Leaving a Law Firm on Good Terms

Leaving a Law Firm on Good Terms

Learn the dos and don't of leaving a law firm on good terms.

When a lawyer decides to leave a law firm, this transition is more than moving to a new law firm; it is about navigating a complex interplay of legal ethics, professional responsibilities and personal aspirations. Handling this departure process with care and integrity can open doors to new possibilities while safeguarding the professional relationships built and nurtured over the years.

The significance of maintaining professional relationships during this period cannot be overstated. In the legal industry, the strength of one’s network is key. These relationships, built on trust and mutual respect, can provide support, generate leads and facilitate collaborations long after the departure. Thus, leaving a firm amicably is not only good practice but also a strategic step in any attorney’s career progression.

Whether moving to other law firms, starting a private practice, or exploring an entirely new venture, how a departing lawyer exits a firm can significantly influence their reputation and future opportunities in the legal community.

This article aims to provide insights into how lawyers can navigate their departure gracefully, maintaining and even enhancing their professional networks and setting the stage for the next chapter in their legal careers.

We will cover the following topics:

  1. Preparing to Leave – Legal and Ethical Considerations
  2. Communicating Your Departure – The Art of a Graceful Exit
  3. Strategies for Sustained Connections
  4. Transitioning Clients – Navigating with Integrity
  5. Leveraging Your Network for Future Opportunities
  6. Summary of the Ethical Dos and Dont’s of Lawyer Departures

1. Preparing to Leave – Legal and Ethical Considerations

When a lawyer decides to leave a law firm, the process is fraught with both challenges and opportunities. Departing lawyers must navigate a complex landscape of contractual and ethical obligations, common law fiduciary duties, and statutory requirements, all while adhering to the stringent ethical standards set forth by the legal profession.

Understanding Legal and Ethical Guidelines

Before making any moves, it is essential for the departing lawyer to thoroughly review the firm’s partnership agreement and operating agreement, which outline the rights and responsibilities of both the lawyer and the firm upon departure. These documents detail the process for client notification, the handling of ongoing cases and the financial aspects of the separation.

In addition, lawyers must familiarize themselves with the ethical standards that dictate how they should communicate with affected clients and colleagues about their departure, ensuring that these communications are conducted with integrity and respect for all parties involved.

Planning the Departure

With a solid understanding of the legal and ethical framework, the lawyer must then plan the departure in a way that respects the firm’s policies and professional obligations. This planning involves strategic communication with clients, colleagues and the broader legal community. The goal is to ensure a smooth transition for clients and to leave the firm in a manner that maintains positive relationships and goodwill.

You can't simply lure firm clients. You have a legal and ethical obligation to adhere to as a departing lawyer.

By carefully preparing and adhering to the legal and ethical guidelines, lawyers can navigate their departure from a firm with professionalism and respect, setting a positive tone for the next chapter of their legal careers.

2. Communicating Your Departure – The Art of a Graceful Exit

How you communicate your decision to leave a law firm can significantly impact your ongoing professional relationships and the perception of your colleagues and clients. It is a process that requires thoughtfulness, professionalism and a clear understanding of the nuances of workplace dynamics.

Here’s how to navigate this crucial step:

✅ Informing Your Firm and Colleagues:

The first step is to notify your firm’s management or partners about your decision before sharing the news with other colleagues. This should be done privately and respectfully, ideally in a face-to-face meeting where you can express your gratitude for the opportunities provided and discuss the reasons for your departure without delving into overly personal or contentious details.

✅ Crafting Your Message:

When preparing your message, whether for in-person meetings, emails, or official letters, clarity, respect and professionalism should be your guiding principles. Your message should convey your appreciation for the experiences and opportunities you have had at the firm, briefly explain your decision without negativity, and outline your commitment to a smooth transition. Avoiding burning bridges is crucial, as the legal community is interconnected and your paths may cross again.

✅ Importance of Personal Meetings:

While emails and letters are necessary for official records, personal meetings or discussions are invaluable for maintaining positive relationships. They allow for a more personal and considerate exchange and provide an opportunity for closure for you and your colleagues. These interactions demonstrate your respect for the relationship leaving a lasting positive impression.

