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How to Fire an Associate Attorney Without Getting Sued

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

There are certain parts of your job, as a small-firm owner, that you love. Helping desperate clients. Beating annoying opposing counsel. Taking vacations when they are convenient for you.

Conversely, there are parts of the job that aren’t as great, such as paying taxes, fighting clients over the bill, and handing the day-to-day administrative minutiae.

What about firing a useless associate? If you’re the type that would enjoy shooting Bambi (not her full-grown mother, but Bambi, the actual baby deer), firing an uptight, under-productive twenty-something might be the highlight of your week. For the rest of us, however, it is less sport and more dreadful necessity.

Don't Do This

Specific, Articulable Reasons

Who is more litigious than a lawyer? For obvious reasons, you need to go into the meeting prepared, as much as you would for trial. Is the employee slacking? Have their billable hours handy. Are their client-relation skills poor? Have complaints from clients, preferably in writing, prepared. Are they simply not fitting in at the office? You better come up with a better reason than that -- especially if they are a member of a protected class.

It will also be a heck of a lot easier to prove those articulable reasons if you've been notifying the associate of their poor performance. Are they not meeting billable hour quotas? Email nag. Is their work-product poor? Email nag. Are they constantly late? Email nag. Email nag = paper trail.

Keep it as Amicable as Possible

Notice what Ari does above. He fires someone in anger, using offensive language, in front of a crowd. How does the fired employee feel? How about his co-workers?

If you are going to fire someone, do it on a Friday (to avoid mid-week awkwardness or worse), do it in private, and couch your language a bit. Even if they are awful, killing them softly will reduce changes of litigation. And if a future employer calls for a reference, be careful not to go overboard with the negativity.

Get Counsel, if Needed

Some people are such malcontents that you'll have a good feeling whether or not they'll take the litigious route. If there are any indicators, such as prior legal threats or office gossip, you might want to consider getting a lawyer's lawyer. If your specialty is corporate contract work, don't try to learn a new practice area and defend yourself. Old adages exist for a reason.

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