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Best Practices If an Associate Leaves Your Firm

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by C. Walker Harper

on 02 July, 2020

 

Law is a demanding profession, especially for the young. It’s so demanding that these newbies switch jobs with alarming frequency. According to a 2017 report from the National Association for Law Placement, 44% of associates left their firms within 3 years. Reasons for leaving included excessive caseloads, a lack of work-life balance, and unpleasant firm culture. (Read here for 10 ways to attract and retain Millennial lawyers).

Replacing an associate is expensive. According to a report by JD Match and Right Profile, top firms in the U.S. will spend approximately $250,000.00 to recruit, hire, and train a 1st-year associate.

In addition to time lost and replacement costs, firms can find themselves dealing with other challenges when an associate leaves. These may include low morale among remaining attorneys, practice group disruption, and client concerns over losing access to an attorney with whom they’ve worked closely.

Skilled associates are always in demand and every firm, over time, will watch their share walk out the door for a variety of reasons. The good news is that losing an associate doesn’t have to cause turmoil among your staff and clients. Here are eight steps to take when an associate leaves your firm that will keep operations running smoothly and clients satisfied:

 

8 Crucial Steps to Take When an Associate Leaves Your Firm

 

1. Keep It Quick

Regardless of why an associate is leaving, it’s best to get them out of the office as soon as possible. Exiting associates hanging around often leads to a decline in productivity.

Morale can also take a hit as other associates may start to wonder about testing the job market themselves. Because the grass is always perceived to be greener on the other side, remaining associates can easily find themselves focusing on petty annoyances and other disagreeable aspects of their jobs.

Security is also an issue with a departing associate, particularly if they are joining a competitor. Be sure to secure access to any confidential or proprietary firm and client information. Such information is valuable, and you don’t want it walking out the door along with the associate.

With a cloud-based document management tool like Filevine, you can immediately restrict access to sensitive information. You can also customize access, to ensure that departing lawyers have the case information for clients who are remaining with them, but no other case files.

One common method of getting a departing associate out the door quickly is to have them work from home until their end date. This allows you to control their access to firm resources and client files. One caveat: if the departing associate is finishing an open case, you must provide them with adequate firm resources to serve the client during the transition period.

Money is also a great motivator for keeping the departing associate cooperative and working hard. I knew of a firm that would give a thank you bonus equal to two-weeks of pay if the departing associate worked hard up to the moment of separation.

 

2. Plan Your Next Move

Once you learn an associate is leaving, meet with their practice group manager and determine a plan of action. Will you hire a replacement, spread the caseload among remaining associates, or scale back the general workload?

Planning lets you identify things you may want to do differently in the future. You may decide that the firm needs a replacement with a certain skill set or personality type. Or, you may have staff members who, with a bit of training, can take on some of the former associate’s duties.

Careful assessment of firm operations may reveal steps and procedures you can take to be more efficient, enabling remaining attorneys to absorb the work of the former associate without overburdening them. If you use case management software, look to your data for answers. Advanced reporting can show how the workload is currently balanced, and where others might be able to help pick up the slack.

 

3. Centralize Firm Processes

Ideally, you’ll have a centralized calendar, workflow, and communication system in place before any associate leaves your firm. This will help you quickly understand and take over for clients who remain with the firm, and ensure that nothing falls through the cracks.

If you don’t have a centralized system, an attorney’s departure can spur your team to begin. Instead of each attorney following an idiosyncratic method for scheduling and documenting their work, a centralized process will strengthen and protect your entire firm.

This can be a good time to invest in a legal operating core like Filevine, which will keep a shared, central record of all your work. Any new replacements who enter can be properly trained on firm protocol, ensuring that you’ll never again be left in the lurch.

 

4. Meet with the Departing Associate’s Clients

Per ABA rules for professional conduct, attorneys must communicate to clients all relevant information in a timely manner. A client must be informed of the pending departure of an attorney with whom they have worked closely. Doing so gives the client time to consider if they will stay with your firm or go elsewhere.

Bar rules differ among states. Some require management to send a letter to clients notifying them the associate is leaving your firm. These letters must clearly explain the client’s options of staying with your firm, following the departing attorney, or choosing other representation. In some instances, you may even have to provide contact info for the former associate.

Departing attorneys may inform clients unilaterally that they are leaving your firm as long as they also inform the firm contemporaneously. But best practices and a recent ABA Formal Opinion encourage firms and departing attorneys to work toward a “joint communication” to clients.

Clients grow attached to attorneys that serve them well and sometimes the attachment is so great that where the attorney goes, the client follows. If that’s the case, thank both parties for the opportunity to work together and wish them well.

I suggest a face-to-face meeting with clients of the departing associate. Doing so enables you to inform them that you are capable of continuing to meet their needs and that there will be no disruption in service. You can also discuss additional services your firm can offer.

 

5. Hold a Firm-Wide Meeting

An associate leaving, especially if they are well-liked, can be unsettling for some employees. This is the time for strong leadership and positive attitudes. Hold a firmwide meeting and explain that the associate is leaving the team and offer reassurances about the impact of their departure.

It’s a good idea to let employees know if you will be hiring a replacement or spreading their work among other associates. Remind your people that it will be business as usual and let them know they can approach you or a designated representative with questions. Also, offer clear instructions on responding to clients who ask about the former associate.

 

6. Secure Proprietary Information

When an associate leaves your firm, they also leave your resources. Make sure to lock former associates out of your firm’s networks, databases, and any proprietary software and online subscriptions.

Make certain you collect all passwords and keys. I learned this lesson while consulting with a firm that was downsizing. Management was instructed to verify that passwords for exiting employees were correct before handing over their last paychecks. Unfortunately, some passwords weren’t verified until the following day and were found to be incorrect. Understandably, several of the ex-employees felt slighted and since their last paycheck was already in hand, they lacked the motivation to respond to calls and emails asking for help. This slip-up caused a delay of several days in accessing their data and an added expense of a hack in their systems.

And remember to rekey your office just in case a departed associate has an extra copy they forgot to hand over.

 

7. Schedule and Hold an Exit Interview

Regardless of the associate’s reason for leaving, an exit interview is a great time for feedback on how your firm operates. Employees that were unwilling to speak about problems while working for you for fear of losing their job are often willing to provide honest feedback on their way out.

You may learn that associates are unhappy with wages or the workplace is too demanding on them. Whatever the reason, hearing about it can help you make positive operational changes.

Exit interviews are also a great time for the departing associate to hand-off client files and share important information with other attorneys. If the separation is amicable, and the departing associate isn’t prohibited, you can even discuss a contractual arrangement where they may be willing to help the firm on future cases.

I once left a comfortable position for new opportunities. My time with the company had been rewarding and our separation cordial. During the exit interview, they asked if I might be available for some future projects on a contractual basis. I’ve since helped them out several times and sent a number of potential clients their way.

 

8. Show the Love

After an associate departs, the office environment can feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s important to stay engaged with your employees and let them see that things are going to be okay.

Look for ways to boost morale and foster a little esprit de corps. Successful morale-boosting efforts I’ve experienced included a firm luncheon, an afternoon of bowling, an outing to see the new Star Wars film, and even a happy-hour at 4 PM on a Friday. Showing appreciation for people goes a long way towards building loyalty.

 


Losing an associate doesn’t have to be a turbulent experience for your firm. It all depends on how you handle their departure.  With the proper procedures in order, your firm can excel no matter what’s thrown your way.