Wisconsin Lawyer: Career: Leaving a Law Job Without Leaving a Bad Taste:

State Bar of Wisconsin

Sign In
    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer

News & Pubs Search


    Career: Leaving a Law Job Without Leaving a Bad Taste

    Here are several tips you can follow to smooth your transition to a new job, either within or outside the law, and keep from burning bridges. These are general tips; for information on avoiding ethical violations, please consult relevant ethics rules and guidelines in your jurisdiction.

    Hindi Greenberg

    Share This:

    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 76, No. 3, March 2003

    Leaving a Law Job Without Leaving a Bad Taste

    Here are several tips you can follow to smooth your transition to a new job, either within or outside the law, and keep from burning bridges. These are general tips; for information on avoiding ethical violations, please consult relevant ethics rules and guidelines in your jurisdiction.

    by Hindi Greenberg

    Hindi GreenbergHindi Greenberg was a business litigator for 10 years before she founded Lawyers in Transition in San Francisco in 1985. She speaks to and consults nationally with individual lawyers, law firms, bar associations, and law schools on alternative career options in and out of law as well as career satisfaction issues. Her book, The Lawyer's Career Change Handbook, was recently updated and republished by HarperCollins. Contact her through her Web site at www.lawyersintransition.com or at (530) 274-7955.

    Have you been thinking about making a job or career change? If so, you are not alone. A recent American Bar Association study indicated that at any one time, a large number of lawyers are considering new job opportunities, either within or outside of the law. But how do you change your current legal employment for a new law job - or even one outside the practice of law - without burning any bridges? The following are some things to consider and do, in order to transition more smoothly, whether you work for or are a partner in a law firm or work in a government office, a corporation, or most other legal employment situations. For ease of explanation in this article, the term "employer" will apply even if you are a partner in a law firm.

    Give as Much Notice as Possible

    Give your current employer as much notice as possible so you can tie up loose ends on your cases. Although there is no prescribed number of weeks required between the time of giving notice and leaving legal employment, more time is generally better. This is because it is often necessary to close up files, finish work on various cases, notify clients of your departure (if necessary), and insert detailed memos in files for ongoing cases and then transfer those cases to another attorney. These procedures all take time, and not only will your employer appreciate that your files are left in good order, but legal practice ethics may demand that certain of these steps be taken.

    There are only two situations when it may not be in your best interest to give, for example, a month's notice. One instance may be if you feel that your employer will "lock you out" if you give notice - if you think your employer will immediately terminate you and you aren't ready for that to happen. The second instance is when your new job requires you to start soon, and you would lose the new opportunity if you did not comply with that early starting date requirement. However, even though you may have to begin working elsewhere, you might want to make an effort to finish up your work with your current employer, either by working overtime before you leave the job or by offering to come in for several evenings or weekends even after you start your new job.

    Make the Transition Smooth for Employer, Clients

    In order to alienate your soon-to-be-former employer and clients as little as possible, ask them what you can do for them to make the transition go as smoothly as possible. This may entail briefing other attorneys in the firm about your cases, finding an outside attorney to take over a file, contacting clients to advise them of the steps that will be taken in the transfer of their cases, cultivating and interviewing your replacement, or any number of other steps helpful to your current employer. Of course, if you were laid off or fired by your employer, this step isn't quite as necessary, although it will still create better relations if you try to help rather than retaliate.

    Refer Your Clients to Other Counsel

    In almost every state, leaving your clients without proper representation may provoke disciplinary action - be sure to consult the ethics rules in your jurisdiction. To avoid this problem, find someone within your firm or an outside colleague to whom to refer your client(s), inform your client of the referral, and then confirm that the new lawyer follows through. This last point is very important if you are a solo practitioner, since you do not want a later malpractice suit to claim that you dropped the client or passed the client to counsel who dropped the ball. And, of course, be sure to document the transfer to another attorney of your files and your subsequent communication with your client of that transfer.

    Transfer Complete Legal Files

    Make sure the legal files you transfer to another attorney are complete and understandable. You do not want a file you left incomplete or garbled to come back to haunt you at some later time. So spend some time ensuring that each file that you transfer is up-to-date, has copies of all case documents and communications, and has a memorandum from you summarizing the case, its major issues, and any other items you deem relevant. Then make copies of the most important documents, plus your transfer cover sheet and instructions, from each file. Keep these copies in files in a safe place in your home for the same number of years that you would keep the files if you had completed the cases yourself.

    Know What Kind of Moving Notice to Give Clients

    Check with your state bar association and consult the ethics rules in your jurisdiction to learn what kind of moving notice to previous clients is permissible - some notices could be construed as unethically soliciting clients away from your former employer. If you are changing firms rather than changing careers, you probably want to take your current clients with you to your new firm. If your current employer or partners agree to your clients moving with you, then there is no problem with notifying those clients of your move. However, there are times when the law firm and the lawyer disagree over ownership of certain clients. That is when notification becomes sensitive, so be sure you do not do anything that could subject you to disciplinary action by your bar association or an interference with business advantage or similar lawsuit by your former firm.

    Do Not Burn Your Bridges

    Never badmouth your former employer, no matter how well deserved the criticism may be - burned bridges rarely can be repaired. If you leave your firm on good terms, it is always possible for a client referral to be forthcoming or, at the least, a positive recommendation to a subsequent employer. On the other hand, if you say bad things about your former employer to anyone and your comments get back to the employer, you will have hurt any future opportunity for either referrals or references. Additionally, prospective employers are wary of negative comments made in interviews; those comments often backfire and make the employer suspect that you, rather than your former employer, are the problem. Plus, the prospective employer might be concerned that you will, some time in the future, make similar comments about your new employment, and therefore might pass on offering you a job. Instead of badmouthing your former employer in an interview, present positive reasons for why you have decided to pursue a new job. This will give you an aura of moving forward to a good opportunity rather than running away from a bad situation.

    Be Aware of Possible Conflicts of Interest

    Be alert for conflicts of interest for your new employer, caused by your client relationships or casework for your former employer. If you are moving to a new law firm (or even opening your own firm), review each client and case on which you are assigned to work. Identify the parties, the potential witnesses, the opposing lawyers, and the issues. You will be a liability rather than an asset to your new employer (and yourself) if it is discovered that you have a conflict around some issue or person in a current case because of your work on a former case.

    Know Your Malpractice Insurance Coverage

    Check whether your old employer's malpractice insurance will cover you for lawsuits filed by former clients, even several years after you've left the firm. If it does not, buy a "tail" policy that covers you for the number of years that any limitation statute would allow suit. The previous statement is applicable if you are leaving the practice of law. However, if you remain in practice, ascertain whether your new malpractice policy covers all of your legal work, even that work performed before the effective date of the policy, if the lawsuit is filed during the duration of the policy. Most policies do cover any lawsuit brought during the effective period of the policy, but always ask.


    Although the foregoing does not cover absolutely every issue and consideration when leaving a job, if you follow most of the above points, you should be able to keep on somewhat good terms with your former employer. And that is always a good thing, since you never know when you may need to work with your former employer again in some capacity, ask for a reference, or have some contact in an unrelated business situation. Even in the biggest cities, legal communities are like small towns; everyone knows who is doing what and to whom. So make sure that your treatment of your former employer is perceived by other lawyers and potential employers as a positive.