In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of high-profile partners who jump from one law firm to another, often with a short tenure at the new firm. Although these types of moves are no longer uncommon, the media hype that surrounds them still can be quite sensational, with the message leading the reader – including clients, prospective clients and future potential laterals – to ask: “What went wrong?”

It is unfortunate that law firms do not do more to control the message in these situations. By not providing their own version of the story, a law firm leaves the door open for the media to fill the silence, typically through speculation and sensationalism.

You may be asking, “Why would I issue a press release about a partner leaving the firm?” You wouldn’t. But what you should do is be strategic and proactive in all other aspects of communication about the partner’s departure. Do not be fooled into thinking that it will remain quiet just because you do not announce the news and only those inside the firm know. It is very rare that this type of information remains unknown. Even if the departure of a partner from your firm doesn’t make front-page news, you can trust that the news will find its way to your clients and prospective clients.

To help make sure the message is a positive one, or at the very least a non-event, take a strategic approach to a departure communication plan that includes your internal and external audiences.

Internal Communication

Very little, if any, thought typically is given to the message circulated internally about the departure of a partner. What the attorneys tend to hear is the frustration the firm might feel at losing a partner, and what the staff tends to hear are the logistical issues that must be addressed. Whatever the reason for the departure of a partner, the first communication you send internally should be positive and should communicate the firm’s plan for “business as usual.”

Of course, the message must align with the firm’s reputation and the circumstances, but the goal is to control the tendency for people to make the departure a negative event by providing a positive message that is easily repeated and does not provide any negative details. For example, the message might be that the firm continues to attract, mentor and grow the most talented attorneys and is pleased to have been a part of the career of the departing attorney. 

Client Communication

It is critical that the firm communicate directly and immediately with key clients – both current and recently past – especially those with whom the departing partner works most closely. While some of those clients may leave the firm to follow the partner, this should not stop the firm from communicating with this audience in a positive way. The goal is the same as for your internal communication: Control the message.

It is recommended that the attorney who will take over the relationship be the person who contacts the clients, and the sooner the better. Do not allow enough time for the rumor mill to kick in. Be sure to thank the clients for their past loyalty to the firm and express the firm’s desire to continue to work with them.

Initial Public Relations

If the departing partner has a high profile in the business, legal or industry markets, the firm may want to contact, or have your publicist contact, one or two reporters who cover lateral partner moves. Issue a brief statement simply saying that the partner is moving, retiring, etc., and indicate that in no way does the departure disrupt client service. Be selective in whom you contact, and stick to the key messaging points being communicated internally and to clients.

State Bar Requirements

Be sure to prepare the appropriate staff or website vendor to address the requirements of the state bar guidelines governing your website with respect to a departing attorney. Most states will require that the attorney’s profile be removed from the website on the partner’s last day with the firm. Other areas may need to be addressed as well, such as representative client and experience lists, blog posts, etc.

Although they rarely yield more than a cursory mention in the media, law firms put a lot of effort into crafting press releases, as well as announcements, email blasts and social media campaigns when a lateral partner joins the firm. They take care to align the message with the firm’s reputation and current, or desired, position in the marketplace. However, firms tend to leave the message that will accompany partner departures to chance. The same strategic planning and message control should go into the departure of partners, particularly those with high visibility.

For guidance and consulting on matters involving law firm partner departures or other business management matters, contact Terry M. Isner at tisner@jaffepr.com.