When a law firm breaks up or a lawyer leaves to start a new practice, there are always clients, contingency arrangements, and hourly cases to split up. It is important to know what ethical steps a lawyer or law firm should take when parting ways. If the firm splits up, who has the rights to...
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Sharon D. Nelson is president of the digital forensics, information technology, and information security firm Sensei Enterprises. In addition...
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When a law firm breaks up or a lawyer leaves to start a new practice, there are always clients, contingency arrangements, and hourly cases to split up. It is important to know what ethical steps a lawyer or law firm should take when parting ways. If the firm splits up, who has the rights to the name, brand, clients, or even client files? How can both parties ethically allocate unfinished business, accounts receivable, or unsettled contingency prearrangements? An ethical and professional split is inevitably beneficial for the future of the law firm and the lawyer.
On this episode of The Digital Edge, Sharon D. Nelson and Jim Calloway ask legal ethics expert Tom Spahn about the proper way to professionally deal with the various situations that arise when a law firm splits up. He explains that lawyers and their firms should remain civil and open to negotiation before the lawyer has left. Firms have run into trouble while trying to penalize leaving employees on an individual basis. He discusses the ethically proper way to deal with unfinished business doctrines, document retention programs, and fiduciary duties to clients. Due to technology, there are new issues to consider including digital files or property ownership of domain names. Overall, however, Spahn emphasizes that every partner has a continuing duty to make sure every client is adequately served.
Tom Spahn, often known as “Mr. Ethics” in Virginia, practices as a commercial litigator in the Tysons Corner office of McGuireWoods. He has served on the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professionalism, and has spoken over 1,200 times on ethics and other topics in the United States and abroad.
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8 Resources to Help Lawyers when Switching Firms
Leaving a Law Firm: A Guide to the Ethical Obligations in Law Firm Departure (PDF) from Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois
Winding Down from the South Carolina Bar Association. Includes friendly and unfriendly departure checklists and sample forms letters.
Arizona State Bar Association form for a lawyer departure and client options letter (MS Word).
Fifty Ways to Leave Your Law Firm by Roger Geller and Susan Strauss Weisberg, posted by Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers. Office of Bar Counsel.
The Return of ‘The Sophisticated Traveler’, Washington Lawyer (September 2011) District of Columbia Bar Association
How to Avoid Burning Bridges When Leaving a Law Firm and Checklist When Leaving a Firm By Linda Oligschlaeger, Missouri Bar Association
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Ethics Concerns When Your Firm Splits Up or When a Lawyer Leaves for Another Firm By Peter Geraghty, ABA GPSOLO Magazine (January/February 2008)
Conflicts of Interest Toolkit Documents (PDF and MS Word) from Canadian Bar Association Task Force on Conflicts of Interest.
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