When Is It Time to Go?

Originally posted on LexisNexis Communities

Any associate can be committed to a successful career in a firm, yet become alienated and unable to sustain the commitment.  I once coached an associate at a firm, who was driven to distraction by one partner who was both arrogant and a bully.  The other partners, however, were nice enough, and my coaching client was not certain she disliked the bad partner enough to leave the firm and start the draining process of finding new work.   Yet, upon further analysis, the "nice" partners had created a problematic environment.  They continued to tolerate the abusive partner. There was no shared value system at all. The economics of the firm were such that, even if my coaching client were to become a partner, she likely would still be able to make more money at another firm. 

This example illustrates the framework for making a decision to leave.  It involves an analysis of three threshold levels, in ascending order, as a way to decide whether to leave a firm:

  • Threshold One - Personality: Do you like the people you work with?
  • Threshold Two - Economics: Are you earning enough money to make staying worthwhile?
  • Threshold Three - Values: Does the firm take a shared approach to compensation and clients, or is it every lawyer for himself/herself?

Even if, after such an analysis, the decision to leave seems clear-cut, that's not to say it would be easy.  Leaving a law firm is an emotional process.  You must want to do so, and believe you have no other alternative.  Even if you are going to another firm, a successful transition will require all the traits of an entrepreneur:  motivation, acceptance of risk, resiliency, commitment, persistence. 

If you decide to leave one firm for another, make the decision with eyes wide open.  The starting point for a successful lateral move is a careful evaluation of the prospective new firm to ensure that the move will be worthwhile.  Will the lawyers at the new firm be colleagues who are supportive and easy to work with?  Will the financial rewards at the new firm make a move worthwhile?  Does the new firm take a shared approach to compensation and clients, or is it every lawyer for himself/herself?  Can you bring clients with you, and will these existing clients gain additional resources because of the move?  Affirmative answers to these questions define the high likelihood of a positive move.

There is no reason why a lateral move should have a negative stigma for either lawyer or firm.  The decision to leave is ultimately a business one, and the current recession has taught lawyers and their firms some fundamental truths about "The Business of Law®."  Approaching a departure in a businesslike way is ultimately a matter of professionalism of the practice of law.  A lateral move is part of the business dynamic that all clients understand; it should be so for lawyers and their law firms as well.

If our entire analysis of leaving a firm and starting anew has any one theme, it's that the lawyer taking this step must make a commitment to success.  Expressing "success" in relative terms such as "more revenue" or "greater satisfaction" sets a subjective standard that is difficult to achieve. The truly successful person wants and needs a target to aim at.   To successfully leave a firm, know what you want to do, who you want to be, and how you will provide your clients with value.  Doing that increases the odds that you are leaving the past for a better future. 

For a fuller discussion of this topic, see the following series of LawBiz Legal Pad Videos by Ed Poll:  "Lateral Moves" , "When Leaving a Firm" , and "Think Before Jumping Ship" . You may also enjoy Ed's article for the Canadian Bar Association's PracticeLink, "Is the Grass Greener Outside Your Practice?".

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