Biglaw, Boutique Law Firms, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Departure Memos

Tom Wallerstein

One of my favorite recurring columns on Above the Law is the “Departure Memo of the Day.” Elie Mystal hit a nerve last week when he published a particularly depressing departure memo from a harried mother at Clifford Chance who was struggling, unsuccessfully, to balance the demands of parenthood and Biglaw. The departure memo lit up Twitter and even the Huffington Post decided to weigh in.

At many Biglaw firms, departure memos have become an ingrained part of the culture. Why are departure memos so ubiquitous, especially in Biglaw? The New York Times put it best:

“The ‘departure memo’ is a fixture at many large employers, and nowhere more so than at big law firms. Departures, particularly of young associates, are built into the business model. Not everyone is supposed to stay, and many never planned to stay, so leaving is often celebrated. Many of the ‘Departure Memos of the Day’ published on Above the Law fall into that category. Excitement at the next opportunity, and a little bit of glee at leaving, is completely acceptable, as is a little thumbing of the nose at the firm. Creativity isn’t unusual.”

The Clifford Chance departure memo struck a chord with many lawyers because it openly grappled with the struggle for work/life balance so familiar to so many of us. But it also raises bigger issues regarding the purpose intended by such missives….

For many lawyers, the farewell email may offer a rare opportunity to engage their artistic muse after years of highly structured legal writing. But when a lawyer sits down to pen a departure memo, I think they should ask themselves two questions. First, who is their intended audience? Second, what do they hope to accomplish with their email?

The Clifford Chance departure memo, like many others we have seen, reads like a diary entry, written by the author to herself, or perhaps to her family or therapist. Sometimes, reducing our thoughts and feelings to writing helps us acknowledge and accept them. We have the sense that while penning the email, and perhaps because of engaging in the process of writing it, the author underwent a catharsis.

Self-awareness is a perfectly valid reason for writing something. But what was the intended effect, if any, on the recipients of the memo? In other words, why hit “send”? What, if anything, did the author hope to accomplish? With many departure memos, I suspect there is no real answer to this question beyond, “I wanted to express how I feel.”

I suppose that getting something off your chest is a valid reason to say something, but personally I try to avoid sending communications when the only purpose is personal. I constantly see attorneys sending emails and letters to opposing counsel, for example, explaining why they think they are right about whatever they are fighting about. I try to remember, however, that being “right” is not a good enough reason to say something, especially to opposing counsel.

In my view, there are two main reasons to communicate something. First, you might want to have a record of having made the communication. We send a meet and confer letter regarding discovery so that, if we later need to engage in motion practice, we can satisfy the court that we made a good faith attempt to resolve the dispute informally. Second, you might actually hope to accomplish something. You communicate something with the expectation that the recipient will respond in a certain way. You ask a question in the hope of receiving an answer.

I often see communications that seem to be made without either goal in mind. Often if you ask an attorney, “Why did you say X?,” the attorney will answer, in effect, “Because X is right.” But the question is not whether X is right or not; the question is, “What was the purpose of COMMUNICATING X, even if it is right?”

Thus, my rule of thumb for every communication a lawyer makes is to (1) know your intended audience; and (2) consider what you hope to accomplish with what you are writing.

I think this especially applies to departure memos. Before you hit “send,” consider why you are communicating what you have written. For example, you might think your boss is a psychopath who made your work life a living hell. But is that really something you should communicate, either to him or his colleagues?

Some might say that one purpose of a scathing farewell email is to make the world a better place for those who remain. If that is truly your goal, and you think your missive is advancing that agenda, then more power to you. But I suspect that is often more rationalization than anything else. If you really wanted to effect change, a private email to decision makers would likely be more effective than a public screed. A more accurate description of the public scourge email is that it is intended to shame and somehow “punish” the firm.

Like a spurned lover, sometimes a departing associate wants the firm to feel regret. “You didn’t know how good you had it!” Sometimes when you say “goodbye,” you didn’t mean goodbye, you meant please don’t let me go.

Some of the more entertaining departure memos we see are the function of the writer intentionally burning their bridges with their employer. Again, this is mostly a private, personal benefit to the author. The author wants to proclaim — not only to the firm, but to himself or herself — that they are quitting, they’ve had enough, they made their escape. “I’m breaking up with you, and I’m going to tell you all the reasons why!”

However, for anyone who is thinking of leaving Biglaw and continuing with a legal career elsewhere, I suggest you carefully consider both your intended audience and purpose of writing your farewell email. When composing your email, you might think, “I don’t know what to tell, truth or farewell?” But if maintaining a “book of relationships” is the key to generating business, then burning your bridges is completely antithetical to anyone who intends to continue practicing law. Especially if you are moving from Biglaw to boutique, maintaining a good relationship with your former firm can be very helpful.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the farewell email. It might be the last thing many people hear from you, and it can make a lasting impression, for good or ill. It’s a great opportunity for you to show your former colleagues — i.e., potential referral sources — that you have professional judgment and maturity. You want them to know that you will not bad-mouth them. Your farewell email can be a critically important tool in getting the next phase of your career off to the right start.

Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at

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