When a lawyer leaves: Steps to take to protect client’s interests and the law firm

TnBar Management Services is receiving an increasing number of calls from attorneys who are leaving their law firm to set up a new practice. There are many issues to consider when a lawyer leaves a law firm. Among the most important is protecting the interests of the firm and departing lawyer’s clients. How do departing lawyers and the law firms they are leaving ensure that client interests are protected during this type of transition?

• Identify client files for which the departing lawyer is the originating and/or responsible attorney and prepare a written list of these files containing addresses, phone numbers and other contact information related to the file.

• The law firm and lawyer should send a "joint" letter to the lawyer’s clients notifying them of the lawyer’s departure and providing them the option of remaining with the lawyer or the firm; or, if the client so desires, to seek out other legal counsel of the client’s choosing. The client’s choice should be in writing and retained in the firm’s client file.

• The law firm should instruct the firm’s receptionist and other staff to provide contact information for the departing lawyer to callers who request it.

• The law firm should inform related parties to each file of the lawyer’s departure and who has been retained as counsel for the client.

• The law firm should check its calendar to be sure critical dates and deadlines are not missed during the transition period. The departing lawyer or a law firm representative should appear at hearings or other proceedings during the transition period, as needed.

• Advances for expenses not incurred or unearned fees should be returned to the client.

• Along with client file contents, the law firm should retain copies of documents indicating the client’s choice as to counsel, the transferal of file contents, original documents and client property per the client’s instructions, signed receipts from the client for file contents and return of advances, unearned fees and trust funds to the client.

• The law firm should address the billing and payment of client fees and expenses for work performed by the departing attorney which has been billed (and not paid) or is still in work in process prior to the date of the lawyer’s departure.

• The partnership or organizational agreement should adequately address issues related to how partner withdrawal from the law firm will be handled.

There are many reasons lawyers leave their firms to start their own or leave the practice altogether. Martha Fay Africa, founding partner of the lawyer search firm, Major, Hagen & Africa in San Francisco, cites a few of these reasons in an article published in the April 2001 issue of Law Practice Management entitled, "Why Lawyers Leave". Lawyers with whom she works cite the lawyer’s need for a change in practice area or environment, the perception that their firm is falling apart, long hours, lack of autonomy, inadequate support staff, inadequate firm vision, too few rainmakers, failed relationships within the firm, and differences in practice standards as common reasons for leaving a firm. There are numerous others. Lawyers leaving a firm may also take the opportunity to use their law degree to pursue another career.