Tough Topics Challenging Office Conversations

Maintain a Beneficial Relationship with a Departing Attorney (Even If It’s Not on Their Terms)

With every attorney’s exit, law firms should strive to maintain a positive professional relationship for their own business health. Anyone who leaves is a potential client or referral source, so firms should be focused on making sure that they value each departing attorney throughout their transition.
Colleen Torell, JD

Remember that many of the attorneys who embark on a job search after working in a law firm are doing so for the first time. If the main on-ramp to your firm is interviewing law students on campus, you’re often dealing with attorneys who conducted their search exclusively through an artificially predictable process with rigid rules and predictable timelines. Therefore, many do not understand how to run a typical search.

Engaging an external outplacement provider with expertise in the legal realm to serve as a dedicated career coach is only the beginning of setting an attorney up for success in their transition. If your firm has not already done so, develop a common practice for separating attorneys and start creating a custom off-boarding plan before you inform an attorney that they must pursue opportunities outside your firm.


Simply encouraging the attorney to let the firm know how it can help is almost never enough guidance. The most important contribution that professional development and human resources professionals can make to the departing attorney is to provide a clear picture of the support that is available to them. No matter what prompted the attorney’s departure, they may wonder exactly what support they should ask for or reasonably expect as they plan their separation from the practice. Tell them exactly what’s on the table.


An attorney who becomes a job seeker on the firm’s timetable rather than their own often suffers a blow to their confidence — how can they articulate their value proposition? Collaboratively examine the relationships that the attorney has developed through consistent work pairings or mentor/mentee activities, and encourage them to pursue open dialogues about perceived technical and interpersonal strengths.

Trusted advisers can also help an attorney evaluate possible next steps. It may help an attorney to hear what supervisors would recommend as potential targets based on their perspective on the attorney’s apparent gifts. Should they target another firm with a different platform, billable-hour requirement, rate structure, pace or culture? An in-house role as more of a business person or with narrower or broader responsibilities? Or should they take a nontraditional path that’s partially or completely different from law?


From a networking standpoint, should the attorney tap into marketing or business development resources to identify existing relationships with prospective networking or employer targets? Which associations or professional societies do the advisers recommend? Are there fellow firm attorneys — even if they don’t yet know that the job seeker is leaving — who might have suggestions?

When networking, the job seeker should do as much homework as necessary to make specific requests. Suggest that the departing attorney connect with firm attorneys and administrators to pursue introductions to new second-degree connections.

Some attorneys hesitate to engage with networking assistance at the early stages of their search, holding on to promises of help until well into the interview process. They end up missing their chance to widen the opportunity pipeline by opening more doors at the application stage. Additionally, many employed job seekers steer clear of engaging firm members on their behalf, assuming that external contacts will find it suspicious that a connection would effectively shop one of their attorneys outside their own practice. Reassure your attorneys that successful transitions are commonly jump-started by such introductions.


Come to an explicit agreement with the attorney about your expectations for billing time on client work while they are searching for a new job. Create an action plan for adjustments to staffing and workload.

Billing expectations can weigh heavily on any attorney, but they can be especially cumbersome for someone who has been told that their top priority is to find a new position — even as their workday is filled with billable work demands. Sometimes, even with a reduced-hour target, a departing attorney can be suddenly drafted for client work in all-hands situations and end up busier than ever.

To accommodate time-sensitive work going on in their departments, they spend their presumed job search time consumed by billable hours. In these circumstances, consider adjusting the timeline to make up for any ground lost to productive contributions. Otherwise, the attorney ends up feeling disappointed, even more anxious and ultimately undervalued.

As you tell a departing attorney that they should rely on you and the firm to support them in their search, give them specific, actionable guidance. When an attorney is told that they do not have a future at the firm, they are justifiably concerned about a number of things — including what exactly the firm may be willing to offer in support of their exit. Do your part to bridge the gap between an offer of help and actually delivering.