Lawyer Transitions: It’s Time to Go

Lawyer Transitions: It's Time to Go

Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass
Special to
November 8, 2010

Although you may be tempted to skip out the door immediately upon giving notice, you must restrain yourself and make a congenial exit. Not only do you want to protect any rights you may have, you also want to preserve your reputation in the legal community.


Before you resign, clean out your office. Remove anything -- including computer files -- that you would not like discovered by others after you are gone. Make sure you don't leave any potentially embarrassing personal items such as notes, cards, photos or appointment slips in your desk or on your computer. (Don't take or delete any information that it is unethical for you to take or delete. Likewise, don't help yourself to any supplies or long distance phone calls.) Before you leave, when you turn in firm property such as keys, access cards, cell phones and the like, get a written receipt.

Also, review your current firm's policies regarding bonuses, unused vacation, sick days, holidays, continuation of health and other benefits, and any vested retirement or investment funds, beforehand, so you don't take any action to jeopardize what is due to you. This is a good time to turn in any requests for unclaimed reimbursements, as well. After giving notice, meet with your firm's benefits manager to arrange for COBRA, the calculation and transfer of any funds due you, and any other financial details.


If other exiting attorneys were escorted unceremoniously and expeditiously out the door as soon as they gave notice, expect the same treatment and do not take it personally. Have your files ready for transition and personal belongings ready to pack at a moment's notice. Such quick good-byes need not be unpleasant if you are emotionally and logistically prepared. Understand that, since legal practice is confidential and conflicts easily arise, some firms prefer to limit an exiting attorney's exposure to files once that attorney is no longer a member of the team.


If you have business you hope will move with you, beware that ethical rules prohibit you from soliciting clients before you give your present firm notice of your intention to leave. Once you have alerted the firm of your departure, both you and the firm have the same opportunity to seek continuing representation of the client. Selection of counsel for new and continuing matters is completely up to the client.

Ethics experts claim that it is best for the firm and the departing lawyer jointly to notify clients by letter. If that is not practical, clients may be notified separately by the firm and the departing lawyer. Be prepared for the latter situation before you resign by drafting a letter to your clients notifying them of your career move. Be dignified and professional, making sure not to disparage your current firm in any way, and alerting the client that they may choose who they wish to have represent them.


Graciously accept offers of lunch or drinks with well-wishing colleagues. Don't brag too much about your new opportunity and avoid gripe sessions with your soon-to-be-former co-workers. Expect that higher-ups will hear any negative comments. Mend any fences that may have been broken during your tenure with the firm because you may come across those attorneys later in your career.

For those relationships you want to nurture, ask for cell phone numbers and/or personal e-mail addresses (in case they move to another firm, as well). Write thank you notes for what they have contributed to your career, remember their birthdays, send articles and clippings relevant to their interests and, if appropriate, refer business back to them. By keeping in touch, you will have references and possible sources of future business referrals.


Whether formal or informal, you probably will have some sort of conversation with HR or firm partners regarding the circumstances leading to your decision to leave. Most employers appreciate feedback about what might be causing turnover because it's far more expensive to train a new employee than to retain an existing one. In the case of a disgruntled departing employee, formal exit interviews may be used to head off or gather information to use in the case of litigation.

You are not required to answer any uncomfortable questions during an exit interview. It is unprofessional to use this as an opportunity to rant. If, however, you have feedback you believe would benefit the organization, prepare your comments before the meeting. Offer constructive criticism and solutions regarding important issues; don't nitpick or burn any bridges. On the other hand, be sure to thank them for the opportunities you have enjoyed while working with the firm.


Resist the temptation to slack off after you've given notice. It can damage the reputation you might have spent years building. Keep the quality of your work high and care as much about transitioning your files as you cared about your performance up until now. Come to an understanding regarding which tasks you will complete, and how and to whom the others will be reassigned.

At minimum, make sure everything is in order and write a status report on each file, deal or matter on your desk. Determine when your access to the firm's databases and computer files will be terminated so that you can have your work completed before then. Be sure to turn in all of your hourly billing sheets before you go. If appropriate, offer to help the replacement attorney get up to speed, and to be reasonably available to answer questions after you have left.


Once you have left your current firm on good terms and start your new job, be prepared with a short and sweet statement for your new colleagues regarding your decision to move. Likewise, don't post negative comments about your previous employer anywhere on the Internet, regardless of your expectation of privacy. Any trash talk may come back to haunt you. At worst, it is acceptable to say that you made a mistake and you have learned a lot since taking your last position, and now know why it wasn't a good match. Don't go into gory details. Always describe your move in terms of career advancement, and say something positive about your previous firm, if at all possible. Loyalty is always respected.


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