Legal Ethics

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Ethical Obligations When a Lawyer Changes Firms

By William Wernz posted 06-26-2020 10:51


A lawyer's ethical obligations upon withdrawal from one firm to join another derive from the concepts that clients’ interests must be protected and that each client has the right to choose the departing lawyer or the firm, or another lawyer to represent him. The departing lawyer and the responsible members of her firm who remain must take reasonable measures to assure that the withdrawal is accomplished without material adverse effect on the interests of clients with active matters upon which the lawyer currently is working. The departing lawyer and responsible members of the law firm who remain have an ethical obligation to assure that prompt notice is given to clients on whose active matters she currently is working. The departing lawyer and responsible members of the law firm who remain also have ethical obligations to protect client information, files, and other client property. The departing lawyer is prohibited by ethical rules, and may be prohibited by other law, from making in-person contact prior to her departure with clients with whom she has no family or client-lawyer relationship. After she has left the firm, she may contact any firm client by letter.

When a lawyer ceases to practice at a law firm, both the departing lawyer and the responsible members of the firm who remain have ethical responsibilities to clients on whose active matters the lawyer currently is working to assure, to the extent reasonably practicable, that their representation is not adversely affected by the lawyer's departure. In this Opinion, the Committee addresses obligations under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct that a lawyer has when she leaves one law firm for another, including the following: (1) disclosing her pending departure in a timely fashion to clients for whose active matters she currently is responsible or plays a principal role in the current delivery of legal services (sometimes referred to in this Opinion as “current clients”); (2) assuring that client matters to be transferred with the lawyer to her new law firm do not create conflicts of interest in the new firm and can be competently managed there; (3) protecting client files and property and assuring that, to the extent reasonably practicable, no client matters are adversely affected as a result of her withdrawal; (4) avoiding conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation in connection with her planned withdrawal; and (5) maintaining confidentiality and avoiding conflicts of interest in her new affiliation respecting client matters remaining in the lawyer's former firm.1

The departing lawyer also must consider legal obligations other than ethics rules that apply to her conduct when changing firms, as well as her fiduciary duties owed the former firm. The law of agency, partnership, property, contracts, and unfair competition impose obligations that are not addressed directly by the Model Rules. These obligations may affect the permissible timing, recipients, and content of communications with clients and which files, documents, and other property the departing lawyer lawfully may copy or take with her from the firm. Although the Committee does not advise upon issues of law beyond the Model Rules, we must take account of other law in construing the Rules; so must the departing lawyer before determining an appropriate course of action.

Notification to Current Clients Is Required

The impending departure of a lawyer who is responsible for the client's representation or who plays a principal role in the law firm's delivery of legal services currently in a matter (i.e., the lawyer's current clients), is information that may affect the status of a client's matter as contemplated by Rule 1.4.2 A lawyer who is departing one law firm for another has an ethical obligation, along with responsible members of the law firm who remain, to assure that those clients are informed that she is leaving the firm. This can be accomplished by the lawyer herself, the responsible members of the firm, or the lawyer and those members jointly. Because a client has the ultimate right to select counsel of his choice,3 information that the lawyer is leaving and where she will be practicing will assist the client in determining whether his legal work should remain with the law firm, be transferred with the lawyer to her new firm, or be transferred elsewhere. Accordingly, informing the client of the lawyer's departure in a timely manner is critical to allowing the client to decide who will represent him.4

Notification of Current Clients is Not Impermissible Solicitation

Because she has a present professional relationship with her current clients, a departing lawyer does not violate Model Rule 7.3(a) 5 by notifying those clients that she is leaving for a new affiliation. Under Rule 7.3(a), the departing lawyer is, however, prohibited from making in-person contact with firm clients with whom she does not have a prior professional or family relationship. A lawyer does not have a prior professional relationship with a client sufficient to permit in-person or live telephone solicitation solely by having worked on a matter for the client along with other lawyers in a way that afforded little or no direct contact with the client.6 The departing lawyer nevertheless may contact the client through written or oral recorded communication pursuant to Rule 7.2(a), subject to the limitations in Rules 7.1, 7.3(b), and 7.3(c), at least after the lawyer has departed the firm and joined the new firm.7

The Committee also is of the opinion that a departing lawyer must, under Rule 1.16(d),8 take steps to the extent practicable to protect her current clients’ interests. Moreover, the responsible members of the former firm must themselves comply with Rule 1.16(d) respecting all clients who select the departing lawyer to represent them, whether or not they are current clients of the departing lawyer.9

A lawyer's duty to inform her current clients of her impending departure is similar to a lawyer's obligation to inform clients if the lawyer will be unavailable to provide legal services to them for an extended period because of major surgery or an extended vacation.10 In all of these situations, the clients have a right to know of the impending absence so that they can make informed decisions about future representation, even though the lawyer who temporarily will be unavailable is likely to believe that other lawyers in the firm are fully capable of handling the clients’ matters during her absence.

