Notifying Clients Of Your Departure From The Law Firm

Q: I am leaving a law firm for another one, but would like to take clients I brought to the firm. Is there a "proper" way to notify the clients I would like to take?

A: The American Bar Association (ABA) dealt with this issue in its Formal Opinion 99-414. First and foremost, your clients' interests, and their right to choose representation, must be protected. That means you or the firm must notify all of your clients -- not just the ones you'd like to take -- that you are leaving, and that the clients may come with you, remain with the firm, or find alternate counsel.

Ethical Obligations

You also have an ethical obligation to give prompt notice to any clients with active matters you are currently working on, and to accomplish any withdrawal whether from your or the law firms representation without material adverse effect on the interests of the client. That means that if you do not wish to take clients that have open files with you, and the clients are forced to obtain alternative counsel, whether in the firm or elsewhere, you may be responsible for absorbing the cost of getting new counsel up to speed.

If there are clients you'd like to take with you who you do not currently represent on any active matters, but who are being represented by other lawyers in the firm, you may have to wait until after you leave the firm to contact them. Formal Opinion 99-414 states that you are prohibited from making in-person contact prior to your departure with clients with whom you have no family or client-lawyer relationship. The question would be whether your prior client-lawyer relationship has survived the intervention of new counsel. According to the ABA Opinion, however, you're free to contact any firm clients by letter after you leave, whether or not you've represented them before.

Those are the rules of ethics. How they translate in actual practice is the more delicate question.

Practical Considerations

Assuming you want to maintain a cordial relationship with your current firm, or at least avoid a lawsuit for interference with business relationship, speak first with the clients you'd like to take and for whom you are still primary counsel. Explain your plans, describe their rights, and ask whether they'd like to follow you to the new firm.

Once you have those clients committed to you, let the firm know you are leaving. At that point, try to create an agreement to send formal written notification from you and the firm to all of your clients, including ones currently represented by other members of the firm, in which you jointly explain rights and ask for instructions.

Communicating clearly and fairly with the firm and clients can help ensure that you maintain positive relations with your former employer and clients that can prove invaluable long after your transition. Ethical obligations aside, the legal community, and depending on your area of practice the pool of potential clients, can be quite small. Managing your departure in a way that is sensitive to the needs of both your clients and your employer can help ensure that you make your transition with as little drama as possible.

Courtesy of Deborah Arron.