Much space here is devoted to building professional and profitable relationships at work.  But there are also work relationships that should end and some that end in any event.  While not minimizing the trauma and suffering often associated with divorce and other relationship losses outside of the office, the end of work relationships pose unique difficulties with potentially damaging repercussions over the long term, both personally and for the firm as a whole.

Ending Professional Relationships with Clients

Perhaps the hardest thing for a firm to do, particularly in this economic climate, is to terminate a client relationship.  Knowing who should and shouldn’t be clients is the touchstone of a successful practice and one that your firm should have a clear bead on. And also one that is enforced.

Once you have decided that a client relationship should end for whatever reason, knowing how to effectively end it can be critical.

  • Taking a client by surprise is always a mistake.  Hopefully you’ve planted a few seeds along the way as to why this is not an ideal arrangement.  If not, start tilling. 
  • Give the client fulsome and honest feedback.  Explain what policy or change in policy or what circumstance or behavior on their or your part has prompted the termination.  If the firm’s intake process was not working on all cylinders, acknowledge that.
  • Show your gratitude for their initial confidence in you and recognize any difficulties they may encounter in finding suitable alternative counsel. Making the transition easier for them may win you a reference for life. And avoid a lawsuit.
  • Follow up with questions about their transitional experience and how they’ve managed on the other side of your representation.

Perhaps even more traumatic can be the loss of a client that you don’t want to see go.  Interestingly enough, the above tips still apply, though sometimes in mirror image: good communication on your part should mean you are not taken by surprise by a client’s dissatisfaction; asking for feedback is highly important –this may be the only chance you get to hear what really isn’t working well at the firm; and gratitude, assistance and follow-up continue to be worthwhile even if it seems like they are throwing you out on the street. 

Best is to have a specific protocol for departing clients of all stripes that procedurally smooths the way and officially demonstrates your continued interest in their feedback and their business.

Ending Professional Relationships with Colleagues

Separating the chafe from the wheat is what many firms are doing these days.  Even when the chafe is a hard worker whom many in the firm like and confide in.  What can you do?

  • Again, if evaluations are being done right, this should not come as a surprise.
  • Acknowledge their strengths as well as their weaknesses and their various contributions to the firm.
  • Keep your message professional and not personal.
  • Give them time to transition and help with their job search as possible. Use this transition to turn them into a client or at least a booster.
  • Include them in alumni activities and encourage colleagues who are personal friends to stay in touch–this isn’t a witch burning, just a change in professional affiliation. 

Ending Personal Relationships with Colleagues

What is certain is that there is plenty of personal relationship-building going on at the office. CareerBuilder reports that almost 40% of workers admit to having had at least one affair with a co-worker. And in almost 30% of those cases, it was with someone up the ladder. Although the hospitality industry apparently wins the co-worker dating sweepstakes, the legal workplace’s "mixer" culture of bright, ambitious Type A’s working long hours together without much of an outside social life has often proved to be a romantic hotbed. (Working long hours together is number 4 in CareerBuilder’s list of top catalysts to co-worker relationships.) And tips on how best to snare legal colleagues of various stripes abound.  

The official firm position on these in-house relationships has morphed over the last 20 years, from what was initially no prohibitions to the more recent, sometimes draconian directives inspired by the specter of sexual harassment lawsuits.  While we won’t go into the legal liabilities here, achieving the appropriate balance of professional to personal with a former lover who you see regularly requires working much harder than if this were a breakup after which you saw the person twice a year for lunch, where big hugs and detailed, personal catch-ups and even a little flirting can be both friendly and appropriate.

So what to do when the Valentine’s Day chocolates are all eaten and the end arrives, whether the relationship was publicly known or entirely private?  (Almost 40% in the CareerBuilder’s report said they had to keep the affair under wraps.)  Keep the tears and confrontations strictly out of the office, regardless of how badly either of you behaved or are behaving. Avoid all temptations to badmouth, complain or declare your undying devotion within earshot of anyone you work with. Your goal is to wring every ounce of intimacy out of your professional interaction.  And a good place to start is in the private sphere–that  means no late night confessional calls or early morning regrets. Some habits die slowly but they will die.

If you have to fob off contact with the person in question in connection with one or more matters onto another lawyer, for either the short or long term, in order to maintain civility and/or professionalism, do so and do so graciously.  It’s worth the trouble.  Also, recuse yourself from any position that involves evaluation of the other person, their work, compensation or billing. Sure, you think you are objective, but not everyone does. And don’t indulge in "friendly" lunches until the breakup is way past.  It’s too confusing to everyone and could start the cycle all over again–it’s third on CareerBuilder’s list of catalysts to co-worker hookups.

Finally, if you think no one knew, you are wrong–a common self-deception by those who are inside the lovers’ bubble. Consider apprising the appropriate management people of the situation whether there are policies against the relationship or not.  After all, it’s over.  And they can help smooth the transition to less and/or more appropriate contact. Plus, they have a legitimate interest in assessing and managing any threats of firm liability for real or perceived discrimination.  In any event, fessing up is much better than being outed by someone else in the firm or by a lawsuit.

Stay-tuned for a discussion of the thornier but nonetheless recurring problem of personal relationships between lawyers and their clients–and their clients’ spouses.