Partner Departure Law

March 13, 2024

Why Smart Lawyers Get Counsel for Law Firm Departures

Odds are that most lawyers will decide to change law firms at least once during their career, and for many, likely more than once. And, of course, all lawyers have at least considered the idea of leaving their firms. However, surprisingly, many who embark upon this major life transition fail to seek legal counsel as part of that process. Why? The reasons usually boil down to one of three things: (1) It did not occur to them; (2) They did not think it was necessary; or (3) They did not know it was available.

For starters, yes, getting law firm departure advice is a “thing.” In fact, it is usually a very smart thing, even if you do not necessarily anticipate rough waters ahead. Turns out that the key to most successful departures involves thoughtful advice, analysis, and planning (typically behind the scenes) that confidentially prepares the departing lawyer to best navigate this process with their firm, their clients, and their colleagues.

After all, for most departing lawyers, the goal is to transition their practice and their clients to a new firm in a way that complies with their legal and ethical obligations to all parties, but also helps to protect their current practice while minimizing disruption to their clients and soon-to-be former firm.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know. For many law firm partners, even those who run and manage their own practice groups, the idea that they need a lawyer for advice and counsel on a departure may seem like overkill. They think that because they can read a contract (i.e., their “partnership agreement”), have a good relationship with their clients, and “know” their colleagues, things will work out.

Turns out that is not always the case. While each law firm management team may react to and handle partner and group departures differently, the firm’s reaction is often not what the departing partner expected. And law firm managers are often tempted to set aside reason (or the rules) when learning that a colleague with a large book of business plans to walk out the door.

Law firm departures also involve a unique overlap of contract and partnership law, legal ethics issues, and experience with law firm practice management, subjects with which most legal practitioners are not familiar. So, experienced counsel can guide you through what to know, what to expect, and how to best navigate the process – both ahead of time and after notice to the firm.

Planning is Everything. We say this often. Planning is the single biggest factor in successful outcomes for partner and group departures. And it should not be taken lightly. Instead, it must be done thoughtfully and in compliance with your ethical duties to your firm and clients. And ethical and legal issues often emerge at the inception of the planning process, so they must be identified early and navigated carefully.

Proper planning gives you the advantage of thinking through each step of a potential departure: from contemplating a move and finding the right next home, to thinking through the timing (including notice to your firm and clients and others), to managing next steps with your firm and clients once you have provided notice, and to transitioning out of the firm and into your new law firm home. Proper planning also allows you to anticipate and plan for your firm’s (or clients’) response, rather than reacting to only what they do and assuming they are acting appropriately. And importantly, it allows you to control the narrative of your departure.

Anticipating Risk Is the Best Way to Mitigate it. One of the most important reasons departing partners need independent counsel to advise on their departure is also perhaps one of the most obvious: perspective. As lawyers, we routinely advise our clients on legal issues and analyze their most difficult legal problems. The most useful aspect of that legal advice is the ability to be detached from the legal problem and to analyze the problem objectively and dispassionately. Identifying potential legal solutions is just the first step in resolving complex legal issues. The critical next step is to have and apply the perspective to choose among the possible solutions, applying practical experience about what to do and why, to achieve your goals while best mitigating risk.

That part, the really valuable, critical part, is only possible when you are reasonably detached from the problem you are solving. It’s also more likely when you have the perspective of having seen departing lawyers solve similar problems, some more successfully than others, or seen a myriad of firm reactions to a partner’s notice and related conduct.

Importantly, departing a partnership often has a significant emotional component. The people you are now dealing with will be former colleagues and friends, possible mentors, or maybe office irritants, which often clouds a departing lawyer’s judgment about how these people will respond, how to defuse certain situations, and what makes sense to push back on and when.

Obtaining counsel for a potential law firm departure does not have to signal that you anticipate a fight with your firm (although you’ll be prepared if one happens). But it is usually the smartest way to avoid one and increase the likelihood of a smooth transition. And with the proper advice and counsel, you can develop a comprehensive departure plan that allows you to minimize or eliminate unnecessary risks, solve ethics and partnership issues before they become impediments to your transition, and better protect your clients and your practice for its future success elsewhere. Sounds pretty smart to us.

Dena M. Roche
O’Rielly & Roche LLP

Recent Posts

Law Firm Resolutions for a Happy New Year

Managing Partner Departures So They Are Not Bad for Business

Creating Successful Outcomes for Lateral Partner Transitions

Your Law Firm Culture Should Protect the Firm from Partner Departures

What to Expect When You’re Departing