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When to move — and how to do it

This post is going live on my last day at the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos.

I’ve been with the firm for four-and-a-half years. My memory is a little foggy but I think I’ve worked here longer than anywhere else in my life. It doesn’t feel that way because there are so many people at the firm who’ve been here for 20 or 30 years that some days, I still feel like the new guy.

Even though it doesn’t feel like it’s been a long stay, I know it is time to leave. That time will most likely come for you, too. Most lawyers don’t practice with one firm for their entire career. As I understand it, the fourth and fifth year of practice is a time when a lot of people make a move. At bigger, corporate firms, this may be when it becomes clear that you’re not going to be able to (or don’t want to) stay on the partnership track. In government service, by this point (if not sooner) you know whether you want to make a career of it or want to transition to private practice. If you start out on the prosecution or plaintiff’s side, you probably know after four or five years whether you feel more suited to defense work and vice versa.

Those are all good reasons to consider making a move. But the most compelling reason to make a move is that you’ve taken a cold, hard look at your current situation and concluded that you are no longer growing as much as you could elsewhere.

Perhaps you’ve taken a shine to a practice area that is more of a sideline for your firm, and you need to go elsewhere to really focus on it. Maybe you’ve gotten a taste of trial experience but your firm doesn’t do enough litigation to allow you to get to court regularly. If you find your potential for growth limited — whether in terms of skill development, financial opportunity, or a host of other aspects of practice — you need to move on. Perhaps this is the conservative side of me talking, but you probably cannot change the way your firm works to suit your needs. The firm exists to serve the clients and the principals, not you. You don’t get these early years of your career back. You have to make the most of them.

So what do you do when you’ve accepted an offer and are ready to move on? Here are some guidelines to think about. Opinions may differ on each of these points, and you should do your own research, but these are some issues that need to be considered.

1. Resist the temptation to try to leverage your new offer into a raise at your current firm. Using a new offer to get a raise can actually be a good strategy in the broader job market but not in the legal community. The Baltimore metropolitan area, for example, is home to some 2.7 million people but the legal community here feels downright tiny at times. There is a very good chance that one of the lawyers you’re asking for a raise knows one of the lawyers who made you an offer. If you don’t play your cards right, you could go from having a job with an offer to go elsewhere to having no job, no offer and a damaged reputation. That shouldn’t happen, but sometimes it does. And since Maryland is an at-will employment state, there probably isn’t a whole lot you can do about it once it happens.

2. Give notice. You may have an employment agreement that requires you to give notice a certain period of time before you leave or that notice is requested but not required. It may be silent on the subject. Regardless, giving notice is the right thing to do — for your clients and your firm. You should give notice as soon as possible. With that said . . .

3. Be prepared to leave as soon as you give notice. In a perfect world, your firm will appreciate your having given notice. Unfortunately, sometimes firms show their appreciation by firing you immediately, presumably so that you cannot poach any clients. Which reminds me . . .

4. Don’t poach clients before you leave. At this point in your career, most of your clients are really the firm’s clients and you cannot talk to them about going with you to the new firm while you’re still at the old firm.

5. Think about how to notify the clients of your departure. If the clients think that you’re their lawyer, you probably have to notify the clients that you are leaving. When I was one of a boatload of lawyers working on a mass tort case, and was anonymous to most of the clients, I probably would not have an obligation to notify those clients of my departure. Now that I am representing plaintiffs in car crash cases and I’m usually the only lawyer working on the case, I think I have an obligation under Maryland Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4 to notify the clients of my departure.

Yes, it’s a bit contradictory to say that, on the one hand, they’re not your clients when it comes to taking them with you but, on the other hand, they are your clients when it comes to notifiying them that you won’t be working with them anymore. But I am convinced that the clients are entitled to be notified. The best course is to discuss this with your superiors and try to agree on what form that notice will take.

6. Get your files in order. In a perfect world, all of your files would speak for themselves. You could die tonight, and I could look at the file (whether paper or electronic) tomorrow and know exactly what is going on with the case. We don’t live in a perfect world, though. If you have more than a few cases, you probably have a lot of information about a lot of files that only resides in your brain. You have to record all of that information somewhere accessible to the next lawyer up. And then when you go to your next job, you have to commit to making sure you are recording everything as you go, rather than carrying a lot of information in your head.

7. File notices of substitution of counsel with the court in all cases in which you are counsel of record.

8. Make a list of all of the people and entities that need to be notified of your new contact information. This will include the Client Protection Fund, the U.S. District Court (if you’re a member), every Bar association to which you belong, and any listservs to which you belong. Have you been using your work email for any of your personal affairs? Change it now. When an email is sent out about buying Washington Capitals tickets for game seven, you don’t want that email going to your old work address.

9. Speaking of personal affairs, you’ll need to collect information from your human resources professionals regarding what happens with your benefits when you leave. You may need to spend quite a bit of time evaluating what to do about health insurance and you might have to learn how the health insurance exchange works. It’s probably also a good time to take a fresh look at your household budget to see if you should make any adjustments. (Get more aggressive with those student loans if you can!)

If you were expecting a tenth tip, sorry, you are out of luck. Who only writes a Top Nine? A guy who’s been really busy recently with No. 6 (and overtime Stanley Cup playoff games) and is tired, that’s who.

But if you really want a tenth point, here it is: take some time to reflect on what you’ve accomplished and where you’re going. If you can build in some time in between leaving one job and starting another, do it. Even if it’s only a day.

I can’t wait to get started at the Greenberg Law Offices on Biddle Street on Monday.