A lawyer has a duty to communicate with and keep a client informed. Accordingly, to the extent that a lawyer’s departure from a firm affects a client’s legal matters, the client must be informed of the attorney’s departure. The duty of disclosure only applies to clients on whose active matters the departing attorney is responsible or plays a principal role. See ABA Formal Op. No. 99-414. Notice is typically not required where a departing lawyer’s connection with a client is so limited that the client will not be affected by the departure.
As to the precise timing, manner, and method of the disclosure to the client, the ultimate consideration is the client’s best interest and is to be determined on a case by case basis. Under any scenario, such notice should not be withheld too long. Fiduciary or contractual duties may require the departing attorney to advise the firm of the attorney’s intention to leave the firm and the attorney’s intention to notify clients of his or her impending departure, prior to informing the clients of the situation.
But there may be circumstances where the client needs advance notice of the departure to make a determination as to future representation. Some sophisticated clients may want to give advance approval to any possible new law firm. For such relationships, the lawyer may inform the client prior to notifying the law firm.
Notice can be provided by the departing lawyer, the departed law firm, or both jointly. But where practical, a joint written notice of the departure from the departing lawyer and the departure law firm to the affected clients is the preferred course of action to protect the client’s best interests.
If a departing attorney had significant contact with or actively represented a client on the client’s legal matters, the attorney may communicate with the client, either in writing or orally, to advise the client of the attorney’s departure from the firm. But in the communication, a departing attorney must not engage in professional conduct that involves dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or willful misrepresentation with respect to the attorney’s dealings with the firm.
An appropriate communication may advise the client of the fact of the attorney’s departure, the attorney’s new location, the attorney’s willingness to provide legal services to the client, and the client’s right to select which attorney to handle the client’s future legal representation. The departing attorney may also inform the client whether he or she will be able to continue the representation at his or her new law firm. The facts or circumstances surrounding an attorney’s departure from a law firm must not be misrepresented to clients.