Losing Your Senior Lawyers
March 13, 2013
I recently wrote about best practices when a veteran lawyer joins your firm, a post prompting one reader to ask what is best when one departs. We have dealt several times with the loss of founders and name partners to competitors and to the bench. Sadly, several times in recent years we have found ourselves handling the sudden death of name and managing partners, as well.
Of course, a partner who goes to the bench is cause for celebration. A loss to a competing firm of a key timekeeper and business generator tends to come as a surprise and is often seen as threatening the organization’s financial stability. In the case of a death clear-thinking under the duress of grief while compassionately but prudently settling the estate is emotionally confusing and draining.
In the case of losing a partner to the bench congratulations are in order, including a reception at the firm after the swearing in. Issue discreet written and email invitations consistent with your local bar customs. Your partner’s new colleagues on the bench can explain what’s customary to your soon-to-be-a-judge. If a name partner goes to the bench, you’ll have to change the name of your entity. That means you get a chance to email and place ads announcing your firm’s new name. It also lets you remind everyone who at your firm still practices the kind of law your former partner handled. Make sure you identify your former partner’s key referral sources and any trade and community groups in which she was active. Get your next generation introduced and involved in and with all ASAP. Most lawyers let their partners know well in advance when the politics are right and they are going to apply for a judgeship, so this is something you can work on sooner than later.
Death is a personal wound to an organization, whether sudden or anticipated, whether due to accident or disease. Every situation is different. Think first about the clients, who while polite will rightly consider their own interests first. Get word to them as fast as you can and get right to the point if you want to keep them. It’s likely you’ll keep current matters. It’s the next matter you need to be concerned about. Think second about your lawyers and keeping them. Only then talk to your staff, who while polite will be considering their own interests first. Do not make an announcement on any list serv, or to any legal or other media until you must.
Ethically, we all know advertising materials must be truthful. So all website pages, directories, letterhead and other promotional materials must be changed ASAP. Coffee mugs and branded coasters lingering in conference rooms with deceased lawyer names on them have proved embarrassing to firms. On your site placing a black border on the lawyer’s profile page with a note saying the lawyer passed away on a certain date and that referrals, ongoing case inquiries and other questions are being handled by lawyer(s) whose direct dials and emails are listed there has worked well for our clients. We recommend our client firms keep the bios on the site in this form for 13 months before taking the page down– veteran rainmakers will receive referrals many months after death in our experience. Keep the lawyer’s email address active and have it forward to another professional. Change LinkedIn to reflect the situation and monitor communications there for six months before closing the account. Update Martindale, Best Lawyers and other online directories, including those of colleges and academies.
Losing a veteran partner to a competitor when you want to keep some of their work creates all manner of difficulty. We recommend you take the high road and be as transparent as possible– you’ll retain the maximum amount of work by doing so. Some firms will openly congratulate their former partner in an announcement in their bar journal saying they wish them well.
Clients who transfer active files to your former partner’s new firm may not stay at the new firm. Our experience is that some of those clients will send their next of future matters to you. New firms with new billing practices and a different rate structure create unexpected opportunities. What’s requisite is telling the former client you’d like their future work. And doing that in person is key albeit uncomfortable for many lawyers. If they aren’t going to send you any work, they’ll tell you up front when you call. You have not lost anything by trying.