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The legal and ethical issues around leaving a firm

When counsel leaves a law firm, correspondence with clients must alert them to the change and provide them with the options, Toronto lawyer Anatoly Dvorkin tells Lawyers Weekly.

Dvorkin, a partner at D2Law LLP in Toronto, tells the legal publication that regardless of a lawyer's relationships with clients and partners, counsel has to be aware of the rules of professional conduct. And that means correspondence with clients should notify them that the lawyer is leaving and that they have "three options: stay with the firm, follow the lawyer or go to a third party altogether."

He tells Lawyers Weekly that when he decided to leave his old firm, he worked on a letter with his soon-to-be ex-partners to minimize potential friction.

“You don’t want to take clients with you at the expense of being embroiled in litigation. It’s best if you can arrive at some agreement with your ex-firm,” he says.

The article, which details ethical and legal responsibilities associated with a lawyer leaving a firm, highlights how it's "not unusual for lawyers to move from one firm to another," but notes that 2014 will "undoubtedly be one of the busiest for such activity in the industry’s history." The publication points to the wake of the dissolution of Heenan Blaikie in February as a major reason for this.

"In all, about 500 lawyers in eight offices across the country will have relocated somewhere," states Lawyers Weekly.

The article raises some of the issues that can develop when a lawyer switches firms.

Before a lawyer announces to their firm that he or she is planning a change, Dvorkin recommends doing an "inventory of clients to get an idea who will follow and who will stay behind."

He notes that he called the Practice Management Helpline at the Law Society of Upper Canada before doing anything – just to be certain he wasn’t breaching any of rules.

“They echoed what I said. You can do a bit of a sales pitch but not a hard sell. You can tell them what you’re doing and that you'd be happy to continue serving them,” he tells Lawyers Weekly.

And to minimize paperwork, Dvorkin explains that he sent his clients an authorization and direction form to complete at the same time as he sent the letter explaining the client's options. This way, his clients could authorize the release of their files and direct any trust funds to him from his old firm.

“That way it’s all taken care of in one shot. You don’t have to go back (to your clients) for the administrative stuff,” he tells the publication.

Although in Dvorkin's case the dissolution wasn't acrimonious, he says in the article that not every partnership dissolution is harmonious so it's important to resist the temptation for departing lawyers to "slam" their former firm.

“You’ve got to be professional about it and not get into the dirty laundry with clients. You don’t want to be seen as saying anything negative about your old firm even if that’s the way you feel. It won’t look good on you and you don’t want your clients involved in that. You want to be impartial,” he tells Lawyers Weekly.

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