By the end of three years, nearly half of all associates leave.  Partners bail out for many reasons – compensation, lifestyle choice, and conflicts with other partners – to name a few.

No matter who you are, tread lightly when you leave.  Departing lawyers have ethical, contractual, and legal responsibilities.

If you are a partner

Conduct your partnership withdrawal in a manner that honors the contractual and fiduciary responsibilities owed to your fellow partners.  Contractual duties are controlled by your written partnership agreement.  Fiduciary duties are described in case law and codified by statute in Oregon’s Revised Partnership Act.

If you are not a partner

Review your employment contract, employment letter, office policies, office procedures, or any other applicable terms that may control the process for terminating your relationship with your current firm or your obligations upon departure.

Are issues likely to arise?

Consult outside counsel experienced in the areas of lawyer mobility, partnerships, fiduciary duties, lawyer separation, and law firm dissolution.

Give notice before you contact clients

Inform the firm of your decision to leave before contacting any clients.  Failing to give adequate and timely notice to your firm or partners before you contact clients is a violation of the duty of loyalty owed by a lawyer to his or her firm based on their contractual or agency relationship.  It may also constitute conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation in violation of Oregon RPC 8.4(a)(3).

Although there is no explicit rule requiring lawyers to be candid and fair with their partners or employers, such an obligation is implicit in the prohibition…against dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Moreover, such conduct is a violation of the duty of loyalty owed by a lawyer to his or her firm based on their contractual or agency relationship.” In re Complaint as to the Conduct of Murdock, 328 OR 18, 25 (1998), citing, In re Smith, 315 Or 260, 266 (1992). See also OSB Formal Op No 2005-70; ABA Formal Op No 99-414.

Assessing your client caseload

Undoubtedly there are clients you would like to take with you, but there may also be clients you prefer to leave behind.  Draft a client notification letter informing clients of your departure.  Schedule a meeting with your supervising partner or other appropriate member(s) of the firm.  Bring a printout of your current cases and your draft client letter.  This meeting must occur before you contact any clients.  [Note: more than one notification letter will be necessary if you intend to keep some clients and leave others behind.]

For clients transitioning to your new firm

Make arrangements to obtain trust funds, copy paper and digital records, and sign new fee agreements.  Checklists documenting the steps to take when leaving a firm are available from the OSB Professional Liability Fund.

For clients you are leaving behind

Properly document client files by preparing memos describing the status of each case and any upcoming deadlines.  If you are attorney of record, withdraw or confirm that a substitution of counsel has been filed where necessary.  Otherwise, you remain on the hook.  Check out the resources available from the OSB Professional Liability Fund describing a lawyer’s duties upon withdrawal and termination of representation.  If in doubt, contact the OSB General Counsel’s office or consult with outside counsel.

Transition don’ts

  • Misleading clients about their right to choose counsel
  • Contacting clients before speaking to your firm about your departure
  • Taking client files without the knowledge or consent of the firm
  • Taking client money without the knowledge or consent of the firm
  • Taking firm property, including forms, research, or other materials, without the consent of the firm

Transition Dos

  • Put clients first.  Whether you are making a lateral move to another firm or setting up your own practice, remember that the client’s freedom of choice in selection of counsel is paramount.
  • Keep the transition as amicable, professional, and stress-free as possible. Contentious withdrawals alienate clients and damage relationships.
  • Remember to take a list of clients with you so you can screen for conflicts at your new firm.

Handled properly, your departure should be smooth and uneventful.

 

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis

 

Negative Online Reviews

We all know that negative online reviews can be hurtful and maddening.  Last month I highlighted suggestions from the July Oregon State Bar Bulletin article by Linn Davis, with a few additions of my own.  Because I know this topic strikes a nerve, I wanted to share some further advice from our friends at NW Sidebar.

  • A reasonable and measured response is key. Blasting people who give you a negative review is not a good business model. You can try contacting the review site and asking for the review’s removal if you can prove the review is false, defamatory or written by a competitor. This, however, may not be successful, especially if the review is anonymous. See Thomson v. Jane Doe, 189 Wn. App. 45, 356 P.3d 727 (2015) , when the court refused to force disclosure of an anonymous online reviewer’s identity.
  • You can respond directly to the review on the site. Be courteous and explain that due to your duty of confidentiality, you can’t address the facts of the complaint, but that you do not believe it presents a fair and accurate portrayal of the events. Make clear that you are always available to meet with former clients and address any concerns they may have.
  • If possible, try to contact the reviewer directly and seek to ameliorate the situation or explain to them further why the representation unfolded as it did. If this is successful, don’t hesitate to ask for an updated review.
  • Try to avoid further negative reviews by soliciting client feedback directly as the representation continues and in exit interviews. Try to give your clients every opportunity to air their grievances with you and your firm directly so they don’t have the need to vent in public.
  • Lastly, the best antidote to a negative review is positive reviews. Keep your profile updated and facilitate the opportunity for your other clients to post their own satisfied reviews.

