Most of us has heard the advice to not burn bridges when leaving an employer. This is because people never know when they will need a favor from someone from their past, and it is best to keep all options open with people for whom someone has worked. Most of the time, people think that this saying applies to an associate in a law firm setting, likely due to the power and influence partners have given their experience and seniority in the legal profession. However, partners should also not burn bridges with associates, as mistreating associates can lead to issues years into the future.
One of the benefits of associates leaving a firm is that this could mean that there is an additional contact working in the industry who might refer work to former colleagues should the need arise. Associates often land at in-house legal positions or create businesses in the future that require legal services. These individuals are naturally more likely to refer work to lawyers with whom they used to work since they know the capabilities of such people better than other people in their lives. However, if partners did not treat such associates well, they might not be able to benefit from this situation.
I used to work at a law firm that employed a person who people knew around the office a few years before I arrived at the shop. This lawyer had done well for himself after leaving the firm at which we both worked, and within a half dozen years of leaving, he became a senior lawyer at a prominent company. I spoke with one of my colleagues about this lawyer and related that the partners at the firm must be thrilled that they now have a contact who was so senior at a major company and might refer business to them.
My colleague worked at our shop when this other lawyer was employed there and told me that he seriously doubted if this lawyer would ever refer work to our firm. Apparently, there was considerable bad blood with this former associate of the firm that apparently surrounded his separation from the firm. As a result of this friction, our firm likely missed out on a big opportunity to develop fresh business.
In my own experience, I have also seen situations in which partners have gone out of their way to cultivate contacts with people they used to employ, years into the future. Earlier in my career, I worked at a tight-knit office in which attorneys and staff had a really unique bond. Eventually, most of the attorneys in this office left for other opportunities, but everyone who was part of the experience of that office felt like they had a connection that was unique among employers in the legal profession. The fact that so many of the attorneys who worked at this office were later employed in industry meant that there were tons of contacts that could be used for business development purposes.
Over the years, various partners and other senior attorneys who worked at this office have arranged formal and informal get-togethers. This has included holiday parties and just happy hours where people who used to work together met up and reminisced about their shared experience. Not only are such events fun times where everyone can cut loose and relax, but they are also extremely helpful in maintaining goodwill toward former associates and creating business development contacts.
Partners cannot rely on the same business development contacts as they progress through their careers. Contacts may retire as partners get older, and such contacts might not be in a position to refer business to the people who once handled a portfolio of work for a client. In addition, contacts constantly change jobs, and once a new person lands in a position, they might not refer the same amount of work to an attorney.
Associates are not only capable of completing work tasks for partners, but they can be a source of business development. Associates are all at different stages of their careers, and they can end up at various different positions across the legal profession once they depart a law firm for a different opportunity. Partners should not believe that they have no use for associates after they leave a shop and that they can burn bridges with departing associates without consequences. Some of the biggest rainmakers use former associates as huge sources of business development, and former associates can help sustain partners as they progress in their careers.
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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