The Initial Notice Must Fairly Describe the Client's Alternatives

Any initial in-person or written notice informing clients of the departing lawyer's new affiliation that is sent before the lawyer's resigning from the firm generally should conform to the following:

1) the notice should be limited to clients whose active matters the lawyer has direct professional responsibility at the time of the notice (i.e., the current clients);

2) the departing lawyer should not urge the client to sever its relationship with the firm, but may indicate the lawyer's willingness and ability to continue her responsibility for the matters upon which she currently is working;

3) the departing lawyer must make clear that the client has the ultimate right to decide who will complete or continue the matters; and

4) the departing lawyer must not disparage the lawyer's former firm.11

The Departing Lawyer Should Provide Additional Information

In order to provide each current client with information he needs to make a choice of counsel, the departing lawyer also may inform the client whether she will be able to continue the representation at her new law firm.12 If the client requests further information about the departing lawyer's new firm, the lawyer should provide whatever is reasonably necessary to assist the client in making an informed decision about future representation, including, for example, billing rates and a description of the resources available at the new firm to handle the client matter.13 The departing lawyer nevertheless must continue to make clear in these discussions that the client has the right to choose whether the firm, the departing lawyer and her new firm, or some other lawyer will continue the representation.

Joint Notification By the Lawyer and the Firm is Preferred

Far the better course to protect clients’ interests is for the departing lawyer and her law firm to give joint notice of the lawyer's impending departure to all clients for whom the lawyer has performed significant professional services while at the firm, or at least notice to the current clients.14 Unfortunately, this is not always feasible when the departure is not amicable. In some instances, the lawyer's mere notice to the firm might prompt her immediate termination. When the departing lawyer reasonably anticipates that the firm will not cooperate on providing such a joint notice, she herself must provide notice to those clients for whose active matters she currently is responsible or plays a principal role in the delivery of legal services, in the manner described above, and preferably should confirm the conversations in writing so as to memorialize the details of the communication and her compliance with Model Rules 7.3 and 7.1.15

Law Other Than the Model Rules Applies to the Departure

In addition to satisfying her ethical obligations, the departing lawyer also must recognize the requirements of other principles of law as she prepares to leave, especially if she notifies her current clients before telling her firm she is leaving. For example, the departing lawyer may avoid charges of engaging in unfair competition and appropriation of trade secrets if she does not use any client lists or other proprietary information to assist her in advising clients of her new association, but uses instead only publicly available information and what she personally knows about the clients’ matters.16

Charges of breach of fiduciary and other duties owed the former firm also might be avoided if the departing lawyer and her new firm go no further than the permissible conduct noted in Graubard Mollen v. Moskovitz 17 and avoid the conduct the court found actionable, such as secretly attempting to lure firm clients to the new firm (even when the departing lawyer originated and had principal responsibility for the clients’ matters) and lying to clients about their right to remain with the old firm and to partners about the lawyer's plans to leave. Although this case involved civil litigation, other courts have imposed discipline on lawyers for similar conduct because it involves dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation in violation of Rule 8.4(c).18

Entitlement to Files, Documents, and Other Property Depends on The Model Rules and Other Law

A lawyer moving to a new firm also may wish to take with her files and other documents such as research memoranda, pleadings, and forms. To the extent that these documents were prepared by the lawyer and are considered the lawyer's property or are in the public domain, she may take copies with her. Otherwise, the lawyer may have to obtain the firm's consent to do so.

The Committee is of the opinion that, absent special circumstances, the lawyer does not violate any Model Rule by taking with her copies of documents that she herself has created for general use in her practice. However, as with the use of client lists, the question of whether a lawyer may take with her continuing legal education materials, practice forms, or computer files she has created turns on principles of property law and trade secret law. For example, the outcome might depend on who prepared the material and the measures employed by the law firm to retain title or otherwise to protect it from external use or from taking by departing lawyers.