via Responding to Negative Online Reviews — NWSidebar

As I’ve said before, I am not a fan of engaging with the reviewer/client online.  However, the idea of soliciting client feedback during and after the course of representation is stellar.  As Sandra Schilling notes, this is about giving your clients the opportunity to vent so they don’t feel the need to blast you online.  I would add: it may also be preemptive. While there will always be clients who are perpetually unhappy, most people are reasonable.  If you learn about a client’s dissatisfaction early, you can intervene and repair the relationship.  The unappealing alternative is to allow the client’s bad feelings to fester – never a good solution.

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis

Attorney-Client Privilege and Cloud Storage

Do your clients or their agents use cloud storage for case-related documents?  Do they transmit information using unsecured hyperlinks?

If the answer is yes, your client may have waived its claim of privilege to the stored information. This is the lesson learned in Harleysville, where a federal court in Virginia held that an insurance company waived the attorney-client privilege when the insurer’s investigator used an unsecured account to share claim-related information.

Key Facts in Harleysville

  • Insurer’s counsel knew or should have known that the information posted to the cloud account was publicly available because counsel had themselves used the unsecured hyperlink to access and download the claims file.
  • As a result, counsel “failed to take reasonable measures to ensure and maintain the document[s’] confidentiality, or to take prompt and reasonable steps to rectify the error.”
  • The court analogized the insurer’s actions to “leaving its claims file on a bench in the public square” and warned that if a company chooses to use a new technology, “it should be responsible for ensuring that its employees and agents understand how the technology works, and, more importantly, whether the technology allows unwanted access by others to its confidential information.”

Source: Don’t Let New Technology Cloud Your Legal JudgmentProskauer commercial litigation blog.

Lessons Learned

As Proskauer points out:

  • Attorneys and clients are responsible for their own technological choices as well as those of the client’s agents
  • Technological ignorance on the law firm’s part is no excuse

What You Should Do Now

  • Conduct a cyber security audit of your firm’s practices and systems.
  • Establish a secure system for confidential file sharing if one is not already in place. Address other issues uncovered during the security audit.
  • Create file sharing policies and procedures.
  • Train everyone now; conduct annual training sessions thereafter.  Address protocols for uploading and downloading files.  All law firm members – attorneys, staff, administration, bookkeeping – need to know the warning signs of receiving or forwarding content from unsecured hyperlinks.
  • Talk to clients about file storage and sharing practices.  Do they use agents, like the investigator in Harleysville?  If so, how do they exchange documents? Consider offering an on-site client training lunch to go over dos and don’ts.

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis

 

 

Your Online Reputation

The July issue of the Oregon State Bar Bulletin features an excellent article by Linn Davis entitled “Responding to Negative Online Reviews: Reputation Management.”  If you’ve ever received a negative review, or fear that negative content is inevitable, this post is for you.

While Davis’ article focuses on ethical dos and don’ts, it also contains solid practical advice.  The following excerpt describes what you cannot do, what you should not do, how to preempt negative reviews, and how to respond to a negative review. Also included are my two cents on best practice recommendations.

What You Cannot Do

  • Reveal information relating to the representation of a client
  • Post inaccurate content
  • Allow misleading information that creates false expectations regarding fees, results, or your firm’s resources
  • Use subterfuge (employees posing as satisfied clients offering glowing reviews)
  • Fail to promptly update information when it changes
  • Engage in real-time interactions that violate in-person solicitation rules

What You Should Not Do

  • Sue the source of the negative review for defamation
  • Attempt to restrict clients from posting negative reviews
  • Form an unintended attorney-client relationship in an online legal forum
  • Fail to screen for conflicts in an online legal forum
  • Offer incentives for a positive review without considering the ethical and legal implications. See Oregon RPC 1.8(a), and 16 CFR Part 255 relating to FTC regulation of endorsements.

