Lawyers as Employees: The Current Rise in Law Firm Exodus
By John Myers and Doris Little
More frequently we are reading of another large exit of attorneys and practice groups from one major firm to another. The ABA reported that in 2021, nearly 25% of associates left their law firms*. The American Lawyer continues to report on large percentages of practice groups moving from one firm to another as West Coast firms expand, cultures change, and practice models change.
As part of management of your firm, you know that your practice depends on quality clients and long-term relationships. The management of business for your client and its litigation is nearly 100% digital now. These digital assets can leave you with little or no warning by many different avenues.
Whether joining another firm or breaking off to form smaller law firms, the need for “portables,” (revenue-generating clients) is paramount to success. Since the corporate client makes decisions about their law firm based on relationship strengths, their ability to serve the needs of the client, and ease of doing business, many clients will leave with exiting attorneys for those same reasons.
What you may not realize is that the negotiations for your exiting attorneys or practice groups can begin as far back as 18 months from the time you are given notice. The digital devices you collect when given notice will appear to have the audit trails of the taking of data deleted. Many firms do not have the internal resources to check for uncommon transfers or unusual patterns or to break into deleted or overwritten data. It must be remembered also that data can be transferred through multiple personnel from the attorney to the secretary to IT, and those assets examined in connection with each other to expose patterns or unusual deletion and movement of data.
Data Can Leave Your Firm in Uncommon Ways
Since the taking of assets begins long before you have an inkling that your attorneys are leaving, the digital crime scene may include the preceding year or two. Here are some methods we have discovered through our investigations:
OneDrive (personal and corporate)
Other online storage sites
FTP (sophisticated user)
Email to client, back to custodian
Save to phone
Preventative Measures: Managed Security of Data and Periodic Audit
In order to maintain the confidentiality of company data, more than one employee should be knowledgeable about password-protected files and aware of all changes. These employees must also have the capability to override passwords created by employees.
Employees should not have administrative rights to their computer. There are a few things that businesses should do to keep their employees from causing more damage. They can’t install any software or hardware, shouldn’t be able to either create CDs/DVDs for themselves or copy data onto USB drives unless it is truly necessary with business necessities only!
Theft of data is an unfortunate reality for any business. Committed employees will still take your information, and if this occurs, you must quickly establish two things: 1) The employee took it without consent and 2) your firm was damaged by that theft. Forensics specialists can find documented cases where someone’s conduct has lead to damage due to their specialization, software and prior experience in digital asset investigations.
There are also proactive steps you can take now to reduce your risk and automatically notify your firm when these types of activities occur with uncommon ways in taking data. Companies, including ours, have a managed service program which monitors for unusual patterns in user groups, unusual methods of data leaving your firm, and large amounts of data transfer very inexpensively.
What to Do When You Suspect a Departure
Just as your clients retain your firm because of your expertise in areas where they have business problems. Similarly, we recommend hiring an expert in law firms and forensic review for interrogation and protection expertise, who look for uncommon device use patterns, attempts to transfer or erase data or encrypt devices, and the time frames involved in these employee departures to protect your information as soon as these patterns surface which is generally months before you get an inkling an individual or group is leaving.
When collecting firm assets from a departing group, there are always a handful of things that must be done. The order in which they are completed is important, but so is making sure that each one gets attention to ensure the retrieval of all of your data sources. An incomplete asset collection could result in lost income for your firm and unnecessary work down the road.
The investment in proactive processes and expert collection and examination is well worth the return in protecting what is yours.
About John Myers
John Myers is one of the most respected minds in forensics interrogation, having been called on to testify in numerous cases regarding digital processes and theft. John developed and wrote the processes and protocols still in use today by Fortune consulting companies. John has garnered a reputation as the person who can get to the data that matters when others have given up. He continuously improves the process and methods as technology changes. John has an extensive education in computer science and business management and optimization. John started Chorus Consulting in order to do what he loves the best with harmony of process, repeatability, and the best possible client experience.
About Doris Little
Doris Little was one of the first people to join John at Chorus. She is a licensed private investigator and certified examiner. She has forgotten more than most of us know about how data is taken and how employees attempt to cover the tracks of taking the data. She is one of the most well known in employee investigations in our industry.
Cassens Weiss, D. (2022). Law firms came ‘dangerously close’ to losing almost a quarter of their associates in 2021. ABA Journal. https://doi.org/https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/law-firms-came-dangerously-close-to-losing-a-quarter-of-their-associates-in-2021