November 11, 2020 Feature

And the Final Rose Goes To...

When lawyers leave a firm, how do clients decide who will continue to represent them?

By Anthony R. McClure

Perhaps now more than ever in today’s ever-changing economy, issues relating to lawyers transitioning between firms are top of mind. A state bar committee on professional responsibility has issued an opinion on the “ethical obligations that arise when a lawyer departs from her law firm.” This opinion provides that, above all else, the primary directive is that the client’s interests must come first, the client has the right to the counsel of his or her choice, and lawyers must protect their clients’ interests during all phases of any transition.

When a lawyer leaves a firm, the client must decide who continues to represent them.

When a lawyer leaves a firm, the client must decide who continues to represent them.

Photo illustration by Elmarie Jara | Getty Images

In Formal Opinion No. 2020-201, the Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct of the State Bar of California recognizes that “[l]awyer mobility is a reality in today’s legal marketplace” and that the news is filled with stories of transitions that are “accompanied by tales of acrimony or contentiousness between the departing lawyer(s) and the former law firm.” The opinion thus identifies multiple ethical principles for lawyers and their firms to follow during any such transition.

The opinion first identifies a fundamental principle: clients are not the property of any law firm or lawyer. As a result, the guiding ethical principles governing any attorney departure are the protection of the client’s best interests and the client’s right to the counsel of his or her choice. And above all else, “the client’s interest always remains paramount.”

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