Leaving Your Law Firm
What are your ethical obligations to your clients and firm?
As you already know, an attorney’s decision to leave (or dissolve) a law firm involves much more than just moving out personal belongings. As attorneys, we have an ethical obligation to clients to maintain the quality of legal support during these transitions. This article describes the actions required to adequately “disconnect” from your old firm while maintaining your clients’ best interests.
You CAN take it with you
The legal industry is unique in that your old firm can’t restrict you from contacting your clients and offering to continue their legal representation. Those communication guidelines are outlined in Formal Advisory Opinion No. 97-3, which also points to a number of GA Bar Rules covering relevant conduct. FAO 97-3 provides that clients with whom the departing attorney has “either had significant contact or actively represented” may be contacted by that attorney.
As the departing attorney, you actually have a duty to inform clients and take steps to protect their interests. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve received calls from potential plaintiffs and grievants complaining that their lawyers just disappeared.
Keep your clients informed
It is critical that both you and your (previous) firm adequately communicate with clients during the departure process. If you let personal or business disputes get in the way of your clients’ best interests, you may end up as the respondent in a Bar grievance matter – or worse.
- Notify your firm. You should provide proactive notice of your departure. FAO 97-3 reminds us that any conduct which involves “dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or willful misrepresentation” is a violation of Bar Rule 8.4. You’ll want to allow enough time to determine how best to handle the departure and client communication. Clients also require adequate notice to make informed decisions about future legal representation.
- Notify your clients. The best option here is to send a joint letter, with notification of the departure timeframe and how file transfers (if applicable) will be handled. With a simple check box and signature, clients can return the letter designating their choice of attorney. If you can’t agree on a joint communication to clients, you can send your own letter after you’ve attempted step 1.
- Notify your insurance carrier. This often-overlooked step is required to sever liability from the old firm and clients, plug any potential gaps, and set up coverage for your new position. This may take some time, especially if you are establishing a new firm. Don’t wait. Consider tail coverage or an extended reporting endorsement so there are NO gaps in coverage.
- Notify the Bar. Many lawyers forget about updating their contact information with the Bar. The Rules require you to supply membership with all of your new contact information, but it’s also a good marketing move. Once learning about your departure from your firm, many people will begin looking for you on the Bar’s website. Make it easy for them to find you!
Expect some pushback, if not a fight
We are attorneys, after all, so expect some competition for those valuable clients. While it’s rare for a firm to escort a departing attorney out the door, expect your firm to make some attempt to retain the clients. While you may believe that you have the most experience working with your specific clients, your firm may highlight its experience, staff, resources and infrastructure as reasons for those clients to stick with the firm. The bottom line is that the client is the boss, and it is the client’s choice alone as to who will represent the client’s interests.
Is this in my clients’ best interests?
This is the best way to address any questions or issues that may arise during the departure and transition process. If the answer is an affirmative “yes” then you will likely steer clear of trouble. Don’t let disputes with your previous firm or general departure turmoil get in the way of providing clients with the best possible transition support and ongoing legal representation. Your clients will thank you for it.
If you are considering a move to open up a new solo practice or firm, you should also read my recent Turning on the Lights article about planning for a new law business.
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