Thinking of switching law firms? Be sure you take these steps, partners caution

More lawyers are at risk for bad career jumps as lateral movement is expected to continue its upward trend, two BigLaw partners say.

Activity among Am Law 200 firms reached a 3-year high in 2012, according to the American Lawyer.

“The worst of all worlds is for an attorney to give up her position at her old law firm only to learn that she cannot join the new firm,” McKenna Long & Aldridge partners J. Randolph Evans and Shari L. Klevens write in the Daily Report. “More often, attorneys changing law firms are (unpleasantly) surprised by the unexpected things that would have dramatically changed their decision.”

The duo outline steps for prospective laterals must take to avoid potential pitfalls when evaluating a new firm. In what may seem like obvious advice to some, Evans and Klevens stress the importance of obtaining and reviewing your current firm’s partnership agreement. “That agreement typically contains provisions explaining what will happen if an attorney leaves the partnership,” they write. “This can include potentially punitive provisions on the repayment of partnership capital and loss of the right to partnership draws. It also can include rights of the law firm to recover lost profits from ongoing representations and liabilities for post-departure claims based on pre-departure conduct.” Make sure any offer from your new firm eliminates or mitigates the consequences of leaving your current one.

Ethical boundaries are also wrought with challenges that stem from tension between full disclosure to a new law firm and maintaining the confidentiality that clients expect, an issue acknowledged by bar associations. Potential conflicts should be addressed before the negotiation process, as “contrary to what most law firms believe, an impermissible conflict can be created prior to the moment an attorney actually joins a law firm,” Evans and Klevens wrote.

For those in the midst of negotiations, “truth, candor and completeness are extremely important during this conflict resolution phase. The costs are simply too high for undiscovered conflicts to happen after the change from one firm to another,” according to the pair.

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