Fulfilling Your Ethical Obligations When Leaving a Law Firm

Mar 13, 2019 | Blog

The decision to leave a law firm happens for many reasons. Regardless, lawyers must fulfill ethical obligations when leaving a law firm. In this post, we’re going to examine six ethical obligations often present when a lawyer makes the decision to move on.


Ethical Obligations May Be Created by the Employment Agreement

If you’re a lawyer, some ethical obligations when leaving a law firm may be found in your employment agreement or handbook. Review the entire agreement to help you understand what you must fulfill to avoid creating a serious issue.

Honest and Ethical Communication with Impacted Clients

Another ethical obligation when leaving a law firm affects both the lawyer and the law firm. Both hold the ethical duty to honestly and ethically communicate with clients who will be impacted by the change. Clients have a right to be reasonably informed about their matter, including if you are leaving the practice.

For a change in staff, a joint letter may be issued to the client to let them know about the change. Using a joint letter helps ensure that the information within remains neutral. When separate letters are sent, it can be disconcerting to the client. It is especially concerning if the tone in each letter is different. However, if separate letters are used, neither letter may provide negative information about the other involved party.

Impacted clients must understand that they still hold the option of you continuing to represent them or changing to another lawyer who still works for the firm. They may also choose to do something else such as take their matter to a different lawyer or law firm. You need to talk with impacted clients to know their decision.

Not all clients of the law firm will feel the pinch of you leaving the firm. It may be one of your ethical obligations when leaving a law firm to not tell clients with whom you have very little or no direct contact. Otherwise, this may be considered solicitation.

Related: Unethical Conduct: Can You Protect Your Clients from Solicitation?

Know What You Can and Cannot Take with You

It’s important for you to know what materials you can and cannot take with you when you leave the law firm. Again, review the agreement. It may address CLE presentations, sample briefs, forms, and resource materials. What did you learn about when you first began at this firm? Those are things you may or may not have the right to take with you.

Related: Why All Law Firms Need a Document Destruction Policy in Place

Client files can also raise some questions. Whether you or the law firm will keep the client files depends on what impacted clients decide to do when they know you’re leaving. If the client wants you to continue representing them, you need the client file. If you or the law firm wants to keep a copy of the client file, the client may not be charged for this. To know whether you should keep a copy, consult your malpractice insurance to discover whether they require you to keep copies for a certain amount of time. You may also want to keep a copy to help you if an ethical complaint is filed against you.

With that said, you must also consider what is actually in the file. For example, if there are items considered attorney-work product that you created, you could reasonably make and retain a copy of it. If there is confidential client information, you may need permission or it may be protected by a confidentiality agreement or protective order.

Go Through a Conflicts Check

If you’re moving on to another law firm, it is your ethical obligation to perform a conflicts check. This will help you know which clients you may bring with you. If there are conflicts, you’ll need to handle those in an appropriate manner.

Make Sure Your Information Is Removed from Their Website

Doublecheck that your name and contact information is no longer on the website of the previous law firm. Remember to change your information with the state bar. If you don’t, a disciplinary issue may arise in your future.

Remain Cordial

No matter why you chose to leave, remain cordial. Leaving may be the best decision for you, but it can still be a difficult situation. Remain cordial, always.