Leaving a Law Firm Gracefully
Law used to be a calling. Then it became a profession. Now it is a business.
Leaving a law firm partnership 25 years ago was rare. Today, it is commonplace. Back then, many felt that leaving a partnership was disloyal. Proof that law is now a business is in the number of non-billing executives working at Big Law in Canada (read: chief operating officer, chief client officer, chief executive officer etc.) As such, we must expect partners to be wooed by their competitors on a regular basis, and for reasons unbeknownst to the public, circumstances change, and the need or desire to switch firms will not go away.
In addition, with the onset of aggressive poaching, the ease by which a partner can switch firms has been made virtually simple, or is it? Despite the ease of accepting invitations, firms need to prepare for these departures, and more importantly, those leaving need to prepare for their eventual departure.
Leaving a partnership is often emotionally challenging, especially after a number of years of service. After hearing endless anecdotes on departures, I am hopeful that this piece will set the record straight, and help guide the leavers, and the firms; on making such a transition smooth for all concerned.
What I hear on a routine basis are questions relating to topics such as logistics, notification to clients and file transfers (not to mention admin support in the new firm). As you may know, each client needs to sign a release of their file to leave your former firm for your new one. How you broach this process with your firm is important and vital to a smooth exit. In an ideal scenario, your messaging in this regard with clients is a co-ordinated effort with your existing firm. Be measured — and don’t let your anxiety about client-retention during this period cause you to forgo acting with integrity.
The truth is (i) your client’s decision whether to follow or not will not be made on who gets to them first, and (ii) you are chasing a month or two (maybe) of billings. Clients will always retain the right to choose to be serviced by counsel of their choosing, and your former firm is unlikely to refrain from trying to obtain work from clients who “leave” with you (nor will you presumably refrain from trying to obtain work from those who “stay”). Play the long game.
The other question I often get is about capital repayment. Firms need to prepare for these departures, and more importantly, those leaving need to prepare for their impending exit with integrity and grace.
For the firm, addressing the “counteroffer” prospect is always important to discuss among their fellow executives. If your “leaver” is critical, a discussion around how to retain this person will happen and could play out in a number of ways. Remember, this person has just announced they are leaving (likely for a competitor), and you are now trying to change their mind. Never easy, and not often advised; however, if you resolve to make a play for that person to stay, ensure you address their concerns head on, and appreciate that you are setting a precedent for others that “… you need to be told when to treat your partners more appropriately …” if indeed this is the case. Even if s/he can be persuaded to stay, will the partnership be able to trust the lawyer going forward? With key client relationships? With confidential firm information? Or is the relationship doomed to failure in the long run?
As for those folks leaving their partnership, play your own game, not the firm’s. It needs to be clear why you are leaving — not just to garner a counterproposal and use some other firm as a stalking horse — it is usually about much more than just compensation. Get out with your head held high. The firm may “do stuff” to create a crisis or try to throw you off your game. Don’t let them. Continually remind yourself of your purpose (whether in this particular move, or a broader life purpose) that is driving your decision. This should give you some resolve to get through difficult moments. And, as many will attest, there will be some.
Regardless of your personal scenario, the messages heard in these nuggets of advice is that make the departure on your own terms, while respecting the letter of the law in your partnership agreement. Focus on the long term, as this is likely the reason you chose to leave in the first place.
Warren Bongard established his own legal search firm in 1996 before he co-founded ZSA Legal Recruitment in 1997. As president and co-founder, Bongard manages lawyer recruitment operations and focuses his practice on partner-level hires and special in-house assignments. Warren is passionate about his family and when time permits, lowering his handicap in golf.