Law Practice Management: Meeting Ethical Obligations When Employees Leave the Firm

When lawyers and support staff leave your law firm, you’re still required to meet the ethical obligations set by the ethics committee in your jurisdiction. Review your law firm management plan and make sure that you have an established exit plan that ensures that all ethical obligations are met. It’s important to do this before someone leaves because it helps you avoid an ethics complaint and can minimize stress during the transition process. In this post, you’re going to learn about the basic information that should be included in your law practice management plan to help you avoid an ethical disaster.

Create an On-boarding Process That Includes Agreements, Contracts, and a Handbook

Why are we discussing on-boarding if this post covers how you can meet your ethical obligations when someone decides to leave your firm? Because establishing and using a well-thought out on-boarding process directly affects the exit process. When someone decides they’re leaving your law office, the first thing you should do is review whatever agreement was put in place when they joined. This could a partnership agreement, an at-will employee handbook, or an employment contract. These documents govern the relationship your law office has with the person leaving. It also sets out the ethical obligations of the firm. These obligations may extend past the ethical rules set by your jurisdiction. However, the documents cannot contradict the ethical obligations established by the state.

Client Communication Plan

Keeping clients reasonably informed about what’s happening in their matter is an ethical obligation you cannot ignore. Your law practice management plan should include a communication plan to establish the best practices used for communicating to a client if their lawyer is leaving the form. Communication should be joint, between the firm and the lawyer leaving, and it should be done so in a way that is neutral.

The client must also be informed that they may decide whether the lawyer leaving will continue to handle the matter, if they want someone else from the firm to take over, or if they want to make a different choice. Consult with the ethical rules in your jurisdiction to learn whether the departing lawyer has an ethical obligation to directly communicate their departure with clients with whom they have a direct relationship (including those with active matters). Also, it is likely that the departing lawyer has an ethical obligation to the firm to not solicit clients of the firm with whom they do not directly represent.

Explaining How Tangible Possessions Are Handled

If your law firm has partners, your law practice management plan should address who tangle possessions are handled if a partner decides to leave. The primary possessions to discuss include client files and other materials that the departing lawyer currently may access. Other considerations include CLE presentations, forms developed for firm use, sample briefs, and research materials.

With client files, possession will largely depend on what the client wants to do. If the client opts to remain with the lawyer who’s leaving, the file should go with the lawyer. What about copies, though? If either the firm or the lawyer wishes to keep a copy of the client file, the client should not be billed. The expense should be absorbed by the party (either the firm or the lawyer) who wants to keep a copy of the file. However, making a copy may not be ethical in your jurisdiction. On the other hand, your malpractice insurance provider may insist that you keep a copy of at least certain portions of the file for a certain amount of time. Make sure that you do your research so that you may properly handle this very important issue.

Address the Administrative Matters

Your law practice management plan should also address smaller administrative matters. You could create a checklist that reminds you to ensure that:

  • The firm’s website is updated to remove the information of the departing lawyer or staff member.
  • Update the departing lawyer’s state bar records and membership records.
  • File change of counsel or firm association notices where necessary.
  • Inform all counsel and parties are notified in non-court matters.
  • Update trust records and permissions. Remove the departing lawyer immediately if they are a signer on the trust account.
  • Contact your malpractice insurance provider to update them about the lawyer’s departure.
  • Update all social media and advertising methods used by the firm. Ask the departing lawyer to do the same on their social media and advertising methods.
  • Inform staff members who make contact with clients and inform hem what they should say if someone calls for the departing lawyer. Remind staff that all responses must be professional and must be something that properly informs the client.

Remember, always be civil and keep your ethical obligations at the forefront of all decisions.

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