South Carolina Lawyer
SC Lawyer, January 2008, #1.
Leaving on Good Terms
South Carolina LawyerJanuary 2008Leaving on Good TermsBy John FreemanFor many young lawyers, the law firm departure question is not "if" but "when." A poll by the ABA's Young Lawyers Division found that only 10 percent of practicing lawyers below the age of 36 said they "definitely" would not be leaving their current employment in the next two years. American Bar Ass'n, ABA Young Lawyers Division Survey: Career Satisfaction 9 (1995). In contrast, more than one-third of those polled said they were "strongly considering" leaving their firms. According to one study, more than 40 percent of law firm associates leave their firms by the end of the third year. NALP Found. for Research & Educ., Keeping the Keepers: Strategies for Associate Retention in Times of Attrition 54 (1998). Given the reality that most lawyers eventually will change firms at some point, it is worth reviewing some of the basic things to do and to avoid doing when the challenges of lawyer mobility arise.
The starting point to solving problems arising from lawyer departure quickly and fairly is to understand the basics. Fortunately, there is an ABA Ethics Opinion directly on point. That opinion, 99-414, is entitled "Ethical Obligations When a Lawyer Changes Firms." It is available on Westlaw in the ABA-ETHOP database, and it is a great skinny for use both by the departing lawyer and the lawyer's firm. Additionally, the South Carolina Bar has published on its Web site a helpful set of materials captioned, "A Practical Guide to Leaving a Law Firm." The Bar's set of materials comes complete with checklists, draft documents and insights calculated to make the departure process easier for both sides. The guide is available at www.scbar.org/pmap/transitions/transitions.asp.
The ABA opinion and case law make several things clear about the protocol for handling departures and informing clients. First, Job #1 is not about protecting the firm's financial interests or the leaving lawyer's. Job #1 is to protect the client with accurate, complete, honest information about what is transpiring and about the client's options. Where the departing lawyer has been serving clients, both the firm and the lawyer have an obligation to be sure the client is properly informed about the...