After almost 14 years with my former firm, I made a change to a new firm this May. As excited as I was by the new opportunity, it was a hard process. There were many thoughts swirling in my mind and there was a ton of emotion. My reasons for making the change will remain private out of respect for everyone involved, but I have already said publicly that I was grateful for the start my former firm had given me. In this way, the goal when I left was not just to pursue a new opportunity but to do it while causing as little pain as possible.
Experience tells me that I am not alone in this. Even when a job is no longer right for us, we may feel loyalty to and genuinely want the best for the team we are leaving. We may need to maintain good relationships since lawyers in some jurisdictions might all know each other. Or maybe we just don’t want the personal baggage of knowing we made a hard situation worse with nasty behavior.
With all of those things in mind, here are the steps I took that helped me make my decision and leave with as much grace as possible.
1. Pick a new firm with good values.
Most of us would like to think that we are perfect angels and would always do the right thing no matter what. But, the truth is that we are social beings and are heavily influenced by those around us. Thus, if you want to live your values, it really helps to work at a firm aligned with them. One of the best things you can do to make a good transition is to pick a firm with good people who can support and guide you and will not put inappropriate pressure on you. In other words, the first step towards leaving well is to be sure that you are joining a team with good people.
2. Don’t gossip before you give notice.
This may be one of the hardest things for lawyers to do because we are incredibly social. Yet, this is why you should be cautious about sharing information about your plans too soon. Word spreads quickly among lawyers and the rise of social media has made that phenomenon even faster. To honor the feelings of your colleagues and allow for a planned message to clients, it is best to avoid discussing your plans publicly before you give notice to your firm.
3. Don’t play games with client relationships.
This one should be a no-brainer since the ethical rules prohibit it, but the temptation to get a competitive advantage in retaining clients is always there. Don’t give in. Following the rules when it comes to client relationships in the midst of attorney transitions is essential. Not only does it avoid putting clients in an awkward position, it also avoids behavior that will all but guarantee an acrimonious relationship with your former firm.
4. Talk to calmer and wiser people.
Though you should be discrete about it, life change necessitates seeking counsel from a wise and stable person. Ideally, this person can listen to you and remind you to take the long view and walk in the other person’s shoes. They can help you to focus on your future instead of getting embroiled in issues from the past. They can help you avoid becoming defensive or combative because you feel frustrated or unsure.
In the best case, they can even help you prepare for the difficult conversations that await you and help you plan out how you are going to give notice. Taking the time to talk out your concerns and plan out your course of action with a trusted advisor will help you stay true to your values even in the midst of difficult circumstances.
5. Manage your emotions.
Leaving a law firm is not just a business transaction. It also means changing or perhaps terminating some relationships. Emotions are likely to arise on all sides. It doesn’t work to fight them, so your best bet is to care for them. Expect that you may have to deal with a range of potentially conflicting emotions both in yourself and others. Plan in time to write or talk these issues out with interested parties or trusted friends and relatives. Move as much as possible to discharge excess energy and relieve stress. Give yourself grace as your emotions fluctuate from elation about the future to sadness and even grief about the past.
When you change jobs or think about changing jobs, guilt may be one of the first emotions you feel. Our work as attorneys and roles in our firms can serve as a foundational part of our identities. The idea of changing these roles can cause us to feel like we are being disloyal or doing something wrong. Or it can just cause fear about what the future might bring.
At the core of many of these emotions, you may often find judgment. When you can move past the judgment or at least hold it a little less tightly, another opportunity opens up. Instead of focusing on whether you or your decision is good or bad, you can focus with more precision on how to execute your decision the right way. If you make ethics and values the cornerstone of your transition plan and balance the emotions of yourself and others, you can change your law firm without losing your soul.
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