Client files and client property must be retained or transferred in accordance with the client's direction.19 A departing lawyer who is not continuing the representation may, nevertheless, retain copies of client documents relating to her representation of former clients, but must reasonably ensure that the confidential client information they contain is protected in accordance with Model Rules 1.6 and 1.9.


Both the lawyer who is terminating her association with a law firm to join another and the responsible members of the firm who remain have ethical obligations to clients for whom the departing lawyer is providing legal services. These ethical obligations include promptly giving notice of the lawyer's impending departure to those current clients on whose matters she actively is working.

The lawyer does not violate any Model Rule in notifying the current clients of her impending departure by in-person or live telephone contact before advising the firm of her intentions to resign, so long as the lawyer also advises the client of the client's right to choose counsel and does not disparage her law firm or engage in conduct that involves dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. After her departure, she also may send written notice of her new affiliation to any firm clients regardless of whether she has a family or prior professional relationship with them.

Before preparing to leave one firm for another, the departing lawyer should inform herself of applicable law other than the Model Rules, including the law of fiduciaries, property and unfair competition. She also should take care to act lawfully in taking or utilizing the firm's information or other property.

1  This Opinion addresses mainly the obligations of the departing lawyer. Nevertheless, the firm members remaining, and especially those with supervisory responsibility, have an obligation under the Rules of Professional Conduct, and may have obligations as well under other law, to assure to the extent reasonable practicable that the withdrawal from the firm is accomplished without material adverse effect on any clients’ interests, especially clients on whose active matters the departing lawyer currently is working. Cf. ABA Informal Opinion 1428 (1979), decided under the former Model Code of Professional Responsibility, and California Bar Ethics Op. No. 1985-86, 1985 WL 57193 *2 (Cal. St. Bar. Comm. Prof. Resp. 1985), both of which place the responsibility of notifying clients upon the departing lawyer and her firm. Among remaining firm members’ ethical obligations are to make reasonable efforts to ensure that there are in effect measures: (1) to keep clients informed pursuant to Rule 1.4(b) of the impending departure of a lawyer having substantial responsibility for the clients’ active matters; (2) to make clear to those clients and others for whom the departing lawyer has worked and who inquire that the clients may choose to be represented by the departing lawyer, the firm or neither (see Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers §26 cmt. h (Proposed Official Draft 1998); (3) to assure that active matters on which the departing lawyer has been working continue to be managed by remaining lawyers with competence and diligence pursuant to Rules 1.1 and 1.3; and (4) to assure that, upon the firm's withdrawal from representation of any client, the firm takes reasonable steps to protect the client's interests pursuant to Rule 1.16(d). See infra, n.4 and accompanying text. This Opinion does not address the issue of a division of fees between the departing lawyer and her law firm.

2  Rule 1.4 (Communication) states:

(a) A lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.

(b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.

Comment [1] to Rule 1.4 provides that “the client should have sufficient information to participate intelligently in decisions concerning … the means by which they [the objectives of the representation] are to be pursued.…”

3  Rule 1.16 (Declining Or Terminating Representation) in paragraph (a)(3) states in pertinent part that a lawyer “shall withdraw from the representation of a client if … the lawyer is discharged.” See also Comment [4]; Restatement §26 cmt h, supra n.1.

4  State ethics opinions also have determined that, under the Model Rules, a departing lawyer has an ethical duty to inform current clients that she is leaving the firm. See, e.g., District of Columbia Bar Legal Ethics Committee Op. No. 273 (1997); State Bar of Michigan Std. Com. on Prof. and Jud. Ethics Op. No. RI-224, 1995 WL 68957 (Mich. Prof. Jud. Eth. 1995). See also Rule 1.16(d), infra n.8. The ABA Committee gave approval under the former Model Code of Professional Responsibility for a partner or associate who is leaving one firm for another to send an announcement soon after departure to those clients for whose active, open, and pending matters the lawyer had been directly responsible immediately before resignation. Informal Opinions 1457 (1980) and 1466 (1981). These opinions did not, however, address the question whether the departing lawyer might send notices to any clients before resigning.

5Model Rule 7.3(a) states:

A lawyer shall not by in-person or live telephone contact solicit professional employment from a prospective client with whom the lawyer has no family or prior professional relationship when a significant motive for the lawyer's doing so is the lawyer's pecuniary gain.

