This decade will see an unprecedented increase in the inter-generational transfer of law firm ownership. This a demographic reality that is directly tied to the aging population of law firm owners and equity partners. Many firms perceive the need for succession planning but don’t know how to begin an internal conversation about it within the partnership.
First and foremost, don’t wait for some special occasion to start discussing the future of your firm. Succession planning should be a part of any strategic planning conversation, and this conversation is not about kicking anyone to the curb. It’s about ensuring the well-being of clients, staff, and the legacy of the practice as time goes on.
As a business consultant to lawyers and law firms, I see that the first mistake many partners make is that they conceptualize the work of a lawyer as a switch with two extremes: you’re either billing fifty hours a week or you’re lying in a hammock somewhere, sipping a cocktail and forgetting all you ever knew about the law. And that vision of work makes it difficult to initiate a conversation with a colleague about succession planning.
One of the most important messages to convey to a partner who will be reducing their role at the firm is that succession planning doesn’t automatically mean that their story is coming to an abrupt end. Many succession planning arrangements involve gradual reductions in an attorney’s hours and responsibilities. This allows partners to serve as leaders and mentors to the next-in-line, while passing on certain duties and freeing themselves a bit from the grind. Moreover, it is possible for senior lawyers to maintain a small portion of their practice. They don’t have to turn the dial to zero if they don’t want to and if the firm sees value in their continuing to serve clients.
If you’re a junior partner looking to start this conversation, recognize that you’re not just working on behalf of the firm, but you may be doing your colleague a favor by asking them what they might like to have taken off their plate. Far too many firms find themselves scrambling as senior partners experience health issues or other sudden life shifts that impair one’s ability to continue practicing. Protect what your firm has built and give your colleagues a chance to adjust their work life by initiating a conversation about succession planning.
And don’t be surprised if the more senior lawyer has avoided thinking about succession planning either out of fear or because they don’t know how to figure out what to do with themselves if they are no longer coming to the office on as regular a basis. The good news is that there are proven techniques for helping firms and their senior lawyers transition work in a humane, orderly, and effective manner. But that process isn’t likely to end well unless a colleague takes the initiative to begin a thoughtful, empathetic, and strategic conversation about succession planning.