Think it won’t happen to you? It won’t hurt to take precautions before leaving the firm.
A lot of crazy stuff happens when a lawyer exits a firm, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. It’s a time to protect yourself — because no one else will.
Sometimes an involuntary departure is a total surprise, but more commonly, you will have hints. The issue is whether you are paying attention. It doesn’t hurt to take these precautions even if it turns out they were unnecessary. You may be glad of them sometime in the more distant future.
“They’re laying off people, but it won’t happen to me” may or may not be true. If the firm is in financial distress, plan for every contingency.
Silence is a clue. Something happened, and suddenly everyone has stopped talking to you. You can’t get in to see the partner to discuss the next step in a case. Stop trying to work, and hurry to implement self-protections.
You thought you had a good relationship. Whether it’s you or them giving notice, now they say: “We’re giving you notice” or “Thanks for the notice.” Then, “We’ll pay you for the notice period, but you have to pack up and get out now.” They might even have a security guard oversee your packing and escort you out of the building. If you are working remotely, you may not be able to come in to retrieve your belongings; someone else will clean out your desk.
Their Computer/Your Stuff
You use your work computer all the time. You may carry devices that are the property of the firm. Even lawyers who carry two phones and try to avoid any personal use of company resources may have left behind digital personal footprints.
Don’t wait until the last minute to protect your personal documents. Once you give or are given notice, you may be locked out of the firm’s computer system immediately.
If you have created personal documents on your work computer, such as that novel that you stayed in the office until midnight to finish, remove them from the firm’s cloud and drives now. If there is any type of battle later, be aware that personal documents and your search history are probably retrievable.
While you are employed, you owe a duty of loyalty to your employer. A lot of litigation has resulted from departing members taking client information on their way out.
If there is even an inkling of an imminent departure, take your personal items home well in advance. That includes knickknacks and wall decorations.
Keep a Record
Particularly if management’s actions may be ground for a wrongful termination claim, it’s a good idea to make a record. You might need to wrack your brain and study your calendar to pinpoint what was said or done when. As the situation develops, make contemporaneous notes — not on your office device.
You might never pursue such a claim, but these notes could prove valuable in an exit interview.
The employer gets notice when you file for unemployment. The benefits don’t start right away, so you may want to apply promptly so money is coming in to cover the financial gap after your severance runs out.
On the other hand, there’s this true BigLaw story. A discharged lawyer promptly filed for benefits and got an angry call from the firm stating that the severance was generous exactly to prevent such a claim. Apparently, they were trying to preserve their pristine experience rating and avoid an assessment by the state. If the parting relationship was already bad, this added vinegar. The contretemps also left the lawyer unable to get a reference from the partners in the firm.
Depending on your state’s rules, you may be able to delay filing until your severance runs out; then, assuming you are still unemployed, claim back benefits from the date payments would have started had you filed promptly. This avoids grapevine gossip about you double-dipping.
They Really Did Need You
Sometimes, your old bosses will contact you to ask a question about a case. How you respond may depend on the circumstances of your exit.
Career counselors unanimously preach the importance of not burning bridges. Members of the legal community within a practice area are likely to keep running into each other. If you left voluntarily and on good terms, that is good advice. But what if following that advice is likely to cause some cognitive dissonance?
If your dismissal was part of an economic layoff, you might want to stay in management’s good graces, especially if you haven’t secured a new gig. Even then, don’t get too helpful. Share enough information to show your command of the case particulars and to demonstrate how important a participant you have been on the road to a successful outcome. This might lead to being reinstated. You can even suggest being brought back on an independent contractor basis. If you are trying to start your own firm, this could be a financial cushion. If it works out for this case, you may be able to make the arrangement ongoing.
If the departure was acrimonious, you could non-respond to the request by claiming memory lapse. “Gee, I don’t remember. You know, I handled so many files. Everything you need should be in the file. I kept meticulous records.” The tone of your response can communicate how open you are to similar future inquiries.
Change Can Be Traumatic
“Man plans and God laughs” goes an old saying. Even if you have carefully planned a smooth transition, things can go awry. One executive always kept his office bare. He said he was ready at any time to walk out with just his briefcase. After 35 years, the company threw him a lavish retirement party.
Be alert to changes in the vibe in your office. While observing your ethical duties to your employer and your clients, do everything possible to protect your professional and financial future.
Subscribe to Attorney at Work
Get really good ideas every day for your law practice: Subscribe to the Daily Dispatch (it’s free). Follow us on Twitter @attnyatwork.