6  The rationale for the prohibition is that “there is a potential for abuse inherent in direct in-person or live telephone contact by a lawyer with a prospective client known to be in need of legal services.” Rule 7.3, Comment [1]. The rationale for the exception is that “[t]here is far less likelihood that a lawyer would engage in abusive practices against an individual with whom the lawyer has a prior personal (sic) or professional relationship….” Rule 7.3, Comment [4]. The Committee views the exception under Rule 7.3(a) to permit in-person solicitation only of those current clients of the firm with whom the lawyer personally has had sufficient professional conduct to afford the client an opportunity to judge the professional qualifications of the lawyer and as not extending beyond the text of the Rule to apply to firm clients with whom her relationship is solely personal and not professional. See, e.g., N.C. Bar Opinion 200, 1994 WL 899607 (N.C. St. Bar 1994) (lawyer after departure may contact clients of firm for whom he has been responsible); Arizona Comm. on Rules of Professional Conduct Op. No. 91-17 (June 10, 1991) (permissible before departure to notify clients with whom he had a personal, professional relationship); Kentucky Bar Opinion E-317 (1987) (permissible before departure to notify clients whom he personally represented of his impending departure).

7  Lawyers are permitted, subject to certain limitations, “to make known their services not only through reputation but also through organized information campaigns. Rule 7.2, Comment [1]. Rule 7.2 permits not only general advertising, but also targeted “written or recorded communication.”

8Model Rule 1.16(d) states:

Upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall take steps to the extent reasonably practicable to protect a client's interests, such as giving reasonable notice to the client, allowing time for employment of other counsel, surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled and refunding any advance payment of fee that has not been earned. The lawyer may retain papers relating to the client to the extent permitted by other law.

9  If a current client chooses to remain with the firm or to move with the departing lawyer to her new firm, the lawyer(s) selected must continue the representation unless withdrawal is necessary under Rule 1.16(a) or permissible under Rule 1.16(b). In the Committee's opinion, “other good cause for withdrawal” does not exist under Rule 1.16(b)(6) solely because the client's matter is difficult or time consuming or has little chance of success, so long as no other enumerated predicate for withdrawal exists.

10Cf. Passanante v. Yormack, 138 N.J.Super. 233, 238, 350 A.2d 497, 500 (N.J. 1975), cert. denied, 704 N.J. 144, 358 A.2d 199 (N.J. 1976) (lawyer has implicit obligation to inform clients of failure to act for whatever cause to permit clients to engage another lawyer).

11  ABA Informal Opinion 1457 (1980) found consistent with the Model Code of Professional Responsibility the timing, content, and choice of recipients of a form letter announcement by a lawyer that he had resigned from a law firm to become a member of another firm sent “soon after making the change to clients (and only those clients) for whose active, open, and pending matters he was directly responsible as a member of the ABC law firm immediately before his resignation.” The form letter stated that the client had a right to decide how and by whom the pending matters would be handled and did not urge the client to choose the departing lawyer over the firm. In ABA Informal Opinion 1466 (1981), Opinion 1457 was extended to include associates, assuming the same fact pattern. The Committee there noted it “does not determine or advise upon issues of law,” but then distinguished the facts presented to the Committee from the facts shown in Adler v. Epstein, 393 A.2d 1175 (Pa. 1978), cert. denied, 442 U.S. 907 (1979) (departing group of associates enjoined from actively soliciting clients of old firm as part of pre-departure efforts to borrow money on the basis of the clients). Today we reject any implication of Informal Opinions 1457 or 1466 that the notices to current clients and discussions as a matter of ethics must await departure from the firm.

12  The departing lawyer must ensure that her new firm would have no disqualifying conflict of interest in representing the client in a matter under Rule 1.7, or other Rules, and has the competence to undertake the representation. In order to do so, she may need to disclose to the new firm certain limited information relating to this representation. When discussing an association with another firm, the departing lawyer also must be mindful of potentially disqualifying conflicts of interest in her old firm if the new firm currently represents any client with interests adverse to a client of the old firm. Should such a client be identified, the departing lawyer may need to be screened within the old firm no later than the commencement of serious discussions with the new firm. See ABA Formal Opinion 96-400. Lastly, the departing lawyer also might find that her work in her former firm would, upon her arrival at the new firm, create a conflict of interest under Rule 1.9 with one of her new firm's clients requiring the creation of a screen that, subject to the affected clients’ consents in most jurisdictions, would avoid imputation of her individual conflict of interest to her new firm under Model Rule 1.10(a).

