How to Resign Without Burning Bridges

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It’s that time of year when many lawyers are thinking about making a career change. Even if you’re not currently pondering a move, chances are there will be a time in your legal career when you daydream of leaving your current gig to take a new position, open your own firm or launch a full-time freelance career.

If you’re thinking about resigning from your current law firm you want to be sure to do it the right way so as not to burn any bridges.  If you resign in an unprofessional manner your credibility and connections might be lost.

Scholars are referring to the current economic climate as the “Great Resignation,” and for good reason. 4.3 million Americans (2.9% of the entire U.S. workforce) quit their jobs in August 2021.  And the legal industry hasn’t been immune to these workforce changes. Yet, many lawyers are unsure how to leave their firm without losing valuable professional relationships.

If you’re looking for a way to resign from your job without burning bridges, there are several things that you can do:

  1. Keep your resignation letter simple,
  2. Provide ample notice,
  3. Be professional, and
  4. Prepare for the future.

While these rules may sound like common sense, there are some subtle nuances that can make or break your exit from your current firm. In this post, we’ll take a more thorough look at how you can translate rules of basic resignation etiquette into an opportunity for continued career growth.

Keep Your Resignation Letter Simple

As a lawyer, you likely know how much impact words can have (and how they can be used against you). This premise applies to more than just your clients – you need to apply it in your resignation letter if you want to maintain your current relationships.

Write a resignation letter that is short, sweet, and to the point. If you begin your letter with an explanation of why you are leaving or what led up to this decision, you risk putting unnecessary pressure on your soon-to-be former employer who may not be aware of any issues until they read about them in writing.

Instead, be clear at the start that you are resigning from your current position so there is no confusion down the road when someone reads over their records for verification. A good example of a concise and positive resignation letter is something along the lines of:

“Dear [Manager],

I’d like to let you know that I am resigning from my position as [associate attorney] at [Law Firm], effective [date two-weeks+]. I am grateful for the professional and personal development opportunities that this job has provided.”

Such a resignation gets right to the point, ideally without burning bridges. It gives just the right amount of information an employer needs to know about your resignation, without delving into unnecessary detail. A simple sentence to express gratitude for the experience at the firm is strongly recommended.

Also, consider the fact that you might need a professional recommendation from this employer in the future. Best case scenario, you’ll end your relationship on such good terms that they will consider you for referrals in the future!

If you work for a firm that schedules exit interviews, and many do, remember to keep your conversation concise and grateful. If you have constructive feedback don’t be afraid to share it but keep your language positive and professional. Likewise, accept feedback from your manager (or any other colleagues present for the exit interview) with grace and dignity.

If you are a litigator, remember the advice that you would give a client taking the stand. An exit interview might be viewed in the same way. While you may have some choice words for your former employer, it’s best to keep those to yourself and take the high road. A dignified exit is one of the best ways to maintain your professional reputation and maximize future career opportunities.

Provide Ample Notice

Resigning without notice can have disastrous consequences because it doesn’t give anyone time to prepare for change or plan ahead. Giving ample notice will help counterbalance some negative feelings associated with quitting – especially if you have been a model employee.

In order to give ample notice, there are two primary considerations – the first is using your discretion and judgment with respect to timing. If you think that giving more than two weeks’ notice will help alleviate any issues or tension with co-workers, then follow that timeline unless circumstances change during the period of transition from one firm to another. The second consideration involves smoothing the transition by briefing your replacement (and your clients).

Time Your Exit

As you consider the timing of your exit, make sure to review your employment contract, if you have one. Some employment contracts outline a minimum notice period, and there is a chance your notice period is longer than two weeks. Transitioning between firms (or careers) as a lawyer is slightly more intensive than the standard resignation. Your firm will need to switch your cases to another lawyer and your clients have likely developed a rapport with you. Not only will you need to brief the team members that will take over your cases, but you may also need to discuss your planned exit with your clients being mindful to follow all applicable ethics rules.

Because transitions can be stressful, it’s wise to consider the timing of your departure. Does your firm see a lull in the summer? Many firms do, so it can be a smart time to make a career move. Consider your field and when the most opportune time for leaving will be, as it can differ among practice areas and firms. This will also involve looking at your major cases. Are you approaching a trial? By all means, do not attempt to quit during trial preparation – it’s a surefire way to damage your professional reputation and future career prospects.

Assist With the Transition

One of the best ways to maintain a positive relationship with your former employer is by assisting with your own exit. The more you help with a smooth transition, the more accepting your colleagues are likely to be of your decision to leave. If at all possible, try to give at least two weeks’ notice and help your predecessor get organized with the cases and responsibilities they will need to take over. Likewise, tie up as many case-related loose ends during your remaining time with the firm. Small details could easily be overlooked during transition phases, potentially resulting in ethical problems.

