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Five Tips for Law Firms Managing a Partner Departure

April 13, 2020 (3 min read)

When a key partner leaves (and in the legal business, many do) it can shake a law firm to its core. Feelings of betrayal can fester among remaining partners and associates, even if the move is not altogether surprising. Depending on the situation, the departure can be a drag on firm morale or just a temporary blip.

Regardless of how the internal response plays out, if clients are following the partner to the new gig, it adds another layer of complexity to the breakup. Will the firm’s bottom line be harmed? How badly? And will the partner’s departure attract negative press for the firm?

Though there are elements of a departure you can’t control, luckily many of them you can—at least partially. When you’re faced with the difficult situation of a partner leaving your firm, put the following five things at the top of your to-do list.

Five Tips for Law Firms Managing a Partner Departure

1. Nail Down Internal Communications First.

Make sure that you issue an internal statement so that the firm’s attorneys and staff are privy to what’s going on. The last thing you want is for people to find out through the grapevine and come to their own (often incorrect) conclusions. This is all about controlling the message. Leading the discussion will foster a sense of stability, which is particularly important when a key leader has one foot out the door.

While it should go without saying, in the great majority of situations, the firm’s message should be professional and cordial. Something along the lines of “we thank her for her contributions to the firm and wish her nothing but the best in her new endeavor,” should suffice.

2. Work on a Joint Communication Between the Partner and the Firm to Existing Clients. 

Though the firm and the departing partner are permitted to notify clients separately, it is best to issue a joint statement. The ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility released a formal opinion in December 2019, which counsels that the firm and the departing lawyer should work together to issue a “joint communication” to all clients with whom the departing attorney has had significant contact.

Of course, clients are free to follow the partner to their next job, but a joint statement can help the firm’s case by giving the appearance of a peaceful exit, which is essential when it comes to maintaining client confidence.

3. Work with the Partner to Establish a Client Communication Strategy.

Aside from notifying clients of the departure, consider what other communications need to occur as the partner transitions out of their current role. What are clients’ current expectations regarding when and how you will communicate with them? As the attorney they have the closest relationship with transitions to a new firm, what changes can they expect? Sit down with the departing attorney and make sure you are set up for success when it’s time for the partner to leave.

4. Prioritize Protecting Client Data.

Firms have an obligation under Model Rule 5.1 to put into place “reasonable procedures and policies to assure the ethical transition of client matters when lawyers elect to change firms.” Firms—and the departing attorney—must make sure the client’s records are organized, up-to-date and kept confidential. Unless the client is transferring with the partner, the partner needs to return and/or delete all client records.

5. Get Ahead of the Media.

Is this partner’s departure going to be shocking to those who hear about it? Will it paint your firm in a negative light? Is there bad blood behind it? Ultimately, your exact messaging will be determined by the circumstances surrounding the departure, but as with your internal communications, media messaging should be professional and courteous, while inspiring confidence.  

A standard media statement might read something like “We thank her for her contributions to the firm and wish her well in future endeavors. We are fortunate to have built such a deep litigation practice over the years, and the skill and experience of our team will ensure that this is a seamless transition for our clients.”