Gone are the good ole’-days when lawyers slowly worked their way up the ladder of one firm. This is the era of rapid transitions, where lawyers change jobs faster than you can say “lateral transfer.”
Why now? We can blame part of it on a generational shift. 10,000 Baby Boomers are hitting retirement age every day. Though many have held on for a few additional years, their exit from senior legal positions is causing a vacuum that can only be filled with large-scale recruitment.
To compound matters, the incoming Millennial generation brings a more mobile mindset to their career path. Coming of age during the brutal Recession, they learned early they couldn’t rely on firm loyalty to carry them to their career goals. Added to that is the widespread effect of start-up culture, which teaches them to prioritize diversity of job experiences instead of settling. The result is that at any given time, 70% of Millennial lawyers are actively seeking new job opportunities.
But we can’t just blame the problem on ‘kids these days.’ The slow growth of legal demand has made firms fiercely competitive for top talent. According to a 2019 Report on the State of the Legal Market, we’ve never seen these levels of talent-poaching. In some cities like Atlanta and Chicago, over 50% of firm partners made a lateral transfer between 2010-2017. That’s a full-fledged upheaval of the legal market.
And it’s not slowing down. The latest research shows that 78% of firm leaders believe that lateral hires will only increase in the years ahead. And over 92% list laterals as part of their future strategy for growth (which jumps to 99% for firms with over 250 lawyers).
Whether all of this instability is a crisis or a breakthrough depends on how well you fare in the talent war. Regardless, it’s clear that perpetual mobility is the new normal.
But it brings its own stressors to the lives of clients. In the middle of a legal matter, the last thing they want is the disruption caused by a departing lawyer. To help lawyers and firms deliver better service, here are 5 ways to minimize the effects of job mobility on the lives of clients—from keeping clients informed to organizing your files with case management software.
1. Tidy Up Your Files
Chaos in the case files is always a recipe for disaster. But it’s especially dangerous during a transition.
When new lawyers come to the firm, they should see a clear and coherent system to manage information. Cobbled-together filing systems not only make a bad first impression; they also dramatically increase the amount of time it takes for a new lawyer to learn it. Having tidy files helps them to hit the ground running.
Data hygiene is also important when lawyers are leaving. When lawyers leave their firms, their clients can choose whether they’ll leave with them. If they do, the departing lawyer needs to make sure they already have all of the information that pertains to the matter. This includes relevant emails, texts, or other documents.
If the client chooses to remain with the firm instead, the departing lawyer has an ethical duty to leave their files in good shape for their next lawyer. Anyone who takes over the case should be able to clearly see the case status and upcoming deadlines.
In the age of lawyer mobility, it’s especially important that all team members strictly follow the firm’s policy for storage and organization. Nobody should have to learn someone’s eccentric filing method to make sense of a case.
A cloud-based operating core helps address many of these concerns. It allows all client documents, notes, and deadlines to be saved in one case file, which can be easily downloaded if the client sticks with the lawyer. If they choose to stay with the firm, an administrator can simply transfer access permission from the departing lawyer to the new one who will be representing them. Modern case management software can make any kind of transition easier to deal with.
2. Keep the Tone Positive
An exit interview isn’t the time for departing lawyers to set forth their perfect analysis of the law firm’s problems. And when someone gives their 2-week’s notice, it shouldn’t spur a diatribe about their disloyalty.
The legal field is deeply interconnected. It’s highly likely that you’re going to have to interact with these lawyers again. It’s best to leave things on a positive note.
But if that’s not enough to keep you amicable, consider your clients. It’s always best for clients if you can maintain a calm and collaborative setting throughout law firm transitions. They don’t want to be dragged into a bad break-up, like children in a vindictive divorce. If the departing client and firm can negotiate throughout the process of transition, the process will be much easier for clients.
3. Don’t Be Sneaky
Many lawyers are hired on the expectation that they’ll bring a hefty book of business with them. With a lot on the line, lawyers are tempted to begin prepping their current clients for the transition. But it’s unethical to begin recruiting those clients too early.
The same rule goes for trying to woo away other lawyers or staff members. Once a lawyer is in their new position, they can recruit—and poach—to their heart’s delight. But conniving with clients or colleagues while still at the old job violates their fiduciary obligations to that firm.
4. Inform Clients, Don’t Alarm Clients
When a lawyer is leaving the firm, their clients have the right to know about it. Ideally, this notification can be a joint endeavor.
When the departing lawyer and law firm present a unified message, clients are less likely to feel stressed in making their decision. This notification should assert client autonomy in deciding whether to stick with the lawyer or the firm (or go with other representation).
Modern case management software like Filevine makes this interaction simple, allowing the firm and departing lawyer to both text message the client directly through the system. But if this kind of friendly break-up isn’t possible, the two parties can draft their own letters to send clients. But both should be certain that it doesn’t denigrate the other, or set out a persuasive argument for why they should stick with you.
ABA Formal Opinion No, 99-414 helps spell out some of the lawyers’ professional responsibilities throughout this process. But as with all of these issues, be sure to consult your state’s Rules of Professional Conduct, as well as the relevant case law and ethics opinions.
5. Check For Conflicts Early On
Before bringing on new lawyers, make sure they’re not bringing conflicts with them. It’s easiest to do with a unified operating core like Filevine, which keeps up-to-date on all firm information.
To do a full conflict check, the new attorney needs to disclose very basic information regarding their clients, adversaries, and third-party relationships. This shouldn’t go beyond the name, whether the matter is closed, and a very short description of the issue.
Ethics guidelines specify that this information shouldn’t be disclosed if it is likely to prejudice the client. Some examples of how this could occur include early moments in a matter, before other parties are aware of it, such as someone seeking a divorce who hasn’t yet informed their spouse, a client considering a corporate takeover or someone under criminal investigation that isn’t yet public. In cases like this, the lawyer must keep the clients’ names confidential.
With law firms in a state of constant disruption, it can be difficult to keep the waters calm for clients. But with the cooperation and smart legal technology, lawyers can minimize the disturbance and keep client satisfaction high.