ethical obligations when a lawyer changes firms

by Dolly Homenick 6 min read

Ethical Obligations When a Lawyer Changes Firms

  • Notification to Current Clients Is Required. The impending departure of a lawyer who is responsible for the client's...
  • Notification of Current Clients is Not Impermissible Solicitation. Because she has a present professional relationship...
  • The Initial Notice Must Fairly Describe the Client's Alternatives.

Full Answer

What are a lawyer’s ethical obligations when leaving a firm?

A. Ethical Obligations When Changing Firms Two primary directives must be remembered when lawyers change law firms: 1) lawyers have a duty to tell “their” (not all clients of the firm) clients that they are leaving; and 2) clients are not chattels – the firm and departing lawyer cannot decide which clients can stay and which can

Do lawyers have the right to change firms?

Dec 04, 2019 · Firms, departing lawyers must protect client interests, opinion says. Advises on “orderly transition” of client matters. Attorneys are more mobile in their careers, and a new American Bar Association advisory opinion addresses obligations when a lawyer switches firms. A departing lawyer and the firm should work together to meet ethical responsibilities to …

What happens to a law firm's clients when a lawyer leaves?

ABA Formal Opinion No. 99-414 (Sept. 8, 1999) explains attorneys’ and firms’ ethical obligations in the face of an attorney’s changing firms, per the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. One of the first things that the Opinion No. 99-414 brings out is that attorneys have a duty and ethical obligations upon withdrawal to disclose “pending departure in a timely fashion to clients for …

What are law firm Management’s obligations under Model Rule 5?

ABA issues new ethical guidance for when lawyers leave. Lawyers have the right to change firms, and from all indications the lateral movement of lawyers from one firm to another has reached a fever pitch during the past few years. Departing lawyers and their firms have an ethical duty to protect clients’ interests during a transition. The primary reason for this trend is the increased …


What happens when an associate leaves a law firm?

In addition to time lost and replacement costs, firms can find themselves dealing with other challenges when an associate leaves. These may include low morale among remaining attorneys, practice group disruption, and client concerns over losing access to an attorney with whom they've worked closely.Jul 2, 2020

What are the ethical guidelines for lawyers?

Areas covered by ethical standards include: Independence, honesty and integrity. The lawyer and client relationship, in particular, the duties owed by the lawyer to his or her client. This includes matters such as client care, conflict of interest, confidentiality, dealing with client money, and fees.

Why do lawyers change firms?

Attorneys who switch law firms often do so for misguided reasons. Truly, there are only three reasons an attorney should leave one firm for another. Those are (1) you don't fit in your current firm's politics, (2) you have no work, and (3) you can get into a more prestigious law firm.

What do you say when leaving a law firm?

Tell them that you have enjoyed working with them, that you admire their ability, and that the reason you are leaving has nothing to do with them but rather it is because of your unique personal situation or some other informative, yet truthful, reason about the firm.

What are the four responsibilities of lawyers?

It describes the sources and broad definitions of lawyers' four responsibilities: duties to clients and stakeholders; duties to the legal system; duties to one's own institution; and duties to the broader society.Nov 25, 2014

What are examples of legal ethics?

Some issues that have both ethical and legal components include:
  • Access to medical care.
  • Informed consent.
  • Confidentiality and exceptions to confidentiality.
  • Mandatory reporting.
  • Mandatory drug testing.
  • Privileged communication with healthcare providers.
  • Advance directives.
  • Reproductive rights/abortion.

Can law firm partners be fired?

Without a valid partnership agreement granting termination rights to business partners, the only legal means to forcefully remove partners from the business is through litigation in civil court.

Why would a partner leave a law firm?

The top reason, cited by 44.2% of lateral partners, is lack of confidence in firm management and strategy, according to the 2020 Lateral Partner Satisfaction Survey, released Tuesday by legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.Jan 15, 2020

Why do partners change firms?

Compensation and culture.

But more often, partners will join a new firm because the compensation, the ability to provide cost-effective service to clients and the opportunities for cross-selling, bringing in new business and leadership are all greater at another firm.

How do I tell my boss I quit my law firm?

Give notice the right way

The formal way to leave a law firm starts with writing a resignation letter and telling your manager in person. Depending on the circumstances, this may not be possible, and you'll have to quit through a video or phone call.
Oct 4, 2021

How do you write a letter of resignation for a law firm?

Dear [Name], I would like to inform you that I am resigning from my position as [title] for [company name]. This resignation is effective as of [date]. I wish to express my appreciation for the support I have received as well as the opportunities I have enjoyed during the years I have worked for [company name].

How do you give a 2 week notice in the big law?

Keep it simple: “Karen, I want to let you know that I will be leaving Adam & Brown to join Cox & Smith. This was a very difficult decision to make. I've had a good experience here but I believe this is the right decision for me at this point in my career. I hope we can stay in touch.” Leave it at that.Dec 21, 2021

What are the ethical obligations of a lawyer?

