10 Tips for Leaving a Law Firm the Right Way

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leaving a law firm

What’s the best way to leave a law firm? Leaving a law firm is never easy. But it’s sometimes necessary. The average tenure for lawyers is typically 5.4 years. Over a lifetime, a lawyer could work for as many as eight law firms.

No matter the reason, leaving a law firm is challenging. Read on for the must-knows when leaving a law firm.

Why lawyers leave law firms

The legal profession is stressful—the demands for results and high performance are constant. Combined with the competitive nature of the legal industry, lawyers can feel the stress is pushing them over the brink. While some people may thrive in this type of high-pressure environment, others may quickly experience burnout.

Professional growth isn’t pain-free, but a lawyer’s reason for leaving a firm is not always negative. Other reasons include:

How do I leave a law firm?

When resigning, it’s essential to do so the right way. The process should include giving your employer enough notice, writing a formal resignation letter, helping with the transition, and preparing to move on before leaving your law firm. Here are 10 tips to keep in mind:

1. Plan your next steps

plan your next steps

If you work in a negative environment, you may feel like quitting without having another job lined up or a plan in place. While you don’t necessarily need to have a job already lined up, it’s wise to make sure you know how to get to the next step. Update your resume, brush up on your cover letter writing skills, and be prepared to job hunt before you give notice.

Everybody’s next steps will look different. For example, if you’re going back to school full-time, you may not even be able to balance another job on top of your studies. In this case, your next steps may not include getting a new job, but reducing expenses to make your savings stretch.

No matter your reason for leaving a law firm, make sure your plan includes an income source.  This income source could be a new job or existing savings.

2. Understand your ethical obligations when leaving a law firm

Working at a law firm means being aware of confidential information regarding client cases, partner responsibilities, and trade secrets about the firm. Before leaving, make sure you understand the rules and obligations about what you can say or can’t say after your departure.

Confidential data extends to hardware, digital and paper files, and copies of communication between yourself and others. On the other hand, make sure that you don’t leave your personal information saved on any notes, files, or applications (like passwords). 

These ethical obligations get more complex if you’ve chosen to start your own law firm. Your firm may have a non-compete clause in your employment contract, which means you’re not allowed to solicit any past or current clients. 

If your firm doesn’t have this clause and your clients decide to join you in leaving, the firm is obligated to give you all relevant client documentation. They are not allowed to withhold any relevant information on current and past cases for those clients.

3. Find the right time to leave a law firm

A laptop displaying the time and a planner journal lays next to it

If you’re wondering when to leave your law firm, you won’t feel like there is a great time. There’re always client cases and matters waiting. Timing your departure is also tricky if you suddenly need to leave due to external circumstances.

If you have the luxury of choice, summer is typically a good time to leave. The majority of the legal industry experiences a major work downturn in the summer. Most take advantage of the lull to work on bigger projects such as upgrading their technology and adopting practice management software.

If your firm does seasonal work, try not to leave at a peak time or during critical arguments in a case.

4. Give your law firm plenty of notice

Your employment contract may already have a clause about how much notice you need to give before resigning. However, the standard notice time is typically two weeks. There are many moving parts to a transition at a law firm. You will need to brief and handoff current cases to someone else at the firm and have that person take over your clients. The law firm also needs a short-term and long-term plan to backfill your position.

If possible, it’s wise to give more than two weeks’ notice, so your team has a little breathing room to manage the transition.

5. Give notice the right way

The formal way to leave a law firm starts with writing a resignation letter and telling your manager in person. Depending on the circumstances, this may not be possible, and you’ll have to quit through a video or phone call. 

Regardless of how you give your notice, it’s wise to write a formal resignation letter that:

  1. Clearly states your reason for leaving
  2. Outlines your notice period
  3. Thank the company and your manager/team for the opportunity to grow and learn
  4. Is concise and positive

Try not to burn your bridges as you may need a professional reference from your manager or company in the future. If possible, remain positive and resign gracefully.

6. Prepare for a negative reaction

Despite your best intentions and meticulous preparation, sometimes leaving a law firm won’t go as smoothly as you think. After giving notice, the firm may ask you to leave right away to protect confidential information or other reasons, depending on your firm’s policies.

Be prepared to leave, including financially, as soon as you give notice. Historical patterns will also help inform your exit strategy. If you’ve seen prior negative reactions to other lawyers leaving, make sure you’ve completed your exit and transition preparations even before drafting your resignation letter.

7. Inform your clients when leaving a law firm

two people shaking hands

Refrain from telling your clients you’re leaving until after you’ve given your notice. Work with the firm on a communications plan so that you clients are not caught by surprise after the fact. 

Depending on whether you have a non-compete clause within your employment contract, clients may also choose to leave with you. Even if they don’t or cannot leave with you, it’s best to leave a good last impression so they’re confident in the work you’ve done and the work the firm will be doing for them in the future. 

Your clients’ cases may be complex, difficult to handle, or emotionally charged. When your clients hear that their point of contact is leaving, they may feel very anxious. So a little reassurance will go a long way.

8. Prepare a transition plan for the firm

Before you leave your law firm, make sure there is a transition plan in place. Brief your team on current matters and cases to ensure they have everything they need to successfully represent clients.

If you’re leaving for a negative reason, you feel like only communicating the basics and skimming over the fine details. However, as mentioned above, your clients may start feeling anxious about their cases transitioning to a new point of contact.

No matter your reason for leaving, as a lawyer, your clients should always come first.

9. Conduct an exit interview

two people shaking hands while sitting down and having an interview

Most law firms will set up an exit interview to get feedback on your tenure at the firm and give you feedback. A human resources manager typically sets this up. However, an exit interview may just involve a conversation with your boss in smaller firms.

During these exit interviews, keep in mind these guidelines:

  • Refrain from speaking negatively
  • Keep your feedback constructive
  • Be graceful in accepting the company’s feedback, even if you disagree with it

10. Wrap up the little things

After you’ve taken care of all the formal processes that come with resigning, make sure you tie up any other loose ends. Here are examples to put on your checklist:

  • Say goodbye to your favorite team members and colleagues
  • Fill in your final timesheets
  • Reconcile any outstanding expenses and reimbursements you’re entitled to
  • Take your name off the law firm’s website and other professional listings
  • Keep your LinkedIn up to date

Final thoughts

Leaving a law firm doesn’t have to be a negative experience. While it means leaving behind a stable environment with colleagues, clients, and matters that you may have grown attached to, it also means the beginning of a new chapter in your career.

Do your best to leave on good terms, give proper notice, assist in your transition plan, and always put your clients and ethics first. 

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