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Dealing With Sudden Resignations: 5 Tips for the Small Firm Founder

You are in the middle of another busy day of legal practice when your star associate pops their head in your office. “Can I speak to you for a moment?” “Sure,” you say. The next thing you know, the associate is telling you they are resigning from their position and will be gone in four weeks.

This is the reality of the workplace; good associates and staff members move on. Why do people leave? Most often, it is to make a career move that better aligns with their goals. Sometimes, it is also about money. Or it can be because of problems in the workplace.

And here’s what’s true. When running a small firm with one or only two associates, a sudden departure can be destabilizing and highly problematic as a lot of unplanned work lands on your desk!

Yes, it can be a nightmare in the short term. And it is survivable.

Here are five tips for handling the – carpet pulled out from under you – moment:

  1. Give yourself time to process. If you cannot choke out those words of congratulations, or indeed cannot say anything positive, take a deep breath, and if appropriate, ask the departing associate to work on a transition plan that you can review together later. Explain you need some time and schedule a meeting at a later date.
  2. Notice and name the feelings that come up. “I notice I am feeling furious.” “I notice I am feeling sad and very anxious and stressed.” Understand that with sudden change, big emotions can emerge. You can’t stop this. You can only go with this.
  3. Do not vent or share these emotions with the departing employee or other staff. Do talk about your feelings in confidence with trusted friends or advisors. Expressing your thoughts and feelings will help you move through them and get back on an even keel.
  4. The departing employee likely won’t fully appreciate the challenges their departure presents. And they don’t need to. It is inappropriate to complain, exclaim, or lecture the departing employee about how much trouble they have caused. It is better to review their transition plan and focus on the day-to-day steps that need to be carried out.
  5. Don’t give up. The immediate instinct after a sudden resignation can be to say, “Never again.” At the moment, it may seem like too much work hiring and training someone just to have them leave. That could be a mistake. Solo practice is hard. With backup, getting time off email and away from clients and files is more manageable. It can also be lonely working solo. With associates, you can delegate. Annual revenues increase, and you can bring in support staff. Let some time pass before making any decisions.

Bottom line, breakups are hard. Losing good people from your firm hurts. They are often happy and excited about the new opportunity, and you are angry, sad, and stressed about the problems their departure causes. Take care of yourself. Turn to your friends for support. Chalk it up to one of those inevitable experiences in the snakes and ladders game of running a business.

Comments

  1. I’ve been running my small firm since 2015. Over the years, I’ve hired … 15 students, staff and associates, fired 3 and parted ways (amicably) with 2. The others were hired on contract. I currently work with a team of 8. My measure of success: I hear laughter in my office at least once per day and I get a lot of feedback from happy clients. I love coming to work.

    I agree with 80% of this post, but it feels stale/ out of date. I strongly agree with points #1, #2 and #5. In my view, point#4 leads to me to think there may have been poor communication in the office. Over time, I have learned to trust my colleagues. I try to foster a sense of “we are all in this together” mentality. If an associate does not appreciate or understand the consequences of a sudden departure, I would take this as a failure (on my part, as the owner) to communicate the potential repercussions.

    Along the same lines, I would have agreed with point #3 … 5 years ago? But no longer. This may be the old way. I’ve noticed, in particular with my younger staff (ages 20 to 35), they want to be informed and they want issues to be out in the open. I would encourage owners to share feelings/ emotions/ impressions to foster a team approach. On my side, I’m not interested in being the stoic old-school Boss. I have an open door policy and I want everyone to feel comfortable to share.

    It could be that my firm is not typical. We are basically a mini-UN. I have staff from Taiwan, Colombia, Bahamas, India, Ukraine and other countries. We are constantly dealing with complex, stressful files. We need to work as a team.

    For me, a sudden departure of a key associate would immediately trigger a staff meeting. I would face this situation from a holistic perspective and I would want to know if there were any underlying issues related to the health of the firm. Communication is key.

  2. Hi Alistair !

    Your firm sounds like a great place to work – with many of the elements of flourishing in place, open communication, collaboration, and a diversity of experience and perspectives.

    It is great to get feedback on an article, thanks for taking the time to share your perspective.

    I agree that open communication is a key part of a flourishing work place and my point in the article is that in the one instance – when a member of the team is leaving – it is not helpful to vent negative thoughts/emotions. I wrote this because I had in mind one firm where a senior partner would say negative things about departing associates and is had a bad impact on firm morale. I also remember when I left one large firm to join a smaller firm the managing partner made negative comments about my decision and its impact on my future that I still remember to this day.

    Ultimately, what I intended to convey is that handling an associate’s departure respectfully, and with professionalism, is good for firm morale, culture, and the image of the firm externally.

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