Take a careful look at your law firm’s most influential leaders and biggest rainmakers. Chances are good that these individuals will be retiring over the next decade. Is your law firm prepared for the impact of this seismic generational transition?
The impact will be felt well beyond the law firm itself. Clients who have been well-served for years will find themselves bereft of the lawyer with whom they have built and maintained a personal and professional relationship over the years. Who at your law firm is prepared to step to the plate and keep these clients equally satisfied?
The future health of your law firm depends upon how today’s leadership plans for the firm’s post-boomer viability. This important effort is called succession planning. You may have done it for your clients’ businesses. What’s stopping your law firm from doing it?
Afraid to Plan
To plan for the future of your law firm, you need to know the retirement plans of the firm’s senior lawyers. Obtaining this knowledge is easier said than done. It can be problematic to simply start a conversation about the subject. Many senior lawyers avoid raising the issue on their own due to a variety of real or perceived fears, including the potential reduction of compensation or loss of clout among partners. Others resist any conversation that involves thinking about the end of their professional career, with its hints of their eventual mortality.
Junior lawyers whose future is at stake have their own fears about starting the conversation. If handled incorrectly, broaching the topic of succession could, in some firms, be political suicide. Younger lawyers fear being perceived by their elders as putting their self-interest ahead of the firm.
Too Busy to Plan
Lawyers are notorious for contemplating every possible way in which a client deal or transaction can go wrong—even if it would not occur for years. Paradoxically, when it comes to the future of the law firm, thinking ahead is hardly a blip on their radar screens. Each lawyer’s focus is on day-to-day issues such as handling client crises, billing and collection matters, or dividing up firm profits. They cannot see the forest for the trees.
Too Selfish to Plan
There are also some partners who, quite frankly, care about themselves more than they care about the firm. If they have a big book of business, they are usually tolerated. These lawyers will disrupt the law firm by leaving on their own terms, planning only for themselves and not their colleagues.
In theory, any discussion about succession planning should be started by the firm’s managing partner or management committee. Alternatively, influential and well-respected partners can raise the issue.
In reality, many of these individuals suffer from the fears mentioned above. In that case, one effective tactic is to camouflage the firm’s succession planning within its strategic planning process. This can be particularly effective when the strategic planning process is facilitated by an outside consultant. Unlike the lawyers in the firm, outside consultants have no vested interest in the outcomes of succession planning. The objectivity of the consultant inspires more candor from attorneys who might otherwise be territorial or suspicious of the process. This, in turn, makes the process more efficient, and the consultant’s fees an investment rather than an expense.
The best way to engage selfish partners in the process is to focus on the client side of succession planning. Even partners who do not particularly care about their colleagues typically care very much about their clients. When the emphasis is placed on meeting client needs and not on the firm, the chances of getting their attention improve substantially.
With one-third of the nation’s lawyers contemplating retirement, it’s time to start or ramp up your firm’s discussion of succession planning. It’s never too late. Even a few months or a year of planning is preferable to a crisis generated by the precipitous retirement of a critical partner who rides off into the sunset, never to be heard from again. I can guarantee that this unhappy scenario occurs more often than you would expect!
If your law firm wants its best clients to stay when your baby boomer lawyers leave, succession planning is the most effective insurance policy to accomplish that goal.