When an attorney leaves a law firm, it can cause interruptions for the lawyers who remain at a shop. Departing attorneys usually write exit memos so that successors know how to handle matters that were assigned to the exiting lawyer, but it is difficult for a successor to stand in the shoes of a lawyer who used to work on a file. In addition, some partners may feel a hit to their egos whenever an attorney leaves since management might think that attorneys left due to issues with management or other problems at a firm. However, law firms should usually be happy when attorneys leave for certain types of jobs because this could increase business development opportunities for a shop.
The first time in my career I realized this phenomenon of departing attorneys helping a firm grow after they left was about a decade ago, when I worked at a Biglaw firm that was going through some tough financial times. Numerous lawyers left that shop over the course of several months because people could see the writing on the wall and knew that if they did not leave, they might end up on the chopping block if the firm continued to perform poorly financially.
At a town hall meeting to discuss the state of the firm, the partner in charge of the office conveyed that he welcomed the departures since it meant that there was less pressure on him when it came time to consider headcount. However, the partner also said that he welcomed the departures because people were mostly going to in-house positions at large and medium companies that could become future clients. The partner said that he would only give the departing attorneys a little bit of time before he would try to pitch them and hopefully help the financial position of all of the people who stayed at the firm. The partner was true to his word, and we did actively try to pitch companies at which our people landed after they departed our firm, and I am fairly certain we originated some business accordingly.
At a later point in my career, a name partner at a firm at which I worked left the shop to work in house at an insurance company. Our office had a meeting to discuss the partner’s departure and how the name of the firm would change now. The managing partner of the firm spoke awkwardly about why the name partner had left the firm, and it was clear that this was not on the best terms or that some of the partners would have preferred the partner to stay. It was also clear that some of the remaining partners took it as an affront to their egos that a name partner would leave the firm.
But the partner leaving the firm actually helped that shop. Rather quickly, I am pretty sure, this former name partner of the firm was able to direct work to our shop — even though there may have been some friction between the former partners. Although management likely did not see it in the moment, that name partner leaving our firm could have actually been a net positive for the shop.
Sometimes, even if an attorney leaves for another law firm, this can end up being a solid business development opportunity for the former firm. When lawyers work at different shops, even if they are in the exact same field, they can be in a position to refer work back to the former shop. Of course, attorneys would much rather perform work themselves rather than refer matters to others, but sometimes they need to refer work elsewhere because of conflicts, low bandwidth, or other reasons.
For instance, I once worked at a shop at which a lawyer left for a bigger firm. Eventually, that bigger firm was tasked with defending a lawsuit for a few different defendants. It later became obvious that a conflict of interest existed between the defendants, and the law firm was in a position to refer one of the defendants to different counsel. This former associate referred the work to our firm, and we were able to generate business because the lawyer had departed our firm for new opportunities.
All told, it can be difficult when partners and associates depart law firms because lawyers need to pick up the slack for such lawyers and egos may be bruised by a departure. However, most of the time people leave a firm, they can be in a solid position to refer work to attorneys who stay behind at a shop so attorney departures are not always bad for law firms.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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