There are a lot of good reasons to leave your current job. Maybe you’re looking for a better fit for your lifestyle, or perhaps you’ve been offered a fantastic new opportunity.
Whatever the reasons, though, it’s important that you leave your legal job gracefully.
Leaving your current law firm to pursue a new opportunity can be as challenging as it is exciting, especially within the close-knit legal community.
Regardless of your role within your law firm, maintaining a positive relationship with your former employer is paramount. Your professional reputation is not only shaped by your competence, but also by your conduct and grace during periods of change.
In this article, we’ll present you with our top eight tips for leaving your current position gracefully and in a way that preserves relationships, safeguards your future career prospects, and leaves everyone remembering you as a true professional.
#1: Assess the situation and plan ahead
A good exit strategy is planned long before you hand in your notice.
In fact, prior to speaking with anyone about your decision, reflect on your reasons for leaving and get to the point where you can clearly articulate them to yourself.
Did you receive a better job offer? Are there pervasive issues or problems at your current workplace? Is one co-worker in particular driving you away?
The last two questions are particularly important.
If you’re in a toxic environment or have personal conflicts, you may want to make sure your exit doesn’t appear as a direct consequence — after all, the person (or people) you don’t vibe with may have a stellar reputation within your legal community. If they’re widely liked or respected, it won’t serve you to have known conflict with them.
Plus, even if you’re totally in the right, speaking negatively about a colleague gives the impression that you’re a complainer or hothead.
Instead, you might frame your departure around seeking new professional challenges, growth opportunities, or a better cultural fit for you. Aim to explain your exit in positive terms.
#2: Communicate with transparency and respect
Before you publicize your decision to leave, you should communicate to your direct supervisor.
Preferably, this should be done face-to-face (or via video call in remote work situations).
It is highly disrespectful for you to let them learn about your departure from someone else or through the office grapevine. Even worse, imagine your boss finding out through social media or from a partner at a firm where you interviewed.
When you meet with them, try to leave your emotions at the door.
Communicate your reasons for leaving in a constructive, authentic manner, focusing on your future career goals rather than any negative aspects of your current job (unless and until asked — and even then, proceed with caution).
In these conversations, assume that you’re going to work with this person again. Don’t unload on them.
#3: Give adequate notice
Everyone is familiar with the standard procedure of giving two weeks’ notice prior to leaving a job, and that is the norm at most law firms.
Nonetheless, before you announce your departure, you should consult the employee handbook to see if your law firm requires a greater or lesser notice period. You might not be able to give 30 days notice if your new job starts sooner, but do your best to be respectful of your current firm’s preferences.
Regardless of what the handbook says, understand that the firm may want you to leave sooner than you’ve planned.
It’s not uncommon for law firms to escort you out on the day you give your notice. For example, if you are working on a matter that involves highly confidential or sensitive information, the firm may want you to leave quickly to reduce your access to that material.
Occasionally, a firm might ask for extra time. If you are a key player in a complex, ongoing matter, for instance, the firm may request that you stay on until the matter is completed or until you’ve handed off the work to someone else.
In any event, you should try to provide sufficient time for the firm to find a suitable replacement and for you to hand over your responsibilities smoothly. Even if this doesn’t happen, your willingness to participate in a smooth handoff is a little bit of diplomacy that helps keep your reputation intact.
#4: Offer assistance during the transition
If you want to leave a positive impression with your current firm, offer to provide assistance with the transition.
This might involve finding or training your successor, documenting your work, or helping assign open projects to other personnel. Organizing your files and making sure that everything is named correctly and saved in the cloud is a huge help for the person who has to pick up where you left off.
Whatever you do, your goal should be to ensure that your departure does not disrupt the firm’s operations or overly burden the lives of your colleagues.
Again, this might not happen the way you want it to.
Trying to prepare your work for handoff before you give notice can tip off the observant that you’re planning an exit before you’re ready to speak up, and if you wait until you put in your notice, the firm might ask you to leave before this is done.
Making the offer still matters. It’s up to your firm whether or not they accept the help.
#5: Maintain professionalism until you walk out the door
If you want to leave your reputation intact as you leave your current firm, be sure to make your remaining time at the firm as productive and professional as ever.
While it will be tempting to slack off, take excessively long lunches, gossip, or share your grievances with colleagues, try to resist the temptation. These last couple of weeks will be one of the strongest memories for your colleagues — a poor exit can overshadow a long, productive career.
Maintaining a positive attitude will leave your colleagues and superiors with a good impression.
If it helps you get through your notice period, remember that all of these folks are potential referral sources for you at your new law firm. Start thinking of them as potentially valuable connections instead of just former coworkers.
#6: Write a farewell note
Even if you can’t stand your current job, there are probably people you’ve worked with who are meaningful to you.
In light of that, it is good form to exit with a thoughtfully-written farewell note, typically in an email.
Your note should share your appreciation for all the support and camaraderie you’ve received, focusing on the positive experiences you’ve had at the firm. If you’re a lawyer, don’t forget to specifically thank the paralegals, clerks, and assistants who undoubtedly made your life easier.
If appropriate, provide your new contact information and invite people to stay in touch. You’re becoming a networking resource at another firm, after all.
#7: Handle your exit interview with care
Most bigger firms schedule an exit interview to determine your true reasons for leaving.
Even if it isn’t automatically offered, however, consider requesting an exit interview with HR. This is an opportunity to provide constructive feedback about the firm, your work experience, and any issues that you believe should be addressed.
Remember, however, to remain diplomatic and professional in your feedback.
Even if you’re extremely disgruntled, you get to leave. Your constructive comments may help those who remain continue on in a less toxic environment.
At the same time, use your judgment to determine whether an exit interview will really be helpful to both you and your former firm. If you’re pretty sure that your comments will reflect negatively on you and are unlikely to be taken seriously by leadership, you might choose to keep your thoughts to yourself.
Either way, an exit interview is not a time for you to vent your feelings to human resources.
Just like we discussed in tip #2, keep it positive. Talk about what worked, address what didn’t work in a constructive way, and share any concerns dispassionately.
#8: Connect on Professional Networks
Assuming you’re leaving on good terms, consider keeping your former colleagues in your professional network.
Staying in touch with former co-workers can be good for your career.
Platforms like LinkedIn or other social media sites make it easy to stay connected. After all, everyone you’ve worked with in the past can serve as an avenue for future career opportunities.
It might be wise to directly ask supervisors or colleagues if they’re willing to serve as a professional reference for you in the future, especially if you’re leaving without another position lined up.
Leaving your law firm with your reputation intact
It really doesn’t matter whether you’re leaving your job due to an enticing opportunity elsewhere or because of less than ideal circumstances.
In either case, your exit can significantly impact your professional reputation.
With a well-planned and respectful departure, you can move to your new job smoothly, maintain important relationships, and pave the way for future success.
Remember, in the legal industry, your professional relationships and reputation can carry as much weight as your skills and expertise. This is a good opportunity to protect them.