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 an impending deal closing, trial, or important deadline. Remember that the legal community is very small, and you do not want to burn any bridges with your current employer. Therefore, you must give sufficient notice to properly transition the matters you are handling. However, you do not want to linger any longer than necessary, as your heart may not be in the work during your “lame duck” period. In few cases, however, should you give less than two weeks’ notice.
If you are a law firm partner, check your partnership agreement early in the search process for any notice requirements, penalties, or possible forfeitures so that you can proceed accordingly. Partnership agreements vary widely on these points. Some require up to six months’ notice although courts may be reluctant to uphold terms that interfere with a lateral attorney’s ability to move or with a client’s right to choice of counsel. Other partnership 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 gives 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.
Pay attention, regardless of your level of seniority, to how other exiting attorneys have been treated by the firm. If it is common for them to be unceremoniously and expeditiously escorted out the door as soon as they give notice, expect the same treatment and do not take it personally. Have your office organized and personal belongings ready to be packed at a moment’s notice, and remove anything—including computer files—that you would not like discovered by others after you are gone. (But do not take or delete anything that it is unethical for you to take or delete.) 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 such information once that attorney is no longer a member of the team.
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 made contingent upon reference and conflicts checks. Therefore, wait until all potential conflicts have been cleared or waived and your new firm has checked with its malpractice carrier to see whether there are any other impediments to getting you and your practice covered. You do not want to 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.
Also wait until the reference check is completed. The only exception is when the prospective employer wants to talk to someone at your current firm. In that case, ask that they wait to make that call until all other contingencies are met, and you have had a chance to alert the person you wish them to contact at your current firm. In many circumstances, your alert to the potential reference to expect a call will, in effect, serve as your initial notice to your 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 notice.
When deciding how long to stay on the job after giving notice, balance fairness to your current employer and clients with consideration for your new employer. Assess your workload to determine what you will need to do 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 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 be filled as soon as possible; otherwise, they would not have hired you. 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.
After taking all of the above into account, try to keep your lame duck period to a minimum. Your work should be winding down, your current employer may wish to minimize your exposure to further confidential information, and your current co-workers may be uncomfortable, resentful, or envious of you. You may find yourself isolated and your enthusiasm for work diminished, though it still deserves your best effort. Therefore, it is best to utilize this time to tie up all loose ends efficiently and quickly and make a graceful, but not protracted, exit. [See: Making a Graceful Exit]