“It is with hearts full of sadness that we have decided to separate. We have been working hard for well over a year, some of it together, some of it separated, to see what might have been possible between us, and we have come to the conclusion that while we love each other very much we will remain separate … We have always conducted our relationship privately, and we hope that as we consciously uncouple and coparent, we will be able to continue in the same manner.”
With these words, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced to the world that their marriage of 10 years had ended. Although I confess that I have not followed the Paltrow-Martin saga very closely (okay, at all), I applaud them for being direct and unambiguous in communicating their “conscious uncoupling.”
Lawyers would be well served to follow the now un-couple’s example. There are a host of reasons to clearly document that the representation of a client — even on just a specific matter — has concluded:
*Defining expectations. It may not always be obvious when a particular matter has concluded. A disengagement letter prevents a client from claiming they believed their lawyer continued to represent them and thus relied on the lawyer to advise on a matter.
*Avoiding misunderstandings. Even after a deal closes, there may be follow-up business tasks that the client needs to do. A disengagement letter makes clear that the lawyer’s role in the deal has concluded.
*Preventing conflicts. Under the conflict rules, lawyers are usually precluded (absent consent) from acting adversely to a current client, even if the matter is unrelated to the representation. In contrast, lawyer can act adversely to a former client, unless the matter is substantially related to the prior work.
Here’s another advantage to sending a disengagement letter — it can be a positive business development tool. Which is better, letting a relationship with a client peter out or sending a personalized note, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to work with them and reminding them of the lawyer’s ability to service their future needs? And where the work for a client continues on other matters, it’s a perfect opportunity to debrief the client on the now concluded matter and emphasize the value added.
I’m sure we all hope that Paltrow and Martin likewise can reestablish their relationship. But Paltrow, at least, could benefit from another Risk Tip: When driving, look before you change lanes. As the attached clip shows, she was almost uncoupled from her Vespa by a school bus.