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Analyzing your portable book of business

By Sarina Sullivan

Sometimes it’s simply about the money. More than one-third (36 percent) of lawyers in a recent survey said they would be most enticed to make a lateral job change to another law firm by higher earnings potential.

Work-life balance ranked second as an incentive to leave their current employer, being chosen by 29 percent of survey respondents.

With increased interest in making a lateral move, it’s important to take into consideration the state of the economy.

The legal industry is particularly tight. With more open jobs than available candidates, law firms are feeling the pressure of the market.

Midsize and boutique law firms have a critical and growing need for experienced associates to help them expand high-demand practice groups. Lawyers with certain practice area expertise who can meet or exceed a firm’s portable business requirements often command above-market salaries.

A portable book of business comprises those clients and cases that will follow an attorney from one firm to another. These are relationships that hold value and loyalty to the individual attorney separate and apart from the law firm the lawyer may be working for at a given time.

If your portable book is large enough as an attorney looking to make a move, you have significant leverage relative to other job-seekers who don’t have as many portables.

Lateral candidates should take several factors into account when developing a reasonable estimate for their portable books of business:

  • Identify clients with whom you have a strong and direct connection, with whom you initially established a relationship and have continued to nurture and maintain it. Then, realistically evaluate if that client will likely want to carry on that business connection if you switch firms.
  • Determine if a client’s business may be “portable,” considering both your current firm and possible new firms you may join. Do you know if the new firms that you’re exploring charge competitive rates, specialize in areas of legal work important to your client, or have offices that are conveniently located to your client?
  • Evaluate if their business may conflict with that of your potential new firm’s clients. For example, a lawyer who has built a significant clientele relating to medical malpractice cases likely would not be able to bring that book of business to a firm that represents health care providers.
  • Expect that potential new employers may evaluate if there are potential conflict-of-interest issues that may disqualify applicants from consideration.

While considering the above, it’s also important to remember that restrictions exist that may impact the portability of your business.

The American Bar Association provides direction about the ethical responsibilities that a firm and a departing lawyer have to clients. Essentially, both must ensure that the client’s confidentiality is maintained and that the client’s representation is not adversely affected by the lawyer’s resignation.

ABA Formal Opinion No. 99-414 states that “notification of current clients is required” when a lawyer resigns, and offers guidance on ethical standards relating to when and by what methods that communication should occur.

For example, ideally, lawyers should inform the firm of their resignation before advising clients. However, the ABA opinion suggests that lawyers may tell clients of their departure prior to giving notice to the firm, but they may not solicit the clients’ business until after resignation.

Lateral candidates should also carefully consider relevant laws, state ethics rules, and other fiduciary and ethical regulations that relate to determining their potential books of business and appropriate solicitation of potential clients.

Ultimately, it’s up to clients whether they will follow attorneys to a new firm or continue to be represented by the current law firm.

With the proper preparation and planning, lateral moves can be more lucrative than the name suggests. Growing and developing a portable book of business takes significant time and effort but, if done right, will provide leverage in pursuing and securing your next career move.

Sarina Sullivan is vice president and branch manager of Robert Half Legal’s Boston office. She oversees a team of 15 specialized staffing professionals who provide service throughout New England.

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