A lawyer's ethical obligations upon withdrawal from one firm to join another derive from the concepts that clients’ interests must be protected and that each client has the right to choose the departing lawyer or the firm, or another lawyer to represent him. The departing lawyer and the responsible members of her firm who remain must take ...

What happens when a lawyer leaves a law firm?

When a lawyer ceases to practice at a law firm, both the departing lawyer and the responsible members of the firm who remain have ethical responsibilities to clients on whose active matters the lawyer currently is working to assure, to the extent reasonably practicable, that their representation is not adversely affected by the lawyer's departure.

What is the impending departure of a lawyer?

The impending departure of a lawyer who is responsible for the client's representation or who plays a principal role in the law firm's delivery of legal services currently in a matter ( i.e., the lawyer's current clients), is information that may affect the status of a client's matter as contemplated by Rule 1.4. 2 A lawyer who is departing one law firm for another has an ethical obligation, along with responsible members of the law firm who remain, to assure that those clients are informed that she is leaving the firm. This can be accomplished by the lawyer herself, the responsible members of the firm, or the lawyer and those members jointly. Because a client has the ultimate right to select counsel of his choice, 3 information that the lawyer is leaving and where she will be practicing will assist the client in determining whether his legal work should remain with the law firm, be transferred with the lawyer to her new firm, or be transferred elsewhere. Accordingly, informing the client of the lawyer's departure in a timely manner is critical to allowing the client to decide who will represent him. 4

What documents can a lawyer take with her when moving to a new firm?

A lawyer moving to a new firm also may wish to take with her files and other documents such as research memoranda, pleadings, and forms. To the extent that these documents were prepared by the lawyer and are considered the lawyer's property or are in the public domain, she may take copies with her.

Can a lawyer solicit employment?

A lawyer shall not by in-person or live telephone contact solicit professional employment from a prospective client with whom the lawyer has no family or prior professional relationship when a significant motive for the lawyer's doing so is the lawyer's pecuniary gain.

What is an in person notice for a lawyer resigning?

Any initial in-person or written notice informing clients of the departing lawyer's new affiliation that is sent before the lawyer's resigning from the firm generally should conform to the following:

What are the duties of a lawyer when a lawyer leaves a law firm?

Two primary directives must be remembered when lawyers change law firms: 1) lawyers have a duty to tell “their” (not all clients of the firm) clients that they are leaving; and 2) clients are not chattels – the firm and departing lawyer cannot decide which clients can stay and which can go – the clients decide. Lawyers must keep clients informed so that clients may make informed decisions about what the clients want to do. However, lawyers who are leaving need to tell the firm first, and then communicate with clients.

Do lawyers stay with the same law firm?

Lawyers rarely stay with the same law firm their entire careers. When lawyers leave a firm, there are certain ethical obligations, client relations issues, and other duties that arise. This article will only address the ethical and professional considerations when lawyers change firms and not any tort, contract, or employment law issues.

What is Arizona opinion 99-14?

Arizona Opinion 99-14 provides some guidance on when a departing lawyer may communicate directly with certain firm clients. A departing lawyer who has had “significant personal contacts” with the client, should inform the client that the lawyer is leaving the firm. Note: this does not mean that an associate who met a client once or twice and has prepared discovery requests has had “significant personal contacts” – the standard is that if the client were asked “which lawyer(s) at the firm represent you?” the lawyers mentioned would be those that have had “significant personal contacts.”

What happens if a partner leaves a law firm?

If a named partner leaves a law firm, the firm cannot continue to use that lawyer’s name in the firm name UNLESS the named partner is retiring from the practice of law – then the firm may continue to use the retired partner’s name. Ariz. Op. 91-11. If, however, the partner is leaving to start a different firm or join a new firm, the old firm name must change. If a lawyer leaves to join the bench, the firm name must change. Firm names may not include the names of nonlawyer employees and must be factually accurate. For instance, if the firm name is “Smith and Associates,” the firm must employ more than one full-time associate. Similarly, “Law Offices Of John Smith” requires that Mr. Smith have more than one office. “Group” connotes more than one attorney.

How are contingent fees apportioned after a law firm split?

There is some disagreement regarding how fees earned after a law firm split may be apportioned between the firm and the departed lawyer, when the case initiated with the old firm. For example, in contingent fee cases where some or much of the work was performed at the existing firm, but the case is going with the departing lawyer, the firm and lawyer must agree how the contingent fee will be apportioned among them, based upon their respective contributions to the case (i.e., quantum meruit) or based upon terms in the partnership agreement.

Can a departing attorney use old firm resources?

