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Attorney departures: 4 ways to keep business from walking out the door

by Mark R. Davey


4 ways of redefining the client relationship to retaining business

Time: 4 minute read

Traditionally, the relationship between a law firm and the client has almost exclusively involved an individual attorney: each attorney owned the book of business and could, if departing your firm, take clients with him or her. Now, you can benefit from intelligent workflows and smart technologies that optimize your legal practices — helping you to retain clients through change.

In most businesses, it is simply not that easy to have your clients transfer with you upon departure. Individual relationships can certainly influence a transfer of client. However, the strength of the company often outweighs the influence of the individual.

As legal business becomes more competitive, firms are trying to change the impulse for attorneys to take clients with them upon departure. They have to. As the number of lateral hires continues at a record pace, the movement of client business has become a threat to legal firms’ earnings. According to an ALM Legal Intelligence Survey1, 96% of law firms plan to laterally hire attorneys as a strategy to grow their business. Established firms are losing major clients at a higher rate than in the past. According to BTI Consulting2, 60% of large clients have replaced one of their two primary outside counsel, the highest turnover rate in seven years. And, 59% of new primary firms are from outside the Am Law 50. Hence, it’s safe to assume at least some replacement firms are established when an attorney leaves a large firm to start their own practice or work with another law firm, bringing their book of business with them.

Savvy firms are fighting the trend by redefining the client relationship and thereby retaining business. Here are four ways to do that.

Focus on team effort.
Rather than having one engagement partner own the relationship, spread client exposure to others members of the firm, including attorneys of a variety tenure, age, specialization and background. That not only broadens the relationship with the client, but also gives more opportunity and more responsibility to younger attorneys, which just might help keep them from departing the firm with the engagement partner or for another opportunity.

Use technology and policy to create stronger links
with clients and to temper attorney attitudes about their work product. You might arrange a meeting between your firm’s general counsel and the client’s in house counsel, for example, to review policies for retaining, coding and archiving documents. Such a meeting not only impresses a client with your attention to detail, it also creates closer personal and technical ties. If the client is happy with how the firm manages and secures their confidential records, they are less likely to go to the effort, expense and trouble of moving them to another firm. In fact, the technology and policies at a company play a major role in employee decisions to take data when they leave a firm, according to a recent survey3 by Biscom, a vendor of secure communications technology. The survey uncovered that one in four employees take sensitive company data when leaving a job. Most of them indicate they take their own work product and don’t feel wrong in doing so, primarily because their company did not have strong policies or technology in place to prevent it.

As the number of lateral hires continues at a record pace, the movement of client business has become a threat to legal firms’ earnings.


Educate your clients about all of your firm’s practice areas. You may be handling employment issues, such as sexual harassment suits, for a software company. But who handles their intellectual property business? Are they even aware of your IP practice? With corporations reducing and consolidating their legal spend, not to mention their recent willingness to switch outside counsel, your client may be eager to move more business to your firm. But that won’t happen unless they are informed about all of your expertise.

Remind clients of all you’ve done for them. If you sense that a client may leave with a departing attorney, ask to meet with the client first. Use that meeting to review the work you’ve done for the client, reminding them of the breadth and depth of your firm. Review not only the matters, but list all of the staff — not just attorneys but the litigation support staff, administrative support and records managers — your firm uses to support their business.


It’s important to focus on the long term view. Most of the suggestions above require a firm to rethink the way they handle clients, which can be difficult for a firm with a longstanding culture and way of conducting business.


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1 "Expect more lateral hires." October 17, 2012.
3 "Survey: Employees Take Sensitive Data When They Leave." January 26, 2016.
2 "60% of Clients Replace Their Primary Law Firm." March 18, 2015.
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