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Law Practice Magazine

The Big Ideas Issue

Preparing for the Unexpected Departure

Linda A Klein and John Hinton IV


  • We should prepare for inevitable departures rather than waiting until the employee leaves.
  • Leaders need to identify the risks, prepare for the departures, and motivate the team to prepare.
Preparing for the Unexpected Departure

Jump to:

It starts out as a pleasant Monday morning. The traffic is light. The weather is fine. You sit down at your desk, turn on your computer, sip a perfectly brewed cup of hot coffee and plan for the week ahead. A new email pops up. A trusted member of your team has resigned—effective immediately. The news may have been unexpected or no surprise at all. Either way, a key team member is leaving, and the remaining team members must pick up the load without any assistance from the departing employee.

Sure, employee departures are common and almost all these departures will occur on short notice or no notice at all. The only truly unexpected part of an employee’s departure is the timing. As with any other unexpected disruption, a law firm leader’s job is to minimize the impact. Nevertheless, it is rare for law firms to take advance steps to prepare for these inevitable events.

Identifying the Risks

Every departure impacts the firm, but not all impacts are the same. Who are the key people and what makes them so? One person may have important skills that are not easily replaced. Another person may have institutional or project specific knowledge that will be lost unless that information is transferred to others. A third person may have certain responsibilities that will cause significant disruption if not performed. Although you will have some insight into the impacts caused by each person’s departure, your team members will have additional valuable insights. Don’t forget to seek their input.

Preparing for the Departure

Most of us view the notice period as the time to prepare for a transition. However, not everyone will (or can) work out a notice period, and it is human nature for people not to give their best during a notice period even when they intend to do so. Advance planning will not eliminate all impacts of a departure, but it can help minimize the costs. Here are a few ideas to help the planning process.

  • Ask team members to provide a summary of the tasks that they perform, noting tasks where they have institutional knowledge or training that is not easily replaced or replicated. These summaries can help you determine a reasonable plan for each team member.
  • Determine whether redundancy is warranted. A trained backup can help ease the transition and help when illnesses and vacations arise.
  • Train people to capture and curate their institutional and project specific knowledge in a manner that others can locate and use. Most firms have software to manage individual matters, but many people don’t bother to save important notes, communications and work product to project files. Insist that team members do their part to develop and maintain records that are retrievable and usable by others.

Motivating the Team to Prepare

You will need to motivate (and perhaps incentivize) your team to address this issue because it falls within the category of important but not urgent. Motivation should not be difficult because this is in everyone’s personal interest and not only the law firm as a whole. Every departure impacts multiple people as the firm grapples with distributing the departing employee’s work to others until a replacement is hired and trained. A team member who helps the firm prepare for their own departure helps encourage others to do the same.

The messaging to your team may require careful thought to avoid creating concerns or negatively impacting the culture. However, responsible people prepare for life’s inevitable moments and that message should resonate with your firm’s constituents. Parents don’t want to think about their children leaving home, but we prepare them to be self-sufficient adults and save for their college educations. Adult children prepare for their parents’ needs as they age. Working adults save for retirement and purchase insurance. Leaning into these analogous experiences can help people focus on the need to plan for the inevitable job transitions.

We hope these ideas are helpful and would love to hear any success stories on this subject.