Career Audit

Leave ’Em, But Love ’Em

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The fantasy probably has crossed many lawyers’ minds: After years of hard work and excellent results that haven’t been appreciated, they get a better job. On the way out the door after the final day at the office, they take the op­portunity to tell a few people off—or, heck, even send an e-mail to the entire firm before signing off for the last time.

What a chance to make everyone know the joy of heading for greener pastures! Such fantasies can be cathartic. But don’t make them a reality, experts say. There may be momentary pleasure in venting legitimate frustrations.

In the long run, though, life will be a lot happier for leaving graciously.

“You don’t want to burn bridges. You really don’t want to say anything negative, even if you’re specifically invited to do so,” says Carol Kanarek, a New York City attorney who works as a career counselor for lawyers.

“It’s a small world. Your reputation can be messed up, and you’re closing the door to a reference letter” by being negative, agrees Dianne Y. Sundby, a Los Angeles psychologist who frequently counsels lawyers on their careers. “Who knows? Your boss may wind up working in a firm or a corporation somewhere that you may want to work in, either as a lawyer or as something else.”

Leaving a law firm job, voluntarily or at the partnership’s request, is a lot like breaking up with a spouse or romantic interest, says Michael P. Maslanka, a Dallas employment lawyer who is a partner in his firm.

“If you tell them, ‘It’s not you—it’s me,’ that makes it go down so much easier” with partners who may be hurt by the departure, he says. “Be polite, be kind, and take the burden upon yourself. Don’t blame the firm for not meeting your needs.” Instead, talk about the opportunities that you are looking forward to, and tell the partners, “I’ll always think highly of this firm,” Maslanka says. “Even if that’s not 100 percent truth, it’s always better to gild the lily a little bit.” Kanarek recommends sending a gracious, short and sweet farewell e-mail to the entire firm, as well as thanking individual attorneys and staff.

“Even if it is not a happy situation overall, there are generally some people that you have good feelings toward,” she says. “And it’s always good to thank someone who you care about for the opportunities they’ve given you.”

Bottom line, though: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” Kanarek says.

Remember Your Rep

The worst mistake a departing attorney can make is to send a vitriolic e-mail blasting the firm, Kanarek says. “Those things get spread like wildfire,” so the message could soon be circulated throughout the country as an example of an attorney run amok. “If you want to vent, write a letter and then don’t send it,” Sundby suggests. “Or spend an hour talking to somebody like me.”

Remember, the experts say, any criticism could hurt the departing lawyer’s professional reputation, and that is a lawyer’s stock in trade.

Many attorneys who have felt mistreated at some point in law practice later wind up referring business to—and receiving referrals from—some of the very same colleagues who once made life difficult at the former workplace.

Also, it’s not unheard of for unhappy attorneys to reverse course, Sundby says. “I’ve worked with people who have made a return after finding that the grass was not greener. They wind up saying, ‘I’ve made a mistake and I’d like to come back. Will you consider me?’ ”

And, Sundby says, “They were welcomed back with open arms.” Provided they didn’t leave by closing the door.

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