When changing jobs, despite any temptation otherwise, you must make a congenial exit. In this small, mobile, and ultra-connected legal marketplace, you never know where paths may cross again, or where your reputation may precede you. So, don’t burn any bridges!
Time it right
Wait until the reference check is completed, potential conflicts are cleared or waived, and an “all clear” is issued by your new firm’s malpractice carrier before giving notice. You don’t want to be caught in a squeeze play, having left your firm but unable to join the new one. Partners, check your partnership agreement early in the search process for any notice requirements, penalties, or possible forfeitures and proceed accordingly.
Remember, client interests come first. You mustn’t leave clients in the lurch if there’s a deal closing, a trial, or an important deadline imminent. Therefore, give sufficient notice to properly transition your matters. If something cannot be handed off to your successor without negatively impacting the client, you may need to stay in your current position long enough to handle it yourself.
Before giving notice:
Be ready to roll
Notice how the firm treats other exiting lawyers. If security escorts them out the door as soon as they give notice, expect the same. Before you resign, quietly clean out your office. Remove anything personal, including computer files, you don’t want discovered by others after you leave. Have your files organized for transition and belongings ready to pack at a moment’s notice. Don’t take or delete anything unethical for you to take or delete. And get a written receipt when you return firm property such as keys, access cards, cell phones, etc.
Protect your rights
Beforehand, review your current firm’s policies regarding bonuses, unused vacation, sick days, holidays, continuation of health and other benefits, and vested retirement or investment funds, so you don’t take any action jeopardizing what’s due to you. Request any unclaimed reimbursements. Prepare to meet with your firm’s benefits manager after giving notice to arrange for COBRA, the calculation and transfer of any funds you’re owed, and any other financial details.
Delivering the message:
Give formal notice
Resign in person—not by phone, voice mail, e-mail, text, or letter, except as a last resort. Friday afternoon is best, so all parties have the weekend to digest the information. Check your employment agreement or the firm handbook for the formal resignation procedure. There may be a designated contact person, such as the Managing Partner, General Counsel, or head of Human Resources. If there’s no mention of resignation protocol and you’re unsure how to proceed, seek the advice of a mentor or a trusted colleague with sufficient seniority to see several departures (and who will keep your confidence) or a former colleague who has already left the firm. Otherwise, ask HR to direct you to the appropriate person.
Follow your formal resignation with a letter if written notice is required by your employment or partnership agreement. Your letter should be minimal, indicating your last day, expressing your gratitude for the opportunities afforded to you, and including your contact information for the future, with no editorializing. Describe your decision to leave—if at all—only in positive terms such as moving towards your goals for better opportunity, variety of practice, money, advancement, or location.
Personally inform the right people, in the right order
Once you tender your formal resignation, request time to break the news personally to others who need to know. Then, inform your supervising attorneys for whom you currently handle projects, and those you work with frequently. This includes your practice group or team leader and anyone who assigns your work. Meet with them one-on-one, if possible. Thank them for their guidance and mention, if you can, specific things you learned from each. Particularly acknowledge your mentors for their valuable role in shaping your career and experience at the firm. Clarify your responsibility for any further work on particular matters and preparing files for reassignment.
Also contact at least by phone or email those you work with on current projects, including paralegals, researchers, legal assistants, or other non-attorneys. Assure them you’re taking appropriate steps to transition matters so they won’t be left in the lurch. News travels fast, so personally inform your assistant early in the process. You’ll need his or her help wrapping up loose ends before you leave
Send a departure memo
After delivering your notice to the appropriate people personally, you or the HR department should send out an upbeat departure memo or email to everyone in the law firm/office, stating your end date and identifying your new employer. Keep it short and sweet, refraining from any negativity or snarkiness. Rather, say you’ve enjoyed working with everyone, value the experience you gained during your tenure there, and wish everyone well.
Finally, tell the world
Keep any hint of your impending move off social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn until you complete the notice process within your workplace. Only then can you share the news with the rest of the world. Don’t post negative comments about your previous employer anywhere on the Internet, regardless of your expectation of privacy. Any trash talk may come back to haunt you. And don’t forget to update your social network profiles.
After giving notice:
Handling an exit interview
Whether formal or informal, you’ll probably have a conversation with HR or firm partners regarding the circumstances leading to your decision to leave. It’s unprofessional to use this as an opportunity to rant, but if you have feedback you believe would benefit the organization, prepare your comments before the meeting. Offer constructive criticism and solutions regarding important issues. Whether or not your experience at the firm was pleasant, remember to thank them for the opportunities you received while working there.
Resist the temptation to slack off after resigning; it can damage the reputation you spent years building. Keep the quality of your work high and care as much about transitioning your files as you cared about your performance up to that point. Make sure everything is in order and write a status report on each file, deal, or matter on your desk. Determine when your access to the firm’s databases and computer files will terminate and complete your work before then. Be sure to turn in all billing sheets before you go. If appropriate, offer to help the replacement attorney get up to speed and be reasonably available to answer questions after you leave.
Leave on a high note
During your lame duck period, graciously accept offers of lunch or drinks with well-wishing colleagues. Don’t brag too much about your new opportunity and avoid gripe sessions with your soon-to-be-former co-workers. Mend any fences broken during your tenure with the firm because you may come across those attorneys later in your career.
For relationships you want to nurture, ask for cell phone numbers and/or personal e-mail addresses (in case they later move to another firm, as well). Write thank you notes for what they contributed to your career, remember birthdays, send articles and clippings relevant to their interests and, if appropriate, refer business back to them. By keeping in touch, you have possible sources of future references and business referrals.
Lastly, after you leave on good terms and start your new job, be ready with a short, upbeat statement for your new colleagues regarding your decision to move.
Valerie Fontaine is a partner in Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith, a legal search firm based in Los Angeles (www.sfbsearch.com). She can be reached at email@example.com or (310) 842-6985. The second edition of her book, The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development Strategies for Lawyers was published in March 2013 by NALP, The Association for Legal Career Professionals.
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