Making a Graceful Exit

Making a Graceful Exit

So, you've just accepted the job offer of your dreams. What now? How best to make the transition from your current employment to your new venture? Our bottom line advice: DON'T BURN ANY BRIDGES!

First of all, if you have an employment contract or partnership agreement, refresh your recollection regarding notice requirements (e.g., how long, to whom must notice be given, whether in writing or orally). Until you give formal notice to the appropriate parties, be discreet. You do not want the news to be delivered through the grapevine; you want it to come from you. And despite any fantasies of telling your firm to "take this job and shove it!" say nothing negative. In this mobile legal marketplace, you never know where paths may cross again, or where your reputation may precede you.

Rehearse your speech so you can deliver it smoothly and confidently. Be prepared to describe your decision to leave positively in terms of advancing towards your goals (opportunity, variety of practice, money, advancement, a geographic move), rather than complain about leaving a less than ideal situation. Be appreciative of the support, training, growth opportunities, etc., that you have received from your current firm. Give notice first to your immediate superior, and then ask him or her to direct you to others you need to notify. Always resign in person-not by phone, voice mail, e-mail, or letter, except as a last resort. A Friday afternoon is best, so all parties have the weekend to digest the information. Above all, act with class at all times. Regardless of how gracious you have been, there are some employers who will take the fact of your leaving as a personal affront. No matter how unpleasant life becomes after you have made your announcement, keep your cool professionalism.

Typically, associate attorneys give two to four weeks of notice to their current employer. In any event, keep in mind the workflow of your office. Do not leave your colleagues or clients in the lurch before a big trial or closing. If you have any fiduciary obligations, be careful not to violate them. Offer to work with your employer on transitioning the client matters for which you have been responsible. 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. If appropriate, offer to help the replacement attorney get up to speed, and to be reasonably available to answer questions after you have left.

If you have accepted a position with a direct competitor or are thought to be taking clients with you, your firm may want you to leave immediately, rather than allow you to remain and be privy to further proprietary information. Therefore, before you resign, be prepared with copies of any files or documents you can legally and ethically take with you. Once you have given notice, you may be denied access to computer or paper files. 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 do not take any action to jeopardize what is due to you.

On the other hand, you may receive a counteroffer, sweetening the deal to induce you to stay. Generally speaking, counteroffers are suspect. First of all, your loyalty has been called into question, and your employer may only be buying time merely to dump you at a more opportune moment. Secondly, if you are being offered more money only because you have threatened to quit, why were you not compensated at the increased level when you were loyally toiling away previously? Will the salary increase be offset by reduced raises and bonuses down the line? Are others at or around your level of seniority making the higher amount? If so, why were you not? And, if not, will there be political problems as a result? Do others at the firm need to approve the counteroffer? If so, make sure such approval has been obtained, or the promises may be empty. In any event, unless your sole incentive for seeking alternative employment was as a bargaining chip for more money, a counteroffer probably should not be considered.

After you have notified the powers that be, let your colleagues know about your move. Again, be positive and upbeat but do not gloat. Remember, it is unwise to get into gripe sessions with your soon-to-be-former associates. Expect that any negative comments will be heard by higher-ups. Moreover, take this opportunity to mend any fences that may have been broken during your tenure with the firm. Tell those with whom you have had differences that you learned something from the experience about how to handle similar situations in the future. You may need them as a reference or come across them later in your career. And for those contacts you would like to nurture after your departure, before you leave, ask for their home phone numbers and/or e-mail addresses (in case they move to another firm, as well). Write a thank you note for what they have contributed to your career during your tenure at the firm, remember their birthdays, send clippings relevant to their interests and, if appropriate, refer business back to them. By keeping in touch, you will always have references and possible sources of business referrals.

Before you resign, clean out your office. Make sure you do not leave any potentially embarrassing personal notes, cards, appointment slips, and the like, in your desk or on your computer. Get receipts for turning in all firm property, including keys and credit cards. Do not help yourself to any supplies or long distance phone calls.

Once you have left your current firm on good terms, how best to start your new job? If at all possible-rested! Try to arrange for time off between jobs so you can decompress and start fresh. Remember that you may not be eligible for any vacation for approximately a year. And, just as you rehearsed your speech before giving notice, be prepared with a short and sweet statement for your new colleagues regarding your decision to leave your previous employment. Never trash your old jobs; it almost always will 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. But, do not go into the gory details. Again, describe your move in terms of career advancement, and say something positive about your previous firm, if at all possible. Loyalty is always respected.

Then, put it behind you, roll up your sleeves, and get to work!

Valerie Fontaine
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