I get a lot of calls from associates and partners wanting to leave their current firm to pursue the opportunity of moving to another firm or to pursue the dream of opening their own law office. The PLF has a variety of helpful materials on this topic “Departing a Firm” including checklists, sample letters for notifying clients and getting the direction of what the client wishes to do, instructions for setting up email bouce-back notices and articles from our Oregon Bar Counsel Helen Hierschbiel, General Counsel, and Amber Hollister, Deputy GC. There are many good CLEs held on this topic. This past week I attended a CLE from Bloomberg BNA on this topic called, “Lawyer Mobility: Ethical Issues Arising From Lateral Hires, Partner Withdrawals and Law Firm Dissolutions.” You may be able to watch this 90 minute on-demand by contacting Bloomberg BNA Professional Learning. www.bna.com
Here are some of the issues you need to consider before acting: you have a duty to your clients to communicate. Oregon RPC 1.4 Communication (a) A lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information. (b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation. The fact that you will be leaving the firm impacts your clients. They came to you for help in solving a legal problem. No matter your personal feelings of disenchantment with your firm, do not drag your clients into the middle of any conflicts.
Here are some frequent questions that cause anxiety:
“When can I ethically tell my clients I am planning to leave?” The common sense answer: “Tell your clients after you tell your firm.” That’s right, after. You get this one wrong and your relationship with your present firm is damaged. If you are a partner, you have a duty to your fellow partners and to the firm. If you are an associate, you have a contractual relationship with your employer.
“When do you need to tell your firm you are planning to leave?” If you are a partner, look to your partnership agreement. Remember you are withdrawing from the partnership. If you are an associate, look to your employment contract or personnel manual.
“What if my firm does not have anything in writing?” If there is nothing in writing to guide you, most professionals provide at least 30 days notice if not 60 days notice. You don’t want to damage your firm, merely move on. If you are in a general partnership, see the Oregon Revised Partnership Act, ORS 67 for governing provisions. If you are in a Limited Liability Partnership, LLP, see the Uniform Limited Partnership Act, ORS 70 for governing provisions.
“What about getting information for my conflicts of interest database?” If you have billed on a client matter, you have knowledge of client information that means a potential conflict of interest going forward.Some firms supply year-end and month-end reports of your billing matters. If not, you will want to ask your firm for this information.
“What about when I tell my firm about my plans?” Take the time to plan how this event will take place. Preparing an annotated status report of client maters you are responsible for or have been working on is important and appreciated. Additionally, you may want to have a packet of materials with you when you notify your firm: client status report, proposed letter to clients, copy of article addressing ethical guidelines, proposed timeline of your exit and transition of remaining clients to another attorney in the firm. Be sure to make a copy for yourself which will be important if the firm tells you to leave immediately or by the end of the day or week.
“What about forms and sample documents I’ve used or even created while at the firm?” Consult a lawyer about this. Generally speaking, if something was created during your employment by a firm, it belongs to the firm. Most firms have monitoring provisions in place, or the ability to do so. Your efforts to download documents from your firm’s server is not under the radar. There are records of this and there may be consequences if you help yourself to property of the firm with the intention of converting it to your own use at your next firm. You wouldn’t dream of collecting office supplies. Consider that the firm’s form bank is far more valuable than post-it notes and paper clips!
Finally, to ensure that you are going to exit your firm ethically and gracefully, consider seeking ethics advice from the Oregon State Bar Ethic Counsel or hire outside ethics counsel to guide you through your situation. Whether you are a partner or an associate, you are an Oregon attorney-at-law, a professional. Conduct yourself accordingly. Good luck in your future endeavor.