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If you are a partner considering a move to another firm, you probably have two main reasons. The first almost always involves money. The second usually concerns personality factors or firm culture. That’s shorthand for “I’m working with a bunch of jerks.”
The business side of the consideration is fairly straightforward. For starters, you need to determine how much of your book of business is portable. You should also consult an ethics lawyer to ensure you are following the rules on how and when you can notify clients of your move. Then comes due diligence about the new firm, which should include talking to lawyers who once worked there, co-counsel and the opposition.
But a factor that many partners and recruiters overlook is the emotional toll of switching firms. Yes, I know, much of the public would be surprised to hear that lawyers have emotions. We do. And lawyers who switch firms are often forced to get in touch with their emotions the hard way.
Partners who move to another firm inevitably feel disappointed or hurt by former law firm colleagues and former clients. The actions of both groups frequently cause unanticipated emotional angst for the departing lawyer.
Even if you are scrupulous about following ethics rules about notifying clients, don’t be naive and assume the other side will play by the rules. If you thought some of your partners were jerks when you made money for them, it’s a safe bet that they will be even bigger jerks when your actions threaten to lose them money. Whatever they did to other former partners who left, they will likely do the same to you. Be prepared for the worst, especially if your book is substantial.
What might your former colleagues do? They might threaten to sue you over ethical violations you didn’t commit. They may tell clients you are on something like the terrorist watch list! Expect that mud will be slung—and that it’s going to hurt more than you could anticipate.
Even though the charges are not true, the damage is done. Don’t be tempted to sling back. In the long run, taking the high road will serve you better.
Will any of the mud stick? You never know.
Soon enough, though, it should be clear which clients will stick with you. And here’s the tough part: Not all will make the switch. It may be because of the mud, but more likely it will be some unanticipated or unknown reason. That’s going to hurt, too—and I’m not talking about the lost revenue. I’m talking about the hurt you will feel over losing those clients you busted your butt for over the past five years, the clients who joined you on family vacations—the clients you counted among your best friends.
Generally, lawyers tend to overestimate the importance of their relationships with key client contacts, while underestimating clients’ institutional loyalty. Create a best and worst-case scenario. The probable result will be somewhere in between.
For many lawyers, switching law firms can be the best decision they will ever make. But before you leap, do your homework and brace yourself for a bumpy ride.
Roy Ginsburg coaches lawyers one-to-one in the areas of business development, practice management and career development/transitions. Roy has practiced law for more than 25 years in law firms from large to small as wells as in a corporate setting. As a currently practicing solo with a part-time practice in legal marketing ethics and employment law, he is completely familiar with the challenges a working lawyer faces each and every day.
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