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

 

Thanking Clients Should Be Part of Your Closing Ritual

When was the last time you thanked clients for their business?  Asked for their feedback?  Welcomed their referrals?  Invited them to call you with questions or concerns in other areas of your practice?

All of this can and should be part of your file closing ritual. The work may be done, but your client relationship doesn’t have to be.

Your closing letter should cover the essentials, show appreciation, and cross-market your services

  • Inform the client that work is now complete and your representation is over
  • Return original client documents
  • Establish responsibility for current or future tasks
  • Advise the client of your file retention and retrieval policies
  • Answer final questions
  • Thank the client for allowing you to be of service
  • Invite the client to subscribe to your blog, YouTube channel, or social media posts
  • Educate the client about your other areas of practice
  • Let the client know you welcome referrals (see below)
  • Ask the client for his or her feedback (see below)

Send out surveys

A well-designed client survey will give you insight about what you’re doing right and what needs improvement. Increase your chances of getting a timely response by delivering the survey in a format suited to the particular client: paper, fillable PDF, or online via Survey Monkey or a similar service. For a side-by-side comparison of online survey tools, see The Best Online Survey Tools of 2016 from PC Magazine.

Sample Survey Language

The ABC Law Firm is committed to providing high quality service to all of our clients.  To help us achieve that goal, we would like your feedback regarding our services.  Please let us know how we are doing by completing the survey below.  

New to the process?

If you’ve never done a client survey before, spend some time doing a little research. Here’s a great post by Sterling Miller with his patented “ten things” to consider when creating, distributing, and analyzing a client survey.

Like to see a survey in action? Check out this example. Still not clear on what you should ask in your survey? Here is a list of 27 questions to include from Lawyers Mutual. Sample client surveys are also available on the PLF Website.  From the home page, select Practice Management > Forms > Client Relations.

Invite clients back and welcome referrals

If you perceive this as “trolling” for work, I hope you change your mind.  Letting clients know about your other areas of practice or inviting their referrals is perfectly professional:

As you may know, ABC Law Firm provides business, real estate, and land use services to a wide variety of clients.  If you know of anyone in need of legal services, I hope you will keep us in mind. 

Again, I thank you for your business and appreciate the opportunity to work with you.  If I can be of any assistance to you in the future, please do not hesitate to call me at (phone number). 

Automate first, then personalize

Client closing letters are “one more thing to do” in a busy practice.  I get it.  But don’t let them slide: your clients need the information and you need the protection that written disengagement letters offer.

  • Make the process easier by creating forms or templates.
  • If you practice in an area where your clients often have numerous tasks to perform, consider moving those items to an attached checklist.  It will make your letter shorter and the process easier for the client to follow.
  • Start using a file closing checklist. It will remind you to send a closing letter and take you through all the other details that must be tended to when a client file is closed. You can find a sample on the PLF Website.  From the home page, select Practice Management > Forms > File Management.
  • When you are ready to close a file, bring up your boilerplate. Modify it in a two-step process. First, change the form as needed to fit the case. Second, and more critical to your relationship, take the time to personalize your parting words to the client.

Find time to send personalized closing letters by delegating routine file closing tasks to staff, such as reviewing the file for documents that should be added to the firm’s template directories, adding additional names from the file to your conflict system, or entering the file in your closed file inventory.

Make thanking clients part of your everyday

Small gestures can make a big difference in client relationships.  Don’t wait until it’s all over to say “thank you.”   Express appreciation often: after visiting a client’s office or facility, for any kindness the client shows, in your holiday greeting, as part of your open house invitation, or in recognition of a long-standing relationship.  Remember: getting and keeping good clients is substantially easier than courting new ones.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017