Be Professional

The best way to leave your firm is by doing it the right way – that means saying goodbye professionally and not through passive-aggressive notes or excessive gossiping about why you are leaving. If there were issues between you and a colleague, don’t let those feelings come across in any written correspondence (or at all if possible). While taking these steps won’t guarantee that everyone accepts how things happened, it will help keep people from becoming too judgmental about your decision.

Consider Your Ethical Obligations

Also, as an attorney you are a professional and you need to consider your ethical obligations. During your tenure at your current firm, you’ve encountered confidential information related to cases as well as trade secrets about your firm’s operating procedures. Depending on your role, you may have even been privy to partnership information and other confidential business details. Be prepared to return any business hardware, files, and equipment. At the same time, make sure you don’t leave any of your own personal information behind (like passwords or private notes).

You will need to inform your clients of your decision to leave, but you must navigate these communications delicately.  There are extensive ethical rules about when and how you may communicate your departure to current clients.  You also need to be mindful if there are any potential conflicts between your current clients and the clients at your new firm.  When in doubt about how to handle any of these issues, reach out to bar counsel for assistance or to another trusted attorney to help guide you.

Certainly, refrain from discussing your departure with clients until after you’ve notified the current firm of your decision. After you’ve given notice, it may help to introduce clients to a point person on the legal team that will be taking over for you and explain what will happen with their case. A little reassurance goes a long way and may even lead to those clients referring their friends or family to you in the future.

Do Not Badmouth Your Former Firm

Be professional – don’t badmouth your boss or coworkers in person, on social media, or in any other way. The legal industry is a small world. Resigning with class is all about following proper etiquette when handing in your letter of resignation (and the weeks that follow). Badmouthing colleagues can make you look petty – and worse, lead to the loss of clients, job opportunities, and friends.

Future employers and clients will consider your interpersonal skills before hiring you (much of the practice of law is about relationships, after all) and a history of bashing others could be held against you. It might make you look like a “gossip” or someone who cannot resolve problems with diplomacy, neither of which are desirable qualities in a lawyer.

Even if your firm reacts negatively to your resignation, it benefits you to take the high road. Not only is positivity good for your health, but it can also benefit your career.

Prepare for the Future

While many lawyers feel adrift when they first quit their current job without another position lined up, there are plenty of ways to prepare for the future. If you’ve been practicing law full time or have a spouse who is employed, it should be easier to land on your feet because you don’t need as much money coming in right away.

If this isn’t an option, consider starting your job search while still at your current firm – that way even if something goes wrong you will already have built relationships with potential employers and can hit the ground running rather than starting from scratch after quitting abruptly. Some excellent career advice is that it’s generally easier to find a job while you still have a job so you don’t have to explain any gaps in your resume.

Some attorneys have luck finding a new opportunity working with a legal recruiter.  They can be a good intermediary to ask questions about the job description and potentially counteroffer on salary or benefits.  Other attorneys have success finding a new role via their personal network of friends, colleagues and fellow law school alumnae.

Tie Up Loose Ends at Your Existing Firm

Resigning from a law firm is rarely as simple as just saying, “I’m leaving.” You have to tie up loose ends with cases, speak with clients, help train or brief a replacement, and make sure you have a plan for the future of your career. You also need to fill out any final paperwork, like mileage or requests for reimbursement. If possible, try to say goodbye to each of your former colleagues individually, it will go a long way to smoothing any awkwardness.

Have a Plan for Your Career

Take care of yourself after resigning – make sure that you have enough money saved up so that your regular expenses are covered. You want to make sure you have a strong enough reason for leaving and that you’ll be able to find another job relatively easily.

Update your resume and your LinkedIn profiles to reflect your current qualifications. Whether or not you have a job lined up, make sure to plan for an income. You can tap into existing savings, or take on freelance work to transition the gap while you job-hunt.

If you plan on starting your own firm, make sure you account for the amount of time and effort it will take to launch a firm. You may still need to find part-time or freelance work to keep you financially afloat while you build your practice.

LAWCLERK is Here for Lawyers

Resigning from a job is never easy, but it doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience.  If you’re not happy with your current work environment the good news is that there are tons of opportunities out there whether you want to work in a traditional law firm environment, in-house, non-profit, government or as a freelance lawyer.  No matter what career path you choose, if you resign with dignity and keep your clients’ best interests at heart, you have a bright future ahead.

At LAWCLERK, we understand the job market can be tough, and navigating a transition in your career can be scary. However, you don’t need to burn any bridges by leaving on bad terms with your current employer.

To learn more about how we can help prepare for your future during this period of transition, check out our freelance lawyer program here. Whether you are looking to bridge the gap or for a new, remote career, we can help you freelance without fear of non-payment while maintaining unlimited control and flexibility.

Kristin Tyler

Kristin Tyler

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