Dear Lawyer: Have you looked at your *own* employment contract lately?


Many employers require new hires to sign an employment contract to get started. Law firms are no different. While the tough economy may lead job candidates to sign those employment contracts without really thinking about them — many lawyers are still counting themselves lucky to have employment at a decent salary — a recent “Speaking of Ethics” column in Washington Lawyer reminds lawyers “to read and parse the fine print of their own employment contracts as closely as they would read those of their clients.” Legal Ethics counsel Erika Stillabower leads us through a scenario in which DC lawyer “Andrew,” after signing an employment agreement with a law firm, “took a leap, switched firms, and soon received a demand letter from his former firm claiming he owed a total of $37,363 for liquidated damages and relocation costs.”

After reminding us that “ethics rules also govern lawyers’ conduct in connection with private, non-adversarial employment contracts,” Stillabower walks us through an analysis under the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct, which are pretty typical of ethical rules around the country.

Review her analysis of DC’s ethical rules to find out:

  • Can an employment contract impose liquidated damages on a lawyer who after departure competes with his or her former firm?

  • Can an employment contract impose a financial penalty for associating with other former firm partners or employees?

  • If the employment contract violates the ethical rules, are the offering attorneys (who are outside the jurisdiction) liable? Is Andrew?

It may be time to check the rules in your jurisdiction!