Lawyers’ Responsibilities When Leaving a Law Firm

Lawyers who are contemplating leaving a firm, whether alone or as part of a group, are subject to obligations that are unique to this profession.  They must consider the business issues, but they are also charged with adhering to professional ethics rules that are unique to the practice of law.

The unique nature of the lawyer’s obligation when terminating a relationship with a firm follows from another aspect of a lawyer’s professional like that is unique to the legal profession – the restriction against agreements that restrict a lawyer’s ability to compete a former firm or employer.  Moreover, law firms have an obligation to assure that any clients who might be affected know of the lawyer’s departure.

At the same time, the relationship that attorneys have with clients, both the firm and the individual attorney, impose requirements not found in other professional relationships.

Lawyers Have Unique Standards of Conduct

Lawyers generally are not subject to agreements not to compete.  It is considered an infringement of a client’s right to select counsel of their choice and restraints upon a lawyer’s ability to leave a firm and continue practice elsewhere are subject to specific ethical prohibitions. Law firms and individual lawyers are subject to R.P.C. 5.6, which provides that

A lawyer shall not participate in offering or making:

(a) a partnership, shareholders, operating, employment, or other similar type of agreement that restricts the right of a lawyer to practice after termination of the relationship, except an agreement concerning benefits upon retirement …

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