Law Office Management: What Should Happen When an Attorney Leaves Your Firm?

Law office management is comprised of many factors. One of those factors is human resources. Hiring isn’t easy, but there’s a lot of information out there to help guide you through the process of hiring and onboarding a new attorney. There is a more difficult question that you must answer. What should happen when an attorney leaves your firm? Regardless of whether it’s an associate attorney leaving your law office or a partnership being dissolved, your law office has certain obligations.

Law Office Management Tip 1: Review the Agreement

The agreement may be a partnership agreement, employment contract, or an at-will employee handbook. Regardless of how it is classified, you need to review the agreement because it explains the relationship the lawyer has to your law office. This will help you determine the obligations that exist for your practice. This is important because the agreement may create obligations that go beyond the ethical rules in your jurisdiction.

Law Office Management Tip 2: Consider All Ethical Obligations

It’s important that you consider and understand the ethical obligations that your firm has because according to Model Rule 1.4, your firm has the ethical obligation of keeping clients reasonably informed about their matter. That includes if their lawyer is leaving the firm.

Law Office Management Tip 3: Engage in Honest and Ethical Communication with Affected Clients

You must use ethical and honest communication methods to inform the clients affected by the change in firm staff. Best practice dictates that you should use a joint letter from the lawyer who is leaving and your firm. The purpose of the letter is to inform the client in a neutral manner about change. Sometimes, the firm and the lawyer may send separate letters. However, the letters must be neutral and neither letter may give negative information about the other to the client. The client should always be informed of their option. They may have the attorney continue to represent them, remain with the law office, or they may choose to do something else. However, they must make and clearly express their choice.

The lawyer leaving the firm has an ethical obligation to communicate with clients with whom they have a direct relationship. However, they do not have the obligation to tell other clients with whom they have very little or no relationship. Communication with non-clients could be considered solicitation of a prospective client. Solicitation is covered in Model Rule 7.3.

Law Office Management Tip 4: Division of Possessions

When it comes to lawyers leaving a firm, the primary concerns are client files and access to other important materials. Before you do anything, review the agreement. Those agreements often address issues such as CLE presentations, forms, sample briefs, and resource materials. Look to the previous onboarding process. The items the lawyer was educated on are items that should be considered during this process.

Whether the lawyer or the firm will keep the client files will depend on what the client elects to do upon learning their lawyer is leaving. If the client leaves with the lawyer, then the lawyer should have the client file. If the firm or the lawyer wishes to take a copy of the client file, they may not charge the client for making the copy. This must be done at the expense of the firm or the lawyer. However, it’s important to consider whether you or the lawyer should make a copy. Some malpractice insurers will require you to keep a copy of the client file for a certain amount of time. You may want to keep a copy in the event of a potential ethics complaint. Whatever the reason, you must consider what is in the file. For instance, if there is attorney work product, the lawyer who created it could reasonably create and keep a copy of it. However, confidential client information may require you to get permission or it may be protected by a protective order or confidentiality agreement.

Law Office Management Tip 5: Do What You Can to Prevent Conflict

When a lawyer leaves to join another firm, they need to do a thorough conflicts check. This will help the lawyer determine if they can bring any clients with them. In the event of conflicts, the lawyer will need to take appropriate action.

Law Office Management Tip 6: Take Care of the Little Things

Make sure that your firm website no longer has the name or contact information of the lawyer who left. You should double check that the lawyer changed their information with the state bar. Failing to do so could cause a disciplinary issue. Update all trust account records and permissions. Speak with your malpractice insurer to ensure that the firm will no longer be liable for the actions of the lawyer after they leave the firm. Make sure that you remove references to that lawyer from all of your social media and advertising outlets. Inform all of your staff members who have the potential to be in contact with clients (including receptionists and answering services) that the lawyer is no longer with the firm.

Law Office Management Tip 7: Always Be Civil

Regardless of why the lawyer left your firm, always be civil. This isn’t necessarily an easy task, but it’s necessary. Always keep the clients’ needs as your first thought.

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