Jan. 6, 2016 – The “times are a-changin’” – including the traditional career path for a lawyer: joining a firm, eventually becoming a partner, staying for life. The relationship between a firm and a lawyer no longer typically lasts forever.
“These days, we have what I call a free agent economy,” says David Leibowitz, a Wisconsin and Illinois lawyer and founder and managing member of Lakelaw. Leibowitz spoke at October’s Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference about “lawyers on the move.”
“Now, people move along when they think it’s in their best interest,” says Leibowitz. “We just have to plan life like that’s going to happen.”
But it’s not good form – or even good for your reputation – to just give your two weeks’ notice and leave, Leibowitz says. Instead, departing your firm or position takes preparation. Do it properly, because your reputation is at stake, especially in a small-population state like Wisconsin.
“Most people in the state know most others, especially in their own practice area. So behaving in a way that is not becoming of a professional is going to become really known all over the place, and you can’t have it,” Leibowitz says. “You’re going to be ridiculed and shunned – it’s a bad circumstance.”
But just what does “leaving properly” entail?
“Don’t leave unfinished business. I think that’s the single biggest mistake people make,” Leibowitz says.
Act in your long-term interest and think of the consequences of your actions: Make an effort to assist the firm with the transition of files to the lawyer who is taking them over. It might be as easy as simply picking up the phone and giving advice on handling those cases.
“Lend a hand to your successor, be a good sport, and help out. You don’t have to go out of your way and you don’t have to spend hours and hours,” Leibowitz says. “Then you’ve really demonstrated that you’re a professional.”
Don’t forget to communicate with your clients. A departing lawyer and the lawyer’s firm have an ethical duty to notify the lawyer’s clients of his or her departure. If they choose to keep you as their lawyer, let them know where you will be and maintain that professional relationship with them.
For lawyers leaving a firm where they are partners, don’t forget to address financial considerations.
“If you’re a partner, you have to act in a business-like fashion to manage and handle your financial considerations,” Leibowitz says.
For those left in the firm, give a bit of thought to the future before reacting badly at your colleague’s departure.
“To me, everyone that used to be an associate is a potential referral source in the future. So why would I want to burn that bridge?” Leibowitz says.
Yes, you might be displeased when someone leaves abruptly, especially when a consequence is that cases are not properly transitioned to a new lawyer.
“But why should I make a stink about it? Let me clean up my messes and maintain my dignity and my relationship with the person who left,” Leibowitz says.
The bottom line is this: “Maintain proper social relationships going forward. You really want to maintain a professional relationship with whoever you dealt with in the past so that you can have a professional relationship with them in the future. It will only be to your benefit,” Leibowitz says.