✅ Timing and Tone:

Be mindful of the timing of your announcement and the tone you adopt. The news should be delivered in a way that minimizes disruption and respects the firm’s operational needs. Your tone should be positive rather than focusing on any grievances or negative experiences.

3. Strategies for Sustained Connections

Leaving a law firm doesn’t mean you have to sever the professional bonds you have formed. Maintaining relationships with former colleagues is crucial for continued growth and success in the legal field.

Here are some key strategies to keep these connections strong and meaningful:

  • Regular Communication: Stay in touch with your former colleagues through emails, social media, or occasional coffee meetings. This regular, yet unobtrusive, communication keeps the relationship alive and shows your genuine interest in their well-being and professional progress.
  • Networking Events: Attend industry networking events, conferences and seminars where you can interact with your former colleagues. These events offer a natural setting to reconnect, share insights, and discuss new developments in your field, reinforcing your professional relationships.
  • Professional Associations: Active participation in professional associations keeps you connected with your former colleagues and demonstrates your ongoing commitment to the legal community. Engage in committees, attend meetings and contribute to discussions to maintain visibility and relevance.
  • Providing Value: Offer help or share valuable information with your former colleagues. Whether it’s a relevant legal update, a contact introduction, or support for a professional challenge, your willingness to assist enhances the relationship and establishes you as a valuable connection.
  • Seeking Endorsements and References: When appropriate, seek endorsements or references from your former peers and supervisors. Do this in a manner that is respectful of their time and obligations.
  • Alumni Networks: If your firm has an alumni network, participate actively. These networks are great for staying connected with former colleagues and can be a rich source of opportunities, advice and support.

It is important to keep in mind that a law firm's clients and the clients' files are not the 'property' of either the departing lawyer or the firm.

By implementing these strategies, you can maintain and even deepen your relationships with former colleagues, ensuring a robust professional network that can support your career for many years to come.

4. Transitioning Clients – Navigating with Integrity

When leaving a law firm, the transition of clients is a delicate process that requires adherence to legal and ethical standards. Here’s how to handle this transition with professionalism and integrity:

  • Legal and Ethical Considerations: Understand the legal and ethical obligations concerning client notifications. These standards generally require that a firm’s clients be informed of your departure promptly, ensuring they can make informed decisions about their legal representation. It is crucial to respect the confidentiality and autonomy of the client’s matter throughout this process.
  • Informing Clients: When you notify clients of your departure, the communication should be clear, professional and focused on the client’s best interests. The message should assure them of continued support and stability in their legal representation, whether they choose to stay with the firm or follow you to your new practice.
  • Client Autonomy: Emphasize that the choice of legal representation remains with the client. Provide all the information they need to make an informed decision, including how their cases will be managed during the transition and the options available to them.
  • Coordinating with Your Current Firm: Work collaboratively with your current firm to ensure a smooth transition. This may involve joint communications to clients about your departure, outlining the steps taken to ensure the continuity and quality of their legal services.
  • Building Your Book of Business: If clients decide to follow you, ensure this happens without breaching any contractual obligations or non-solicitation agreements with your current firm. The transition should be client-driven, based on their preference and best interests, not on overt solicitation.
  • Handling Client Files and Information: Adhere to strict protocols regarding the transfer of client files and information. Obtain the necessary consents and ensure that any transfer of records complies with legal requirements and client confidentiality.
  • Communicating Value to Clients: When discussing the transition with clients, focus on how your new role or firm will continue to provide value and meet their legal needs. Highlight the benefits of the transition, such as specialized expertise or enhanced services, without disparaging your former firm.
  • Post-Departure Follow-Up: After the transition, maintain communication with former clients to ensure their ongoing legal needs are met and to address any concerns they may have. This follow-up demonstrates your continued commitment to their welfare and helps solidify the relationship in your new capacity.

A departing lawyer is permitted— prior to departure—to notify his or her clients of their imminent move from the law firm.

By approaching the transition of clients and business with careful consideration of legal and ethical guidelines, clear communication, and a focus on the client’s best interests, you can navigate this complex aspect of leaving a law firm with professionalism and integrity.

