Legal Ethics: Considerations for a Process-Driven Entry Into a New Law Firm
On December 27, 2021, and after 18 years building a law practice elsewhere, I joined Freeman Law, PLLC. The significance of the life decision to make the move caused me to look back and evaluate my professional career. Mainly, I asked myself “How did I get here?”, to which I eventually concluded: A Simple List. Integrity. Ethics. Process.
When I was in undergraduate school in the late 1990s, I landed a “runner” gig at a three-lawyer law firm in Lubbock, Texas. I was assigned to post mail, physically bates-label case records, and hand-deliver pleadings, motions and what not to the various state and federal courts for filing. (All of those job functions are now primarily accomplished electronically.)
With that experience and academic excellence otherwise, I applied for admission to Texas Tech University School of Law. The application was accepted, and I performed well, finding myself somehow in the top 10 of over 300 students after my first year. Eventually, I received an offer of employment from a large, downtown Dallas law firm. A few weeks after receiving a sizeable signing bonus, I returned it to Dallas, with gratitude, as I instead decided to join those three lawyers in Lubbock. That decision served me well. I enjoyed immediate access to the courtroom and best-in-class mentorship from excellent lawyers from whom I would benefit for a lifetime.
Alas, four years and two daughters born into that law practice, my family needed to move nearer to family in Dallas. I found myself having to inform those who had “brung me” that I would soon leave. That discussion was and remains, without question, the most difficult discussion of my life. But, I deliberately processed the matter, weighing the pros and cons with my family. I approached the situation thoughtfully with integrity and transparency, knowing that my professional family would fully support this life decision. They did, and at the time, I had not built much of my “own” law practice, so the exit process was seamless, albeit emotional.
So, I moved closer to family in Dallas and joined a 25-lawyer firm. I spent the next 14 years working high hours to build a respectable reputation and a solid law practice of my own within the firm. The experience was tremendously rewarding, and I grew as a lawyer and a leader.
Alas, and due to this and that, the time for a professional change of scenery arose. Seeking mentorship on the matter, I connected with my long-time friend, Jason Freeman at Freeman Law, PLLC. Jason and I have known each other since he and I were kids, and in recent years, he and I laughingly joked about “joining legal forces.” This time, however, the connection was more focused. And, with encouragement of my family and mentors, a decision was made to pursue a move to Freeman Law in earnest.
But, the thought of untangling 14 years of professional development resulted in worrisome and sleepless nights for this law practitioner. After weeks of that nonsense, I decided to take charge by instituting a process-driven approach to the professional transition.
For starters, I created a list; a “things to do.” One of the first action items was to evaluate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct and professional articles about leaving a law firm with excellence and ethics. Among the various Rules reviewed was Rule 15(d), which provides key instructions about what a lawyer must consider upon ending a representation, such as giving reasonable notice to the client, allowing the client time for employment of other counsel, and surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled. Rule 1.15 was incorporated into my plan, and it became a critical focus to ensure clients I had served for over a decade were protected and assured their legal needs would be met in my absence.
I also evaluated numerous professional articles on the subject, including a comprehensive article written in 1988 by Vincent R. Johnson, published by St. Mary’s University School of Law, and titled Solicitation of Law Firm Clients by Departing Partners and Associates: Tort, Fiduciary, and Disciplinary Liability. While the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct have changed in various ways since its publishing, that article contemplates numerous ethical challenges faced by lawyers who make a professional transition, and the article provided relevant guidance that I incorporated into the plan.
I also connected with my closest personal and professional consiglieres for guidance and counsel to ensure the plan I was developing remained above reproach and properly accounted for the various competing personal and professional interests involved in the matter.
I spent countless hours making sure my plan was prepared and processed with integrity, excellence, and ethics. The plan included carefully prepared messages for my employer law firm, clients, colleagues, and courts. I prepared an exit memo that detailed matters in progress, client information, and other. I scheduled movers to extract personal furniture from my office. I prepared a strategic sequence of events for delivery or execution of all action items, and when the moment was right, I tapped the first domino and the rest fell in sequence, mainly.
Having now gone through the process of leaving an established law practice to pursue a new professional opportunity, I understand that there is no way for a lawyer to create a perfect plan, and there is no one-plan-fits-all model. Each lawyer’s circumstance will be different in one way or another, if not numerous ways, not the least of which are timing, internal firm policy, and the nature of the lawyer’s practice. Most importantly, I learned, and ultimately came to terms with the certainty that even the most carefully and thoughtfully crafted exit-and-entry plan will have flaws in execution.
Building a successful law practice is difficult and takes a significant amount of time and professional drive. Unraveling and breaking free from a well-established practice can be equally difficult and even more emotionally taxing. But, a simple list and an integrity-filled and ethics-based plan can certainly mitigate sleepless nights and catapult a professional future. Hopefully that will prove true for me at Freeman Law, PLLC.