It’s Never Too Early to Think About GoodbyeMost lawyers will leave their firms. What do you want them to say after they’re gone?

With the litigation market soft and the deal market at least momentarily out of breath, there may be more lawyers finding themselves leaving their firms sooner than they had planned. Law firm managers have started using the dreaded O word again—O for overcapacity—and such talk is often a prelude to firings and other forced departures. The law firm market long ago lost its shock over such maneuvers. But as HR directors reach again for their sharpening stones, it’s worth remembering that a firm’s goal during these episodes is to reduce its head count, not make new enemies.

I raise this issue because I continue to meet law firm leaders who are surprised or distressed that some of their former lawyers are bad-mouthing them to recruiters, the press, and other interested parties. How long can these guys hate me? one asked recently. Given the bad blood, I thought, how about forever?

Some departures, like any divorce, will be ugly, full of wounded feelings and tightly gripped grudges. This takes a personal toll, of course, but also potentially a reputational one. The partners who are leaving—and occasionally some associates—may depart with thumb drives full of internal documents and satchels full of bile that, given the right opportunity, they will spill. There is little that a firm can do at the last minute to soothe these situations; waiting to talk about institutional loyalty until the menus are distributed at the farewell lunch will only lead to a second course of Maalox.

A better approach, given the realities of the marketplace, is to start thinking about the nature and quality of these departures as soon as the lawyers get hired. I know that sounds about as romantic as a prenuptial agreement, but it’s kinder and wiser for all concerned. It’s also realistic, given that most associates are gone within six years, income partners have the job security of adjunct faculty members, and even some equity partners now live in dread of getting caught losing a step.

If their departures seem inevitable, the attitudes they carry out the door are not. Those will depend on how the lawyers were treated during their time at the firm and what help, if any, they received as they left. Firms can’t fake these behaviors, at least not for long. Glib pronouncements about mission, training, or career development will wither in an atomized, Hobbesian atmosphere.

The law firm life cycle might be a gentler experience if firms dropped the pose that they are institutions devoted to retaining their talent. In a labor market that resembles (pick your metaphor) the main concourse of Union Station or a quantum mechanics experiment, that strains belief. Perhaps it would be simpler to just state the obvious truth: Most of you won’t be with us for long, but while you’re here, we will treat you right. And, when it’s time for you to go, we will help you onto the next rung. The latter point is crucial. Firms that behave as institutions understand those basic rules. Their exit strategies build loyalty, create future clients, and reduce the sting of an involuntary departure.

Firms face these issues with both associates and partners. The treatment of each group will not be the same. The investment in partners—professional and emotional—will be greater and the disappointment, on both sides, is apt to be sharper. In many cases their great flaw was an inability to generate their own business. The task of the firm Exit Officer becomes helping them find a new role where that skill will not matter as much.

An Exit Officer? Yes. Whatever the title—Career Advancement Officer is nicer, if a tad Orwellian—that job needs to be assigned to someone who will think as hard about the future of a firm’s talent base as the recruiting officer who manages the happy entry process. This is a vital role, one whose success will depend on partners using their contacts and other resources to help lawyers who are leaving. This work is self-defense, but it’s also a gesture of kindness on behalf of lawyers who are vulnerable and powerless to help you today. Great institutions behave with both self-interest and community interest.

So, to review: One way or another, most of your colleagues will leave—some on your terms, some on theirs. They will carry your brand on their resumes, in their work habits, and in their conversations, for the rest of their careers. They can help you, or they can hurt you. Forever.

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