I am a solo real estate practitioner in Long Beach, California. I have one paralegal that works in the firm. I am 70 years old a would like to retire in the next couple of years. What are my options?
Solo practitioners have the greatest challenge since they have no associates or anyone in place to transition the practice. Therefore, the practitioner must both hire and groom an associate that could buy the firm or become a partner and buyout the owner’s interests, sell the firm to another firm, or merge with another firm. Other options would be to become Of Counsel with another firm or simply close down the practice. This takes time.
Hiring and Grooming an Associate
Hiring and grooming an associate can be problematic for the solo. If he does not have sufficient business and the associate does not originate business, the associate will be an expense and the owner’s net earnings will suffer. Other issues include:
Sell the Firm to another Lawyer or Law Firm
The owner can sell the firm to another lawyer or law firm. This option works best when the practitioner is actually ready to retire and quit practicing. Often this is not the case and the restrictions on sale of law practice levied by a state’s rules of professional conduct, in particular Rule 1.17, may make this option undesirable. Locating desirable candidates will take time and a well-planned search process may have to initiated. Our experience has been that this can take a year or longer.
Solo practices are often very personal practices with little annual repeat business. Clients of law firms advise us that they hire the lawyer and not the law firm. This makes buyers very cautious due to their concern that the clients and referral sources will not stay and the revenues will not materialize after the owner sells the practice. Therefore, many buyers are not willing to pay cash for a law practice. Our experience has been that most of these practices are sold with payouts over time based upon a percentage of revenues collected over a certain number of years. Usually, the seller stays on in a consulting capacity for a year to help insure that clients and referral sources stay with the new owner.
Merger with another Firm
Merger with another lawyer or law firm is another option. This is often a better option for solos that want to gradually phasedown yet continue to practice for a few more years. In essence, they join another firm as either an equity or non-equity partner, member, or shareholder and subsequently retire from that firm under pre-agreed to terms for the payout. The odds are improved for clients and referral sources staying with the merged firm and the merged firm is more committed that a buyer might be under a payout arrangement based upon collected revenues. The solo practitioner has more flexibility with regard to the ability to continue to practice longer, reduced stress, additional support and resources, and gradual phasedown to retirement.
Of Counsel with another Firm
Forming an Of Counsel relationship with another firm is an option that many solos are taking. Sometimes it is a final arrangement where a solo winds down his or her practice and then joins another firm as an employee or independent contractor. He or she is paid a percentage of collected revenue under a compensation agreement with different percentages depending upon whether the practitioner brings in the business, services work that he or she brings in, or services work that the firm refers to the practitioner. In other situations, an Of Counsel relationship is used as a practice continuation mechanism that provides the solo with additional resources and support if needed. An Of Counsel relationship can also be used to “pilot test” a relationship prior to merging with another firm. We have had several law firm clients that has taken a phased approach to merger with Phase I being an Of Counsel “pilot test” exploratory arrangement and Phase II being the actual merger.
One option is not necessarily better than the other – much depends upon “fit” and individual circumstances as well as a little luck.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Our firm is a second generation insurance defense firm in Bakersfield, California. We have fourteen lawyers, nine of which are partners. While all of the partners are great trial lawyers, work hard, and bill the required lawyers none of our partners are good at business development, leadership, or management. Our business comes from the client that we inherited. Any thoughts would be appreciated.
Successful law firms need at least a few star partners in their ranks.
“People are our most important asset” is a standard phrase heard in business. A more accurate and honest statement in many industries might be” competent people are a necessary component of our success.” However, as important as the company’s people are, they are somewhat expendable. The reason is simple. In most businesses the company’s competitive advantage does not rely on the retention, motivation, and behavior of particular individuals. Instead, it turns on shelf space, brand strength, core position, distribution systems, price, technology, product design, location, or any number of other variables that can exist apart from individuals who created the product or service. So except in the long term, most companies profit does not necessarily correlate with their people assets.
This is not the case for law firms. A law firm’s success depends not just on its people assets but on stars. Who are an organization’s stars? They are the individuals who have the highest future value to the organization, the men and women critical jobs whose performance is central to the company success. In a law firm, if a star leaves, the firm and its clients notice the difference. If enough stars leave the firm’s financial performance suffers. In a law firm, partners for significant clients, practice areas and offices are its stars.
In law firms stars are typically partners, but not all partners are stars nor are all stars partners. What what makes them law from stars is that they propel the business model along all three of its dimensions – building and enduring client relationships, performing up to their full potential in putting the firm first, and implementing strategic imperatives. Because they are so accomplished other members of the firm emulate their behavior.
You need to either develop or eventually recruit a few star partners that have the leadership, management, and client development skills that help the firm grow or stagnation will develop over time. I have seen make practices such as yours limp through second generation and dissolve in third generation.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
I am one of three founding partners in a twelve attorney insurance defense firm in New Orleans. The three of us are in our early sixties and contemplating retirement in the next several years. The three of us have been discussing our succession plans and are wondering whether we would be better off merging with another firm or transitioning the firm to our associates. What are your thoughts on this matter?
A majority of firms prefer transitioning to the next generation of attorneys within the firm whenever possible. Many founding partners at this stage of their career are often not ready to move to another firm unless they have to.
Advantages of transitioning to associates in the firm include:
Disadvantages of transitioning to associates in the firm include:
I believe that you should start by taking a critical look at the demographics of your associates and raise the following questions:
Your answers to the above five questions will determine whether you should consider a merger strategy. It is often difficult to get a “founders benefit” (goodwill value) in mergers with other firms.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC