Law firm succession planning is certainly getting its share of attention these days. It makes sense, too, considering one-third of the attorney population will be made up of boomer lawyers (those 65 years of age or older) within the next 10 years.

As the boomer attorneys reach retirement age, attention turns to that attorney’s client list. The question at the forefront of everyone’s mind is how to best transition key clients. Not all senior attorneys are ready for such a transition.

The Obvious Obstacle: A Senior Lawyer’s Reluctance to Pass the Baton

Legal commentators (myself included) frequently write about the difficulties of motivating senior lawyers to pass the baton to junior associates. The usual suspect reasons for their reluctance include:

  • Facing one’s mortality
  • Losing power and prestige
  • Lacking compensation systems regarding transitioning

Senior lawyers must work through these issues so as not to harm the transition or the client’s willingness to stay with the firm.

The Overlooked Obstacle: A Junior Lawyer’s Reluctance to Take the Baton

On occasion, the problem with a successful client transition lies with the junior lawyer. But this seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? These clients appear to be very low-hanging fruit in the world of business development. For some junior lawyers, however, taking on these clients can prove to be risky.

Thanks, But No Thanks

Let’s look at a junior lawyer who is already well on his or her way to building a book of business. The lawyer continues to target the desired type of work and client for the book. Then, an opportunity arises to take over someone else’s book.

Why not just run with the opportunity? Why look a gift horse in the mouth? Reasons such as these may be at play:

  • Lacking faith and confidence that the senior lawyer will cooperate and follow through: This fear is a logical one given all of the reasons stated above as to why a senior lawyer may not cooperate.
  • Losing control over their currently sculpted book of business: The senior lawyer’s clients may not align with the type of book that the junior lawyer is trying to build.
  • Missing confidence in the client relationship: Some of the clients may not “like and trust” the junior lawyer like they did the senior lawyer. Even assuming full cooperation from the senior lawyer, the efforts may go for naught.
  • Losing focus on their own efforts to accommodate the transition: The efforts will likely become a huge distraction to the junior lawyer’s previous ongoing marketing efforts. Indeed, it may derail what was, until then, a very successful strategy.

Succession Planning Requires Compromise

Don’t get me wrong. In most firms, the risks a junior lawyer faces can be managed. And, for some junior lawyers, these are good problems to have. But not for all junior lawyers.

At the end of the day, both senior and junior lawyers must work together and make the necessary compromises toward the common goal of keeping the client.