Do you know when it's time to leave?

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Published on 11/26/07

The members of a successful law firm need a fundamental basis for working together. Lawyers who physically share the same office environment should share an outlook that shapes the development of common goals and agreement on how to achieve them.

Lack of such an outlook, sooner or later, means the dissolution of the firm in its current form when one or more lawyers decide, "I no longer want to work here."

A recent coaching session with a lawyer brought this home to me. My client was driven to distraction by one partner who was 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 go through the expense and hassle of starting her own practice or otherwise looking for a new firm.

I explained that there are really three threshold levels, in ascending order, which should shape one's decision 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?

For my coaching client, getting past threshold one was difficult because, with one exception, the other partners were "nice people." Yet, upon further analysis, these nice people had created a problematic environment.

They continued to tolerate the abusive partner, and they (as the only other partners) made no effort to involve others in the life or management of the firm.

The economics of the firm so far as billing and client development were such that, even if my coaching client made a proposal to become a partner and it was accepted, she likely would still be able to make more money at another firm. And because all non-partners were excluded from how the firm was operated, there was no shared value system at all.

The decision to leave seemed clear-cut, but 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 and persistence.

A good approach to finding out if you have what it takes is to do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) of yourself and your practice to make certain that you're ready and have the capability to move on.

Any such analysis will, to some extent, be subjective, but it does create a structured framework for planning. You must decide what you want to be, what you want to do, and where you want to do it. A more fulfilling practice and a better life can't wait.

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