13  In this respect, we agree with D.C. Bar Legal Ethics Opinion 273 (1997), “Ethical Considerations of Lawyers Moving From One Private Firm to Another.”

14  Cal. Bar Ethics Op. No. 1985-86, 1985 WL 57193 at *2, supra, n.1, interprets the California Rule to require both the departing lawyer and the law firm to provide fair and adequate notice of the withdrawal to the client sufficient to allow a client an opportunity to make an informed choice of counsel, and states that, where practical, the notice should be made jointly. ABA Informal Opinion 1428 (1979) suggested that, under the Model Code, both the departing lawyer and the law firm had an obligation to give the client “the choice as to whether or not the client wishes the firm to continue handling the matter or whether the client wishes to choose another lawyer or legal services firm.” See also Cleveland Bar Opinion 89-5 (under the Model Code, either the departing lawyer or the law firm must give due notice to those clients of the former firm for whose active, open, and pending matters the lawyer is directly responsible).

15  The responsible members of the law firm must not take actions that frustrate the departing lawyer's current clients’ right to choose their counsel under Rule 1.16(a) and Comment [4] by denying access to the clients’ files or otherwise. To do so may violate the responsible members’ ethical obligations under Rules 1.16(d) and 5.1.

16See, e.g., Siegel v. Arter & Hadden, 85 Ohio St. 3d 171, 707 N.E.2d 853 (Ohio Sup. Ct. 1999) (unresolved fact issues precluded summary judgment on unfair competition and trade secret counts because of departing lawyer's use of client list with names, addresses, telephone numbers and matters and fee information, despite notice to firm before notice to clients). See also Shein v. Myers, 394 Pa. Super. 549, 552, 576 A.2d 985, 986 (Pa. 1990), appeal denied, 533 Pa. 600, 617 A.2d 1274 (Pa. 1991) (“breakaway” lawyers tortiously interfered with contract between their former firm and its clients by taking 400 client files, making scurrilous statements about the firm, and sending misleading letters to firm clients). In a joint opinion, the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Bars warned that notice to clients before advising the firm of her intended departure “may be construed as an attempt to lure clients away in violation of the lawyer's fiduciary duties to the firm, or as tortious interference with the firm's relationships with its clients.” Pa. Bar Ass'n Comm. on Legal Ethics and Prof. Resp. Joint Op. No. 99-100, 1999 WL 239079 *2. (Pa. Bar. Assn. Comm. Leg. Eth. Prof. Resp. 1999). The Committee also noted that the “prudent approach” is for the departing lawyer not to notify her clients before advising the firm of her intention to leave to join another firm. Id.

17  86 N.Y.2d 112, 653 N.E.2d 1179 (1995). The Court stated that a departing lawyer's efforts to locate alternative space and affiliations would not violate his fiduciary duties to his firm because those actions obviously require confidentiality. Also, informing firm clients with whom the departing lawyer has a prior professional relationship about his impending withdrawal and reminding them of their right to retain counsel of their choice is permissible. Id. at 1183. A departing lawyer should, of course, consult all case law applicable in the practice jurisdiction.

18See, e.g., In the Matter of Cupples, 979 S.W.2d 932, 935 (Mo. 1998); In re Cupples, 952 S.W.2d 226, 236-37 (Mo. 1997) (separate disciplinary proceedings against involving the same lawyer in connection with his departure from two different law firms, the court held that the lawyer's conduct, which included secreting client files as he prepared to withdraw from a firm, removing files without client consent, failing to inform client of change in nature of the representation, and other actions constituted conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation in violation of Missouri's counterpart to Model Rule 8.4(c)). See also In re Smith, 853 P.2d 449, 453 (Or. 1992) (Before leaving law firm, lawyer met with new clients in his office, had them sign retainer agreements with him, and took files from the office. In imposing a four (4) month suspension from practice of law, the Court stated that “[a]lthough there is no explicit rule requiring lawyers to be candid and fair with their partners or employers, such an obligation is implicit in the prohibition of DR 1-102(A)(3) against dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”).

19See Model Rule 1.16(d), supra, n.8. Pending client instructions, client property must be held in accordance with Model Rule 1.15.