Law Partner Departure Checklist for Making a Lateral Move
Navigating through the risks and gray areas of such a move vary for each state. Consider the 8 key areas of a lateral move that require planning and action. How you respond will determine your peace of mind, launching your new career feeling strong, avoid burned bridges with your former partners and minimize disputes with your former firm.
Conduct a conflict check with your prospective law firm thereby fulfilling your current firm fiduciary duty and maintaining your attorney-client privilege. Do this sooner rather than later. I suggest before or after your first face-to-face meeting with the prospective law firm.
Provide notice to your current law firm and clients upon acceptance of an offer from your prospect law firm. Do not entertain premature client conversations about your pending lateral move prior to giving official notice. Giving notice is a defining moment in the lateral partner move and should be thought through.
Honor the partnership and the partnership agreement. Be mindful of clauses that restrict client communications after giving notice, capital repayment and forgoing merit compensation. Find an opportunity to honor and fulfill fiduciary duty with your current firm if no partnership agreement exists.
Do not postpone client originations and billing during the lateral process and after notice, but continue these duties until your last day at the current law firm. Do not originate client business for the prospective law firm prior to leaving. This provokes litigation with your current law firm because it violates your fiduciary duties and simply pisses off your partners.
Do not share confidential information about your current firm or about your clients except for what is necessary for client conflicts check and lateral process due diligence with the prospect law firm. You are held under attorney-client privilege and fiduciary duty to protect your current firm. You could create “unfair competition” between both law firms if you disclose confidential information.
Do not take any electronic or paper client files from your current firm but rather obtain client written authorization for a file transfer. This is easily overlooked in the emotion and momentum of the lateral move but decide ahead of time that this will be your choice before you leave.
Do not speak to or recruit staff or attorneys from your current law firm prior to leaving. Partners are the exception to this rule. Your practice and client needs may require a team, and you may like your team. Unfortunately, you will need to forgo communications with your team until you leave the law firm.
Above all else, retain legal counsel. Your clients retain you for critical matters to their business or life. Why would you not do the same in what will be a critical decision in your career? For good measure, we are not providing legal advice and partner move rules vary from state-to-state.
Let me clarify further. These are rules and not merely suggestions for law partners considering a lateral move. Violating one or more could potentially cost you both financially and professionally. Decide ahead of time what your default actions will be when in the middle of the lateral process. Emotions such as excitement and bitterness can easily dissuade you to act wisely.
Each state has adopted its own rules and court rulings but the rules are defined by:
ABA Formal Ethics Opinions 09-455 Disclosure of Conflicts for lateral attorneys
ABA Formal Ethics Opinions 99-414 Ethical Obligations for lateral attorneys
ABA Model Rule 1.6 Confidentiality of Information
Model Rules of Professional Conduct
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