It’s every firm’s worst nightmare come true: One of the firm’s high-profile lawyers left almost overnight in an attempt to start their own firm. You know what’s about to happen. High-profile lawyers don’t simply leave without a plan. They already have the infrastructure ready. You know they’re about to steal a large percentage of your clients, and with them billable hours you relied on. An ally is about to turn into an enemy.
What should you do?
First and foremost, find out if the departing individual did anything illegal or immoral. Either act could be grounds to be disbarred.
One of the most common illegal actions taken by departing lawyers is the theft of client files. In 2019, a lawyer was forced to pay three-quarters of a million dollars to the firm she left after stealing over 22,000 files illegally. She even spent two nights in jail after refusing to obey judicial orders!
Contractual obligations might also lay out guidelines for how lawyers should conduct themselves prior to leaving a firm. Unfortunately the law does not preclude lawyers from taking clients with them when they leave. That means that your firm will not have had the legal option to withhold client information required to continue cases while they still worked there. If you find out a lawyer is leaving, you should tread carefully — and make sure you obey all relevant laws yourself.
What that means is simple: anyone who that lawyer represents has the legal option to continue being represented by the same lawyer, even when they leave your firm to start their own firm. Departing lawyers have the right to certain kinds of data to determine potential conflicts of interest.
You have the right to offer the lawyer a better deal. But the best option is to speak to a lawyer’s clients on your own in an effort to make your own arguments for representation. Don’t break any laws during these conversations. Be open. Be honest.