Partner Departure Law

January 19, 2017

Planning is Key to Successful Attorney Transitions

Partner or group departures seldom go smoothly – at least that is what we hear in the legal news headlines. However, the transitions that do go well, and there are many of those, tend not to be newsworthy events. Most of us tend to be interested in the salacious details of where it all went wrong, who is to blame and who acted badly. But what makes successful departures different? Simple answer: preparation and planning.

We routinely say that planning is the key to successful attorney transitions and partner or group departures. But what does that really mean?  From the attorney’s perspective, it means properly identifying and analyzing the potential issues that will arise in any transition and developing a sound strategy for executing on or navigating through these issues. From a law firm’s perspective, it means developing – in advance – an internal protocol for handling departure matters. This ensures that the firm’s response to any attorney or group departure is well thought out (as oppose to emotionally reactive), is handled consistently and strives to preserve the firm’s infrastructure and assets.

Departing Attorneys Must Have a Plan

As attorneys, most of us regularly evaluate risks for our clients, provide thoughtful analysis on how to tackle a myriad of legal and factual issues and make strategic recommendations on how best to proceed. However, when it comes to attorney transitions, some attorneys believe they can just “wing it” when it comes to their own departure plan. After all, how hard can it be?  Some assume that their firm has a solid understanding of the legal and ethical rules in play and will “do the right thing” by them. Others became so concerned about their book of business that they believe that the only way to preserve it intact is to walk out the door on a moment’s notice with all their files in hand. However, both scenarios create undo risk that you may lose your book of business, violate your legal or ethical duties to your partners and your clients, and/or get sued by your former firm. Instead, with some strategic planning, most attorneys can leave their firm the right way.

Law firms Must Have a Plan Too

While your partnership or shareholder agreement likely has a provision for handling the voluntary withdrawal of one of your partners – this probably only covers notice and how to handle the distribution of that partner’s ownership interest. Unfortunately, the firm’s immediate response is seldom set forth as a firm protocol. Who will be the internal point person for handling the firm’s message regarding the departure? How and when will the firm communicate the news of the departure to clients?  To other attorneys in the firm? Or to the legal community if necessary? Does the firm understand its obligations in this regard? (Picking and choosing your battles with the departing partner is important. The firm needs to know where it is on solid legal and ethical ground and where it is not before trying to hold that departing partner to a certain code of conduct or refusing to do something.) The firm must also be guided by strong and strategic business principles. What does the departure of this attorney or group of attorneys mean for the firm, its client base and revenue? How can this best be protected?

And while there is no question that each departure may create a unique set of circumstances for the law firm – having an overarching consistent approach is the key to a smooth transition. This will breed confidence among other attorneys, staff and clients that while there is a departure, it is being handled properly and things will return to normal soon. It also reduces the chance that the firm’s well thought out policies are being undermined or eroded through an inconsistent application.

Don’t Have a Fool for Client

Get the right advice before devising a plan. You would no sooner give your client tax advice or agree to draft their estate plan if your core practice was as an environmental trial lawyer. And hiring counsel does not necessarily mean that the transition will become adversarial. In fact, most often the opposite is true. Good confidential advice behind the scenes guiding the process often leads to the best outcomes. However, if things do go awry, you have someone on your side with knowledge of these issues to take up your fight.

Dena M. Roche
O’Rielly & Roche LLP

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