For managing partners, none of these are pleasant situations. Nonetheless, each departure, whether it is involuntary or voluntary, must be handled carefully for the benefit of the firm.
When you’ve made the decision. Let’s talk first about the case of involuntary terminations. There is nothing harder for us than having to let a lawyer go, in part because we all seem insecure enough to think “There but for the grace of God go I.” However, take comfort from the fact that, in my experience, a terminated lawyer always lands on his or her feet. As good managers, we are careful in the hiring process, so these are bright and talented people who’ve simply found themselves in the wrong firm or occupation. They may become angry when notified of the termination, but this is a first reaction, relating primarily to the fear of having to make a change. Check on them in a year. I’ll bet you find them to be well placed and happier at another organization.
Of course, you will want to treat them with dignity when you are letting them go. Let them announce it is their decision. And be as generous as possible with severance, keeping in mind that you must be consistent with that practice.
The tough one is this: They will often want to appear to be a fully functioning lawyer at your firm while they search for another job. Help them in this regard as best you can, but don’t let them stay in their office for very long—make it just long enough to properly wind matters down and get their search started. Even though their termination may not have been announced to the larger firm, those close to them will know what has happened, and their continued presence can be distressing, even depressing, to those in the know. In addition, those terminated can cause real trouble when they’re still in the office. And you can be sure they will not be productive. The best course is to give them outplacement support—the costs will typically be offset by savings as they will land in a new role quicker.
When the choice is theirs. Treating the departing “with dignity” can be much more difficult in the case of voluntary departures. Consider the associate who leaves just as he’s beginning to show a positive economic return for the firm, or one who’s in the midst of assisting a partner preparing for an important trial. Or, say you have a partner who is taking a valuable set of clients to a competing firm. Dignity should still be the goal. When she brings you the news, always react cheerfully, wishing her luck and good fortune. This can be hard to do, but take comfort in the hidden message in such a reaction: This firm can easily survive the likes of you!
Support a farewell celebration. Send a nice message to the entire firm, announcing the departure and reciting the person’s accomplishments at the firm. Here’s the reason: She is going out into your community and will be there for the foreseeable future. If she leaves feeling humiliated or offended, the firm has an enemy for life. Imagine two or three of these folks getting together in a social situation that includes a good client of the firm. And remember, some can end up on the bench or in a political position. Your firm cannot afford the resulting damage just so you can have that sweet but brief taste of revenge. Don’t let it happen on your watch. Part as colleagues. Paths cross in this profession and lawyers have long memories.
Edward H. Flitton is former Managing Partner and now Of Counsel to Holland & Hart LLP. He is a member of the ABA Law Practice Management Section Council