Law Firm Succession Planning: Senior Lawyer’s Perspective

What are founding or managing partners going to do with themselves once they retire?

This question comes up regularly when consulting with law firms about succession planning issues.  Law firms commonly struggle with succession planning in part because of their inability to find a satisfactory post-retirement role for the senior lawyer.

Some of the difficulty relates to the personalities of law firm senior partners.  The traits that cause them to excel as lawyers are the very same traits that make the thought of retirement especially difficult.  Many managing partners who I’ve spoken to started to work when they were children.  Whether it was a paper route, hanging out at the family-run store, or babysitting, they have been working for most of their lives and enjoy it.  I recently spoke with a lawyer who helped found her firm and she hadn’t taken more than a two-week vacation in more than 20 years.  Her story is typical, so it’s therefore not surprising that people who have done one thing and excelled at it struggle with finding out what their life might look like once their role at the firm diminishes.

Part of the difficulty inherent in succession planning for law firms lies in the fact that too many of us view retirement through an oversimplified and outdated prism.  Too many lawyers view retirement like the knobs on an old-fashioned radio.  They only have two settings.  Thus, too many lawyers (including senior lawyers) believe that senior lawyers have two options—either they essentially continue to do what they have been doing and bill the hours they have billed as if nothing should change, or that they should turn the knob to zero and leave.

But retirement isn’t a binary option.  There are many ways in which senior lawyers can continue to contribute to the firm while still reducing their role.  Moreover, a gradual approach is often the best business strategy because it allows the firm to tackle the financial and other aspects of succession planning in an orderly manner.  It is, to cite just one example, easier to spread out the payments for a departing lawyer (the buyout) than do it in a compressed period.

It isn’t hard to grasp intellectually that a gradual transition may be better for all concerned than a sudden departure.  But in my experience consulting with lawyers and law firms, the senior members of the firm as well as the younger partners who are looking to increase their roles frequently underestimate just how difficult and new it is for the senior lawyer to imagine a different life, let alone make the necessary changes to create it.  And for some senior lawyers, the very act of thinking of doing less at the firm they built and love feels like a form of death.

Not every senior lawyer fears or dreads leaving their firm.  But even when the senior partner is enthusiastic about reducing their role, a law firm will dramatically increase the chances of having a smooth and successful transition if, at the beginning of the process everyone understands that the feelings and concerns of the senior lawyer are a central issue and not a nuisance or quirk to be rushed through or set aside.