In the nine years that I worked at Webster Henry, no partner had left the firm to go to another defense firm. So when the time approached for me to turn in my notice and prepare my exit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Were we going to play nice when I left the law firm, or burn everything to the ground and salt the earth?
You’ve heard the horror about bad exits from law firms
One of my former partners had his phone turned off while he was vacationing at Disney World because his firm got wind that he was planning to leave. I know a lawyer whose firm fired him when they discovered he had approached a client about the possibility of leaving; when the client decided to stay with that firm rather than go with the lawyer, the new firm rescinded their offer. The newly-fired lawyer was left without a client or a job.
There are many examples of these things going poorly, but fewer about them going well. As it came time for me to leave my law firm, I prepared for the worst, while still hoping for the best.
I gathered all the electronic files I needed and operated as though as soon as I gave my notice, I was never going to be able to touch anything again. I saved all the documents I needed. I had prepared all the memos for the cases I was leaving behind. I had drafted my departure letters and had the emails ready to punch send. I had ticked off all the boxes on my checklist of everything that I needed to finalize. With all that done, it was time to give my notice.
Giving notice about leaving your law firm may not go as planned
Ideally, I would have been able to give notice in person. But the managing partner and I were in two different cities, so that just wasn’t feasible, though I did consider driving the 90 minutes to his office. Turns out, that would have been a wasted effort.
I called the managing partner to tell him that I was going to another firm. He was surprised, of course. And I think he could tell that I was being guarded. I didn’t know how this was going to go. So one of the first things he said was that no one was going to burn any bridges; we were all going to handle this well.
After we spoke for several minutes and got ready to hang up, I told him that I hadn’t yet told the partner I worked with most closely, and I was about to walk a couple of doors down to tell her. He responded, “Well, she’s standing right here beside me, so she just found out, too.” I literally facepalmed. This was not going as planned.
At the very least, though, it was done. After having mulled it over and worried about it for weeks — even having dreams about giving my notice and what the response would be — giving my notice to the firm I’d worked at for nine years was now behind me. And true to our initial conversation, we made the transition as smooth as such things can be.
Talking to clients about leaving your law firm
Telling the law firm I was leaving was only one major component of the thing. The other is talking to clients about it. When you tell clients that you’re leaving your law firm, they have three options: (1) they can send their work with you; (2) they can keep their work at the current firm; or (3) they can send the work to a different firm altogether. And you have to inform them of their options.
When I decided that I was going to leave my firm to go to Gordon Rees, I then had to figure out how to have conversations with my clients about it. I also needed to know what I could say and when I could say it. So I called the Alabama State Bar and got guidance about everything. But the conversations themselves weren’t the hard part for me.
My clients are corporations and insurance companies. It felt like I was trying to change the course of a river by asking these entities to send their business with me. Even though I was either the sole lawyer or the primary lawyer working on their files, that felt like a big ask. But 80% of the clients I made that ask of have come with me to Gordon Rees, and that was very affirming that all the things I’ve been writing about and practicing for years about case management and client relationships were the right things to be focusing my attention on. And they delivered the result I needed because of the trust equity I had built up.
Now, I have to continue the work at a new firm, with new people, and with both new clients and old.