5. Leveraging Your Network for Future Opportunities

Your professional network is a vital asset in discovering new opportunities and advancing your career. Leveraging this network effectively can open doors to new collaborations, client engagements and insights into the legal field.

Here’s how to make the most of your connections:

  1. Engaging Your Network: Regularly engage with your network through emails, social media, and professional events. Share updates about your career transitions and seek advice or insights when faced with new challenges. The key is to maintain a balance between offering value and seeking assistance, ensuring mutually beneficial relationships.
  2. Visibility through Thought Leadership: Establish yourself as a thought leader in your area of expertise by contributing to publications, participating in panel discussions, and speaking at industry events. This enhances your visibility and demonstrates your knowledge and commitment to your field, attracting new opportunities and reinforcing your professional credibility.
  3. Social Media and Professional Platforms: Utilize platforms like LinkedIn to showcase your achievements, share insightful content, and engage with industry discussions. Regularly updating your profile and participating in relevant groups or conversations can enhance your professional presence and attract opportunities.
  4. Networking Events: Attend legal conferences, seminars, and networking events to stay connected with your peers and meet new professionals. These events are excellent opportunities to exchange knowledge, learn about industry trends and form new connections that could lead to future opportunities.
  5. Mentorship and Collaboration: Offer to mentor younger professionals or collaborate with peers on projects or research. These interactions can enrich your professional experience, expand your network, and position you as a supportive and connected member of the legal community.
  6. Alumni Associations: Engage with alumni networks from your law school or previous law firms. These groups often provide a supportive environment for sharing opportunities, seeking advice, and staying connected with peers who have shared similar career paths.
  7. Follow-Up and Consistency: After meeting new contacts or reconnecting with old ones, follow up with a message or call to express your appreciation for their time and discuss any potential for future collaboration. Consistency in nurturing these relationships is key to maintaining a robust and active network.

Most law firms are governed by some form of written operating agreement outlining the rights and obligations of individual partners and lawyers at the firm.

By actively engaging with your professional network, establishing your presence in the legal community, and utilizing digital platforms to showcase your expertise, you can effectively leverage your connections to uncover new opportunities and pave the way for continued professional growth.

6. Summary of the Ethical Dos and Dont’s of Lawyer Departures

Here are some key points to consider when leaving a law firm and the dos and don’ts of the process, based on an article by David P. Atkins in the Connecticut Lawyer Journal and referenced by Pullman & Comley.

  1. Consult the Law Firm’s Agreement: Before departing, review the law firm’s operating agreement to understand the rights and obligations regarding lawyer withdrawal or firm dissolution.
  2. Pre-Departure Client Notification: Ethically, a departing lawyer may (and sometimes must) inform their active clients about their impending departure, adhering to the Rules of Professional Conduct for communication.
  3. Client and Colleague Solicitation: A departing lawyer should not solicit firm clients or colleagues before leaving. Any communication with clients should be neutral and respect the client’s right to choose their legal representation.
  4. Joint Client Notification: Ideally, the departing lawyer and the firm should send a joint notification to clients, detailing the departure and reaffirming the client’s right to choose their representation. This approach minimizes distrust and conflict.
  5. Conflict Checking: The new firm and the departing lawyer must conduct a conflict check, revealing only necessary information to ensure no conflicts of interest in client representation.
  6. Handling Documents and Files: Departing lawyers are entitled to take certain materials they’ve prepared or that are in the public domain. However, confidential firm records or sensitive information should not be removed.
  7. Client Lists: Lawyers may prepare a client list for their move, but only based on publicly available information or what is already known, without clandestinely accessing the firm’s records.
  8. Contingency Fee Cases: In cases with contingency fees, both the departing lawyer and the firm have obligations to ensure the firm’s interests are protected, often through a ‘letter of protection.’


The overarching theme in lawyer departures is the importance of ethical and professional conduct and clear communication with all parties affected. The departing lawyer as well as the firm should prioritize the clients’ interests, ensuring a smooth transition that upholds the clients’ freedom to choose their counsel while respecting the legal and ethical boundaries of the profession.


I'm Karin Conroy

Founder of Conroy Creative Counsel, an award-winning recognized leader that has cracked the code of smart, sophisticated, and strategic marketing for law firms.

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