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Leaving the Firm

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How to avoid a messy divorce.

Executive Summary

The days when lawyers joined a firm and stayed until retirement are long past. Now lawyers come and go. Some departures are by design. Others are unexpected. Some are amicable. Others stem from bitter firm breakups. Regardless of the circumstances, avoid ethical and malpractice woes by (a) having an exit procedure, (b) making the transition as painless as possible for everyone, and (c) putting clients’ interests first.

Avoiding a Messy Divorce

The one constant at law firms is that they are always changing. Associates leave when their partnership prospects fade. Partners are lured away by other firms. Mergers and acquisitions cause wholesale shakeups.

Law firms should do what they can to ease transitions. This will minimize bad feelings and unnecessary expenses. It may also stave off a malpractice claim.

An acrimonious firm split is like a bad divorce with parents fighting over the kids. Anxiety reigns. Daily activities are disrupted. Clients find themselves caught in the middle or ignored.

Alta Pro Practice Pointers

  1. Plan for departures in advance. Partnership agreements should include provisions for departures and dissolution. Who owns the assets? Who is responsible for liabilities? How will clients be notified? Who will take over their cases? No one likes to think about these issues when a law firm is created. But a little planning on the front end can avoid problems later.
  2. Keep it professional, not personal. Terminations and exits should be treated as business transactions, not divorces.
  3. Reduce disruption in work flow. Maintain a current roster of all cases being handled by the departing lawyer. Develop an orderly procedure for transferring files to successor counsel. Make sure there is continuity in client care.
  4. Keep the client informed. Your transition protocol should be client-centered. Let the client know what’s going on. Help them make wise decisions—even if those decisions may not be in your firm’s best interest.
  5. Offer assistance to the departing lawyer. Aim for a positive experience on both sides. Don’t turn every little issue into a battle. You may find yourself working with – or against – this lawyer in the future. Keep your bridges intact.
  6. Don’t drag clients into internal disputes. Give your clients the respect and freedom they deserve. This isn’t their problem. They don’t want to arbitrate your disputes. What they want is professional service and a positive outcome. Do what you can to ensure that result.

The Bottom Line: You can’t always control when lawyers leave. But a well-drafted partnership agreement and a departure protocol can lessen stress – and the malpractice risk.

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