How to fire an associate —

In one of my coaching sessions today, I was confronted with a question that doesn’t arise often, but often enough to merit some review.

An associate was “guilty” of not attaining and remaining at the level of quality desired by the firm. The precise details are not important for our purposes.

The associate was with the firm only 6 months and had previously been warned to address the issues of client service and quality performance of legal services. My client, the managing partner, decided that the time had come to dismiss the associate rather than wait for the eventual malpractice suit, Bar disciplinary action, or loss of client(s).

I inquired whether the firm has a severance policy. My client wasn’t sure what I meant. I asked again whether there is any written policy in place that describes the procedures for addressing either a lack of or deterioration of service or performance by an employee. Does the firm have a policy that describes a severance package for an employee based on length of service, severity of impropriety, etc.  Does the firm have a policy that provides that when somebody is terminated, they receive “x” weeks of compensation and benefits equivalent?

When told that the firm had never thought about such a “policy,” that the firm reacted as and when necessary, I asked what the firm’s intent is in this case since the managing partner was about to terminate the associate this very afternoon.

I asked whether I might make a suggestion, and was given the “green light.” I suggest that, despite the termination “for cause,” that the firm provide a minimum of two weeks compensation and note on the check that it is for vacation and all accrued benefits earned to date. I further advised that, once notice is given to the associate, that the associate be permitted to gather his personal belongings and then be escorted out of the office.

I further suggested that the person who delivers the termination notice (my client) should no longer maintain personal contact with the associate during that day. To defuse any personal animosity that might arise as a consequence of the termination, another trusted employee, staff or counsel (usually of the same gender)  should be selected to maintain constant contact with the terminated associate and escort him away from the premises.

The net effect is to terminate his presence in the office today; maintain surveillance of the associate to prevent photocopying copyrighted or proprietary information of the firm and to prevent possible tampering and sabotage of the firm’s technology;  and to  personally escort him out of the office premises as soon after the termination as possible.

Even “good” folks who were trusted for many years may become vindictive once terminated, especially if they “didn’t see it coming,” no matter how many signs there may have been to an objective observer. I’ve seen cases where the server or other technology was compromised by a departing employee. Better to be safe than pay the high penalty of repair if damage results from rage and certain hurt that will be felt in such situations.


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