5 Ways Departing Lawyers Can Avoid Burning Bridges

February 8, 2016


By Andrew Strickler

When it comes to putting in resignation letters and saying goodbyes, experts say most experienced lawyers do a passable-to-good job of pulling off gracious exits with minimum professional bridge burning, even when the breakups are anything but mutual.

Then there’s everyone else.

“The piece that sometimes gets missed is that it’s a business, but they get to the moment and everyone is angry, it’s all about dollar bills and egos, and we forget these are primary relationships we need to take care of for the rest of our professional lives,” said New York legal career counselor Alexandra Duran of Duran Consulting. “What you never want to see is the ‘we’re leaving Monday and send us our files’ situation, but I think we’ve all seen that happen.”

Here, Law360 looks at five tips for a smooth resignation.

Read the Fine Print

Information is power, even in formulating a collegial walkout. First step: Read the rules.

“First and foremost, departing partners need to review their partnership agreements,” said Larry Watanabe of Watanabe Nason LLC. “More often than not and when asked, most have not read their partnership agreements. Understanding the expectations of the agreement is the first key and vital step in the resignation process.”

In many cases, the document outlines the prohibitions against direct and indirect client solicitations and the rules around talking with other lawyers or staff about a possible jump prior to a formal resignation.

Under no circumstances should a lawyer start talking internally about a departure with anyone before getting the ground rules straight.

“Partnership agreements outline how the firm and partner will notify clients of the departure and those guidelines should be strictly adhered to throughout the process,” Watanabe said.

‘It’s Not You, It’s Me’

A BigLaw attorney making a dramatic career change — moving to a business role, an academic institution or opening a solo practice — likely already has a pretty good handle on why they want to move on.

Legal career counselor Ronald Fox advises departing lawyers to dig deep in their resignation conversations and lay out some on their personal motivations and desires that go beyond strictly professional goals.

Having that kind of heart-to-heart lets colleagues know the move isn’t personal or simply motivated by money, a title or the workload.

“Clarifying what you really want to do — that conversation can go back to a place even before law school, all the way back to what you thought about doing in college,” Fox said. “It’s a good way to say, ‘Here’s what I really want to be doing, and the firm simply doesn’t meet the criteria,’ and there never needs to be anything nasty about it.”

Soften Them Up

Surprises are fine for birthdays, but in a professional setting, most people prefer a little softening up before a bomb drops. Outgoing partners, particularly senior people and those likely to take clients or other desirable lawyers with them, can avoid giving people an unpleasant shock with a little planning.

Without getting specific, Duran urges lawyers to sit down with colleagues to talk about what’s working and what’s not for them at the firm before the topic of resignation is broached. Even if the lawyer is more or less set on going, those conversations can give firm leaders a chance to gripe, cool off and adjust.

Whatever the reaction, the person getting the eventual news won’t feel blindsided or betrayed.

“That conversation can just be you saying, ‘Look, I’ve developed an interest in doing this other thing, but there doesn’t seem to be an opportunity for that here,'” Duran said. “That discussion has a kind of a softening effect for later, and starts off the exit plan. And you never know, maybe they’ll come back and say, ‘Yes, you can do that here,’ and you won’t even want to leave anymore.”

Know Thy Numbers

With few exceptions, resignation conversations are going to hit on money, either past compensation or the prospects at another firm or job. But often, lawyers go in without a clear command of their firm’s compensation system or how they have been paid relative to other lawyers.

That loose hold on facts, coupled with the heightened emotions of a professional breakup, can create what Duran calls “false drama” on both sides.

She advises departing lawyers to gather their numbers for billable and nonbillable hours, origination credit and other business essentials, and keep gray-area financial grievances off the table.

“Presenting that information in a very factual and accurate way is the way to go,” Duran said. “That keeps the discussion practical and grounded and lets people have an adult business conversation based in reality.”

Prepare for Pushback

More often than not, firms will want to know why a desirable partner is headed for a competitor, and they may possibly make a counteroffer. But Watanabe warns that most executives who agree to shelve their resignations in exchange for more money still end up leaving within a year or two.

And when a counteroffer is accepted, he said, “the firm will never forget what they had to do to convince the partner to stay.”

For most lawyers, a clean break is just that — clean. Inquires from associates and staff on a departed lawyer’s reasoning should be kept brief and professional. If a lawyer does want to share more, those discussions should happen privately and only after the lawyer has left.

“Most partners leave for a variety of different reasons, and since the lateral process typically takes between six and nine months, they have ample time to reconsider their decision prior to announcement,” Watanabe said. “Departing partners are wise to thank and acknowledge their soon-to-be-former firm and move quietly and swiftly.”

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