What to Do (and Not to Do) When You Are Leaving a Legal Job

Get tips on how to make a smooth transition.

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In any legal career, it’s inevitable that you’ll eventually leave a job. Maybe you’ll move on for a better opportunity, perhaps you’ll decide the law isn’t for you and move to a new career, or maybe you’ll just need to take some time off for personal reasons or to figure out your next step. Whatever your reason for leaving your job, it’s important to do it correctly so that you keep your reputation intact and don’t burn any bridges!

Here are some suggestions on what to do, and not to do, when you’re leaving a legal job.

What to Do:

It’s normal to feel anxious or guilty about leaving a job, but there’s no need to stress out needlessly. Follow these tips, and you’ll leave on the best possible terms.

  • Just do it. If you want to quit, and you’re sure it’s the right choice, don’t needlessly delay. People can tell when you’re not engaged, and no one wants a deadweight employee hanging on for months or years on end. Yes, leaving can be scary, but it’s better to pull the plug and move on if this isn’t the right job for you any longer. Everyone will be better off, in the end, and every day you delay is another day that your employer is relying on you and giving you additional work to do!
  • Wrap things up properly. Typically, you’ll provide some notice when you quit (two weeks is traditional, but some other period might be more appropriate in your individual situation). There’s rarely going to be a “good time” to quit a legal employer, but if you’re at trial, or working on a huge deal, do your best to leave after the case is finished. In any case, be sure you’ve documented any processes that need to be documented and left notes in any files you were working on, to help orientate your replacement. If you can, it’s often appreciated to offer to be informally “on call” for a few days or weeks after your official departure, just in case any major questions come up. Even if no one calls, it makes you look responsible and helpful.
  • Say your goodbyes personally. When you decide to leave, word will probably spread quickly, so think about who needs to know ASAP. Is there a partner you worked with frequently? Place a courtesy call (or drop by in person) as soon as you’ve given notice. Yes, it might be easier to let HR spread the word, but people really do appreciate a personal heads-up when you’ve had a close working relationship. In the same vein, be sure to have personal conversations with the people you care about in the firm, from the receptionist you say Hello to every day, to your coworkers and assistants. Don’t bad mouth anyone (see below), but taking few moments to express your gratitude for their ongoing support can help smooth your departure and lead everyone to think of you fondly after you go.

    What Not to Do:

    Now, here are some things you really ought not do when leaving a legal job!

    • Don’t delete your email. If you’re working in a legal context, chances are good all of your email is being automatically backed up, so deleting it won’t do much good. And you still shouldn’t do it! Deleting your email en masse makes it look like you’ve got something to hide, and might be a violation of your employer’s data retention policy. Check with your employer about what, if anything, they want you to clean up in your files or email, and strictly comply with the instructions you’re given. Anything else just looks suspicious (and probably won’t even do any good if you’re trying to hide something).
    • Don’t bad mouth anyone in your exit interview. The exit interview, should you be subjected to one, is not the place to express your true grievances. It’s a formality, and you should treat it as such. Say nice, vague things about your employer and your boss, and get out of there as quickly as possible. Obviously, you’re quitting for a reason, but no good can come of being honest in the exit interview! Word always gets around, and you might need these connections later, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time. Express appreciation for all you’ve learned, and move on.
    • Don’t be unprofessional. Even if you really, really hate the job you’re leaving, go graciously. (There’s a funny photo of me looking gleeful as I cleaned out my law firm office for the final time, but I did that late at night so no one at the firm would see it!) Have an elevator pitch ready to go when people ask you why you’re moving on. Something along the lines of, “I’ve really enjoyed my time here and I’ve learned a lot, but I’d like to do more client-facing work,” is sufficient. No one really cares about your reasons, unless you make a big deal out of how miserable you were, and how happy you are to be leaving. A little tact goes a long way!