The Headhunter: How to say goodbye to your law firm

Written by
David Namkung
The Lawyer's Daily

Published
Jan 19, 2018

Jan 19, 2018 • by David Namkung

In 2010, Steven Slater, a JetBlue flight attendant, made the news for his outrageous resignation. As his plane was taxiing, he reportedly had an altercation with a passenger, which was the final straw for an already disgruntled Slater. This incident prompted him to spew a string of profanities into the plane’s PA system, declare “... And that’s it, I’m done,” before grabbing two beers and triumphantly exiting by way of the plane’s emergency inflatable slide.

His story went viral as the public celebrated his cathartic departure. His resignation was epic, but it had consequences — Slater was later arrested and charged for a number of offences.

Depending on the circumstances, giving notice to an employer can often be multifaceted, anxiety-provoking and sensitive for both parties, so it is key to mindfully prepare for this discussion. As the one resigning, the way you approach this conversation can be pivotal for your career as how you say goodbye is often the most powerful and lasting impression you leave. To the extent possible, it is ideal to maintain bridges (and avoid criminal charges!) as past colleagues may refer you work down the road or, who knows, you may even return to the employer if circumstances change. Accordingly, here are some tips we suggest to departing lawyers in advance of resigning.

Raise your concerns with your employer  

Behind closed doors, one of the most common frustrations we hear from employers is that they never got the chance to address the lawyers’ reasons for leaving. You may have compelling reasons to believe that the nature of your issues aren’t actually fixable by the organization. Perhaps the employer has had a poor track record in dealing with this particular issue or perhaps the employer simply doesn’t desire or have the resources to resolve your concerns. Either way, where suitable, it is ideal to proactively raise your concerns to the employer in the regular course of business, especially if there is a chance you will stay if the matters are resolvable (for instance, money is usually a concern that can be more mechanically remedied, whereas individual habits and organizational culture are very difficult to immediately change).

A proactive discussion is more likely to gauge whether your employer is truly inspired to adapt to your feedback. Raising your concerns last minute, particularly after you have received an offer elsewhere, puts you and the employer in a mutually awkward spot. Any representations from the employer would effectively be coerced and once you have given notice, you raise the flag to the employer that your loyalty is not bulletproof, which can have the effect of eroding your goodwill internally.

Keep the initial conversation short  

Most employers aren’t emotionally prepared to hear unvarnished feedback in the heat of your departure, especially in more sensitive circumstances, so it can be optimal to keep your initial feedback pithy, short, and uncontroversial. Moreover, consider framing the conversation as positively as possible — it can be apt to express what you have been grateful for and to frame to discussion on how you are aiming to move forward as opposed to revisiting past disappointments.

From the employer’s position, attrition is bruising to the organizational ego so the employer is naturally prompted into a defensive posture when someone on their team unexpectedly moves to a direct or indirect competitor. Defensive employers are less likely to process feedback objectively and will be more likely to try to debate your reasons for moving for the sake of self-preservation. There is no upside to “debating” why you are leaving with the employer; no one wins in that exercise as your reasons for departure are typically not, at their core, academic.

Give thanks   

Rather than debating your employer, giving thanks and acknowledging the positive aspects of your time with the organization sets a more constructive tone to your departure. Acknowledging all of the people who have supported your practice and development can disarm tensions and allow you to frame the impression you want to leave with the organization. Even in toxic circumstances, there is usually room to consider gestures of gratitude, be it small tokens of appreciation to support staff, colleagues or management, to handwritten letters. These gestures, while small, can have an outsized impact on your goodwill with your former colleagues.

Delay substantive feedback until after dust settles   

Constructive feedback is critical — after all, it is the primary tool for self and organizational improvement. If you are so inclined, invite the possibility for further feedback but delay the conversation to when both parties are actually prepared to have an objective discussion, perhaps well after you have settled into your new role. We encourage departing lawyers to suggest to defer the conversation until there has been enough time for both parties to allow dust to settle, typically after 3-6 months post-departure. Many employers forget to follow up but those serious about adapting to feedback will circle back and ultimately be better positioned to properly listen and receive suggestions.

What do you want to be remembered for? Your professional reputation is critical to your long-term success and while much attention and energy is devoted to setting positive first impressions, the last impression you leave with an employer is equally pivotal, more revealing of your character and impactful of your long-term reputation.

David Namkung is a partner with The Counsel Network in Vancouver and president of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (B.C. Chapter). You can follow him on Twitter @DNamkung or find him on LinkedIn.

This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily (www.thelawyersdaily.ca), part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

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