How to Preempt Negative Reviews

  • Contribute accurate and valuable information regarding yourself and your firm
  • Use disclaimers when participating in online legal forums
  • Provide clients with professional and competent work product

How to Respond to a Negative Review

One possibility is to do nothing.  As Davis points out, “not every opinion (on the Internet) must be contested.”  If, however, you feel you must respond, Davis offers three ethically permissible approaches:

  • Encourage the client to contact you to resolve the concerns expressed (this could be done online or offline)
  • Post that you disagree with the client’s account but are prevented by your professional standards from responding in a public forum without the client’s consent
  • Direct readers to other forums where your representation is regarded more “fully, accurately, and favorably”

Best Practices – My Two Cents

If the negative review comes from a client:

Your best tactic is to encourage the client to contact you. I suggest doing this privately and leaving the online post alone.  Why?  Responding to a negative review in any fashion will cause it to rank higher in search results.  Remember: search engines use algorithms based on quantity and quality. The more online engagement surrounding a negative thread, the more prominent it will become.

The good news is that you can exploit the quantity/quality preference of search engines by contributing your own accurate and valuable information.  In addition to Davis’ suggestions about adding basic biographical data and a description of your services, list yourself on free online legal directories, blog, update your Website, post to social media, share photos, and reshare/repost content.  It will take time and effort, but your content can and will push the negative review below the first page of search results.

If the negative review comes from a non-client:

I’ve known many lawyers who received negative “reviews” from non-clients – either disgruntled opposing parties or those who are motivated to attack the lawyer because of her practice area or representation of a particular client. Examples include immigration law, debt collection, or defending a client accused of a crime. Other than overwhelming the negative review with your own positive content, there isn’t much you can do when a non-client complains. Responding will only spur on the commentor.

Parting Thoughts

While it is important to monitor what people are saying about you online, try to have a thick skin. I know that negative reviews can be hurtful and maddening – especially when the source is motivated to keep attacking.  However, and pardon my French, but most of us can spot a “whack job.” Therefore, if a potential client decides not to meet with you because of what he sees or reads on the Internet, it’s probably a good thing.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Last Call: Ethical Guidelines for Client Files – June 7, 2017 CLE

Don’t miss “Ethical Guidelines for Client Files” on June 7, 2017.  Learn about OSB Formal Ethics Opinions 2016-191 – Client Property: Electronic-Only or “Paperless” Client Documents and 2017-192 – Client Property: Duplication Charges for Client Files, Production or Withholding of Client Files.

What are lawyers required to produce and when?

  • In some cases, lawyer notes and communications must be produced, in other instances they can be withheld: do you know the difference?
  • If you store data in proprietary law office software (e.g. in a docketing or practice management program), must you extract and convert the data for the client?
  • What circumstance might provoke disclosure of “confidential” information belonging to another client?
  • Can you refuse to deliver file material on the grounds that it is too burdensome or expensive to produce?
  • Is it possible to deliver less than the “entire client file” if the client consents?
  • Are you required to produce work product? Conflict information? Time and expense records? Reports about the client’s creditworthiness? Expert witness information? Metadata? Text messages?

Standards governing retention and storage of client files – Is it ethical to store client files electronically? Do any exceptions apply? What duties does a lawyer have when using electronic-only storage?

When to charge for locating, segregating, or duplicating file material – When you can (and can’t) pass costs on to the client, whether client originals can ever be destroyed, and your ethical responsibilities to the “impecunious client.”

Appreciate the difference between ethical duties and discoverability – The interplay of the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct vs. state and federal rules of civil procedure.

Throughout the program “best practice” tips will be shared.

Date/Time/Location

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time.  This is a live, online webinar. Watch from your desktop computer or mobile device. Connect to audio via telephone or computer/device speakers.

Who Should Attend?

Lawyers, office managers or administrators, staff – anyone interested in learning more about Oregon’s new formal ethics opinions, 2016-191 and 2017-192.

Does the Program Include Written Materials?

Yes.  Written materials will be distributed electronically to all registered attendees before the event.

Ask Questions/Participate in Live Polling

Questions are welcome during the live event.  Attendees are also encouraged to participate in live, anonymous polling.

Registration Fee

$25 – Visit the Upcoming CLE page or click here, or choose the Register button below. Secure payment processing powered by Eventbrite. Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express accepted. Program materials included in the registration price.

Eventbrite - Ethical Guidelines for Client Files

MCLE Credits
1.5 Ethics MCLE Credits pending.

Can’t Attend?

Video and audio recordings of Ethical Guidelines for Client Files will be available to download along with the program materials following the June 7 CLE. Price: $25. Contact me or visit my online CLE store after June 7.

All Rights Reserved [2017] Beverly Michaelis