A Primer on Giving Notice – How to Leave Your Job Gracefully

Notifying your employer and co-workers that you are leaving your current job can be tricky.  While finding a new position is exciting, leaving your current position can be uncomfortable, and the process deserves more attention than it often receives.  By accepting a new position, you are essentially breaking up with the people who have been paying you and training you, in some instances, for years.

Regardless of the reasons for leaving your current position – your exit should be handled gracefully and with respect.    The best advice we have to give is NEVER BURN A BRIDGE.  The legal community is smaller than you might imagine, and you will likely encounter your soon-to-be former colleagues throughout your career.

The guidelines set forth below will help you navigate the process of leaving your current position:

  1. Timing:  You should not give notice until you have agreed upon the terms of your new job offer and have formally accepted the offer as negotiated.  The last thing you want to do is notify your employer of your intention to leave before finalizing the details of your new position.  Before you accept an offer verbally or in writing, and subsequently give your notice, make sure you are truly ready to leave your current position.  Spend some time thinking about the new position.  Will this new job advance your career goals?  Are you ready to leave the group of people you currently work with and start over?  Remember – once you give your notice – you cannot take it back.
  1. Providing References:  Some employers will request a reference check and make your employment contingent upon a successful check.  This often happens after you have accepted an offer, but before you have given your notice.  Your new employer will likely want to speak with a professional reference from your current company or law firm.  Before providing references, reach out to the people whose names you will be providing to let them know they may be contacted.  As this will likely be your first public indication that you plan to leave your job, you should use this opportunity to tell these individuals that you have enjoyed working with them and to explain why you are accepting a new position.  Do not focus this conversation on why you are leaving.  This is not a time to air your grievances.  You should ask your references to keep your situation confidential until the whole process is complete.
  1. Who Do You Give Notice To:  Once you have completed the reference check process and confirmed that your new employer does not need anything further, you can give your notice.  While every law firm and corporation is structured differently, you should plan to give notice first to the people who supervise you directly and with whom you have worked most closely.  You may also want to give notice to the head of your practice group or the managing partner of the firm, depending on your seniority and the size of the law firm.  At a corporation, you should give notice first to the attorneys or business people to whom you report and also to the head of the legal group.  Ideally, you should give notice on a day when all of these individuals are in the office.  You should try to ensure that each person hears the news directly from you.
  1. What To Say About Leaving:  This part of the process is important.  Think about what you are going to say before you walk into the office to start this conversation.  As stated above, grace and respect are paramount.  The damage caused by burning bridges will almost certainly outweigh any immediate gratification you might feel by telling off a terrible boss or sharing with a colleague how you really feel about him or her.  Do not dwell on the shortcomings of your current position.  Do not focus on what has made you unhappy enough to leave this job.  When giving your notice, less is really more.  Make sure to thank the people you have worked with for their time and efforts on your behalf.  These people have likely trained you, taken the time to think about your professional growth, and come to rely on you to handle their projects.  Remember that you are leaving a void in their firm/department and that you will likely need to be replaced with a new hire.
  1. How Long Should You Stay:  Unless otherwise stated in an employment agreement, two weeks notice is standard and appropriate.  If you feel that you cannot wind down your matters that quickly and your new employer is comfortable with you starting later, consider offering to stay on in your current position for longer than two weeks.  Keep in mind, however, that you are typically under no obligation to offer more than two weeks notice.
  1. Resignation Letter:  While you should give verbal notice in person, you should also write a formal letter of resignation.  This can be quite short, and should include the date that you are giving notice and your anticipated last day of work.
  1. Being Prepared For a Counter-Offer, or the Opposite:  Your law firm or company might try to talk you into staying at your current position.  They may offer you more money, additional benefits or a promotion. Receiving a counter-offer can be very tempting and flattering.   However, unless your reason for leaving is directly addressed by such a counter-offer, staying with your current employer is probably not the right choice and you should politely decline the counter-offer.  When considering a counter-offer, it helps to remember why you began your job hunt in the first place. On the flip-side, you may be asked to leave your current position immediately, or more quickly than the two weeks you intended.  Should this happen, try not to take it personally and maintain a professional and respectful tone.

Leaving one job and starting another is exciting, scary and stressful!  For many people, giving notice can be one of the most difficult parts of the process.  Follow the suggestions outlined above, and you should get through this transition with minimal heartache.

Contact Denise Schwartz or Eynav Epstein at EpsteinSchwartz Legal Search to learn more, to discuss the legal market or to hear about current opportunities.

EpsteinSchwartz Legal Search is a Chicago-based boutique legal recruiting firm. EpsteinSchwartz does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, sex, sexual orientation or any other protected characteristic. All inquiries will be kept strictly confidential.