Lawyer Transitions: Giving Notice Without Burning Bridges

Lawyer Transitions: Giving Notice Without Burning Bridges

Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass
Special to
October 11, 2010

You have accepted an offer, now what? Bottom line: DON'T BURN ANY BRIDGES! Despite fantasies of telling your firm to "take this job and shove it!," be gracious; say nothing negative. In this mobile legal marketplace, you never know where paths may cross again, or where your reputation may precede you.


Even if you can't wait to get started, you must balance fairness to your current employer and clients with consideration for your new employer. Assess your current workload to determine how much time you will need to ensure a smooth transition. If you have an important matter that cannot be handed off to your successor without negatively impacting the client, you may need to stay in your current position long enough to handle it yourself.

Explain this to your new employer and determine a start date that best meets the needs of all parties involved. Understand that they have a need to fill their open position as soon as possible; otherwise, they would not have hired you. Notwithstanding this, your new employer should appreciate that you take seriously your responsibility to your clients and current employer. Conversely, pressuring you for an extremely quick start date might indicate an unreasonably demanding future work environment.


Give notice as soon as possible after you have accepted a new position but not until all conditions on your offer have been satisfied. It is common for offers to be contingent upon reference and conflicts checks.

• References

Most prospective employers speak to references outside of the candidate's current employer before extending the offer, but may make the offer contingent upon speaking with references at your current firm. Early in the interviewing process, be prepared to provide prospective employers with a list of three to five of your best reference sources.

If you are currently unemployed, or your current employer knows you are looking for a new position (e.g., you are part of a layoff or your present position has a completion date, such as with a clerkship), supply a complete list of references at that time. If, however, your job search is confidential, omit contacts from your present employer. The first list could include past employers, senior attorneys who are no longer with your firm, judges before whom you have appeared, or co-counsel, if you trust them to keep your confidence. Give all references a heads-up to expect a call.

If you have decided to accept the contingent offer once the final reference check is completed, you can provide contacts from your current job. Ask that the prospective employer wait to make that call until all other contingencies are met, and you have had a chance to alert the reference at your current firm. In many circumstances, informing the reference that he or she should expect a reference-check call will serve in effect as your initial notice to your current employer. If your current firm reference is not your boss, and agrees to keep the inquiry confidential, you have the luxury of choosing your own time to give official notice.

• Conflicts

A thorough conflicts check is required before an attorney of any seniority is hired. Start gathering the appropriate information early in your job search process so you can complete the forms required by your prospective employer's malpractice insurer in a timely manner. Unfortunately, career moves can be thwarted by unexpected and irresolvable conflicts, or delayed while waivers are obtained.

Sometimes, conflicts clearance takes an inordinate amount of time. You do not want to have an extended, awkward "lame duck" period, nor be caught in a "squeeze play," having given notice to your current firm but unable to start work at the new one because an irresolvable conflict arose at the last minute. Therefore, wait until all potential conflicts have been cleared or waived and you have an "all clear" from your new firm's malpractice carrier before you give notice.


The conventional wisdom calling for two weeks' notice before leaving a job does not always hold true for attorneys. If you are a law firm partner, you may have signed an agreement calling for much longer notice; conversely, you may be ushered out the door immediately. For all attorneys from associate to partner, client interests must come first and they should not be left in the lurch if there is a deal closing, a trial or an important deadline that is imminent.

Partners, check your partnership agreement early in the search process for any notice requirements, penalties or possible forfeitures so that you can proceed accordingly. Some agreements require up to six months' notice, although courts may be reluctant to uphold terms that interfere with an attorney's ability to move or with a client's right to choice of counsel. Other agreements state that if a partner leaves the firm when it is in a negative cash flow posture for the fiscal year (which may not turn around until late in the year), that partner will give up some part of his or her capital contribution and/or compensation. In those cases, the most advantageous time to give notice may be only at the very end of the fiscal or calendar year. It is best to time your notice and departure to accommodate those considerations.


Despite your excitement about your upcoming career move, be discreet until you give formal notice to the appropriate parties. You don't want the news delivered through the grapevine; you want it to come directly from you. Give notice first to your immediate superior, and then ask whether there are others you need to notify. Always resign in person -- not by phone, voice mail, e-mail or letter, except as a last resort. Follow up with a letter of resignation, however, if written notice is required by your employment or partnership agreement. A Friday afternoon is best, so all parties have the weekend to digest the information. Describe your decision to leave positively in terms of moving towards your goals (opportunity, variety of practice, money, advancement, a geographic move), rather than complain about leaving a less-than-ideal situation.


Only after you have notified the powers-that-be, should you let your colleagues know about your impending move. You may want to tell some of your closest co-workers in person; otherwise, a short e-mail is an efficient option. Again, be positive and upbeat, stating that you are moving on to an exciting opportunity, but do not gloat. Refrain from airing any complaints about your current firm. Express appreciation for the friendship, support, training and growth opportunities that you have received from everyone at the firm, and wish them all well.


Read articles in the "Lawyer Transitions" series:

  1. Lawyer Transitions: Money Isn't Everything
  2. Lawyer Transitions: The Art of Negotiation
  3. Lawyer Transitions: Talking About Compensation
  4. Lawyer Transitions: What's on the Negotiating Table?
  5. Lawyer Transitions: Figuring Out Multiple Offers
  6. Lawyer Transitions: Giving Notice Without Burning Bridges
  7. Lawyer Transitions: Encountering Counteroffers
  8. Lawyer Transitions: It's Time to Go
  9. Lawyer Transitions: How to Succeed in Your New Job