Partner Departure Law

February 28, 2022

What to Expect When You’re Departing

For law firm partners, some circumstances arise after giving notice of a departure that can seem unexpected or even shocking. But it turns out that what may appear unlikely or uncommon is quite usual in partner departures, and some circumstances that may be difficult to imagine are foreseeable with the correct perspective.

Not all of these circumstances will occur, of course, and in the best-case scenario, perhaps none of them will. But each of them, or some variation, happens often enough that it’s best to assume that these reactions will happen and to build your departure strategy to anticipate, accommodate, and neutralize each of them. If these reactions never come to pass, at least you will have been prepared and pleasantly surprised.

The firm may react negatively. It sounds like common sense to say that the firm may have a negative reaction to your departure, but in many cases departing partners find this difficult to believe or to anticipate. After all, you might have spent your entire career at the firm, and many of the partners likely are not just trusted colleagues but personal friends.

Why would those people react negatively to your departure? Lots of reasons. The first and simplest is that you are probably taking money out of their pockets. People don’t like that, especially lawyers.

Second, other partners may view your departure as a rejection of them. That should not be a surprise, of course, since it is a rejection: if you were entirely content at the firm and everything was going very well, you wouldn’t be leaving. Or maybe they are envious that you are moving on and moving up, and they are not or cannot. Partners who are in the management of the firm may take the news personally, since the firm’s culture that you are rejecting is likely due to policies that they created, encouraged, or at least permitted.

Many departing partners feel that the firm has no right to react negatively since the departure is likely motivated by the firm’s own real or perceived shortcomings over many years. The argument is that had the firm realized its failings, it could have avoided the departure, so it won’t be heard to complain now. But that’s not how it works. Even if all of this is true, and the firm is to blame for your leaving, and whatever the cause, do not be surprised if the firm has a negative reaction to your departure, regardless of how long you have been at the firm.

Your partners may become adversaries. For similar reasons, many lawyers find it difficult to believe or to anticipate that their trusted partners and colleagues may become adversaries once you announce a departure. Not all do, to be sure, and in many departure scenarios, we see strong loyalties and professionalism revealed. But unfortunately, unless they are coming with you, it’s more likely that you will see other partners now scrambling to get an advantage out of your departure, either by taking your role at the firm, trying to keep or take clients, or otherwise moving up. It’s generally safe to assume that once you are a lame duck at the firm, everyone will be positioning to gain an advantage from it. So, that should not come as a surprise, and it is not always a bad thing.

The firm will act in its self-interest. This may come as no surprise to lawyers who have decided to depart since, in most cases, the decision to depart is motivated by too much of the firm’s self-interest. It can be a surprise, however, to experience how this plays out. Once you announce your departure, the information is equal, and the firm knows what you know for the first time. Expect that the firm will compete for clients, potentially make the transition harder for you, hold on to your equity as long as possible, interpret the partnership agreement very strictly, and generally conduct itself in its self-interest. And, provided client interests are not imperiled, and ethical obligations are met, the firm may have a right to do some of these things, but it can come as a shock if you fail to anticipate precisely what, when, and how they will execute these things.

Clients will too. The same holds true for many clients. Don’t be surprised if certain clients use the news of your departure as an opportunity to negotiate a better fee, better terms of representation, decide to stay at the firm, or change altogether to new counsel. Again, clients are, of course, permitted to do any or all of these things. It can be a surprise, however, if it happens. After all, when you or your group are departing a firm, you are at one of the most vulnerable moments of your career. You might not expect that clients, especially long-term clients with whom you have built a lasting trust relationship, will use that opportunity to get something from you. But it does happen. And it’s just business.

Never fear. If you are hiding under your desk at this point (haha :), you should not be! The best use of this list is to incentivize proper preparations to depart the firm. You can only do that when you anticipate and plan to accommodate the firm’s potential reactions. A properly prepared departure and transition plan will account for these potential issues, and others. Without a plan, these reactions can quickly overwhelm. With a plan, you can manage them to your advantage while protecting client interests.

Dena M. Roche
O’Rielly & Roche LLP

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