Remember that firm resources (and TIME) cannot be used by departing attorneys to start establishing their new firm. While it is necessary for a departing lawyer to interview and/or arrange office space for a new firm while still employed at the “old” firm, lawyers cannot use old firm resources or work time for these endeavors. Nor can they copy firm proprietary information, such as forms and websites, to use for their new firm without firm consent (unless the forms are not proprietary to the firm but court or government templates). Not only is this dishonest (a violation of ER 8.4(c)) but it could be a business tort.

Is a lateral an opposing counsel?

In addition to confirming that a lateral is not an opposing counsel on pending litigation that could conflict the firm, law firm management always (no matter the size of the book of business) conduct basic due diligence for every lateral interviewee, including checking at least the following:

What are the ethical obligations of lawyers?

Lawyers who leave their firms and their departing firms have ethical obligations toward the clients of the departing lawyers. These include the duty of communication and the responsibility to enact reasonable notification periods for lawyers who are leaving their firms. Furthermore, law firms cannot restrict departing lawyers’ access to files ...

Do law firms have to notify clients of a departing lawyer?

Law firms have an ethical obligation not to impose notification requirements on departing lawyers that would thwart client choice of counsel or prohibit departing lawyers from providing diligent representation to clients during transition periods, according to the opinion.

Can a law firm divide up clients?

The opinion emphasizes that clients determine who will represent them, not anyone else. “Law firms and lawyers may not divide up clients when a law firm dissolves or a lawyer transitions to another firm,” the opinion states. This means that when a departing lawyer was a client’s primary attorney, firms should not assign new lawyers ...

What is the role of law firm management in Model Rule 5.1?

The opinion emphasizes that law firm management has obligations under Model Rule 5.1 to establish “reasonable procedures and policies to assure the ethical transition of client matters when lawyers elect to change firms.”

Confidentiality of Information

How much information may a job-hunting attorney tell a potential new firm about the current firm’s business, such as identifying clients? Both the prospective firm as well as the attorney must be able to ensure that no conflict of interest will take place should the attorney and prospective firm decide to work together.


Both the departing attorney and current law firm have clear ethical obligations to ensure clients involved are provided legal services. A large portion of that is to promptly give notice to involved clients, preferably in a joint announcement of the departing attorney and current law firm.

Do lawyers stay in law firms?

Most lawyers no longer join law firms expecting to stay until retirement. Several times over the course of a legal career, a lawyer may require ethics-based guidance in addressing the thorny issues surrounding a lawyer’s departure from a firm. 2. A departing lawyer and the lawyers remaining at a firm have ethical and legal obligations ...

What is the duty of a lawyer?

Equally important is a lawyer’s duty of honesty and fair dealing toward other affiliated lawyers.

What is notice of a lawyer's departure?

Notice of a lawyer’s departure from a firm need not be given to former clients of the departing lawyer or to all clients of the firm. Notice is to be provided to current clients for whom the lawyer has provided “material representation,” for it is those clients for whom the lawyer’s departure occasions a “material change” in the circumstances of the representation. 18 Other ethics advice describes the proper recipients of notice as clients with whom the departing lawyer has had “significant client contact.” 19 Because of the importance of providing clients with notice, it is advisable in a questionable case to err on the side of caution by informing the client. 20

What is attorney mobility?

Today attorney mobility refers to the ritual of attorneys changing firms on a regular basis to improve one’s financial and equity status.

Is an ounce of prevention worth a pound?

In today’s age of mobility, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure as a departing attorney wants to avoid future litigation with his/her former firm. Be honest and maintain your ethical and fiduciary duties to your clients and your partners.

What are fiduciary obligations in law firms?

As in any business venture, a law firm partner's fiduciary obligations prohibit the lawyer, prior to departure, from recruiting other owners or employees to join or follow him in leaving the firm. The standard may be less strict for firm lawyers who are not partners.

Can a lawyer lure clients prior to departure?

Although the departing lawyer may properly notify clients of planned departure, the lawyer may not, prior to departure, solicit or otherwise lure firm clients. This is particularly true if the luring is concealed from firm colleagues or involves a less than honest description to those colleagues of pre-departure contacts with clients.

What is Rule 1.4?

1. The ABA Ethics Committee concluded that Rule 1.4 requires pre-departure notification to affected clients in all circum­ stances. However, the CBA's Committee on Professional Ethics slightly parted company with the ABA. It concluded that a pre-departure notice to a client "is ethically permissible, but not mandated ....".


Notification to Current Clients Is Required

Notification of Current Clients Is Not Impermissible Solicitation

The Initial Notice Must Fairly Describe The Client's Alternatives

The Departing Lawyer Should Provide Additional Information

Joint Notification by The Lawyer and The Firm Is Preferred

Law Other Than The Model Rules Applies to The Departure


  • Both the lawyer who is terminating her association with a law firm to join another and the responsible members of the firm who remain have ethical obligations to clients for whom the departing lawyer is providing legal services. These ethical obligations include promptly giving notice of the lawyer's impending departure to those current clients on ...
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