I am the owner of a six-lawyer law firm in San Diego, California. Our firm is a business litigation boutique firm. I founded and formed the firm nineteen years ago. The other attorneys are all associates of which one has been with me for over ten years, one over five years, and the other three less than two years. I am 56 and still plan on working another ten to fifteen years. However, I don’t want to lose my senior associates and I want them to be around in ten to fifteen years to take over the firm, I also believe that they should be partners. The firm is presently a sole proprietorship. I would like to extend an offer to the senior associate now and possibly to the other senior associate in a a couple of years. How do I get started? What are some of the issues that I should be thinking about?
If you have never had a partner in this firm or another firm in the past this will be a new experience for you. Law partnerships are like marriages and choosing the right partner is essential. Not only should the lawyer be an exceptional lawyer as far as legal skills, client satisfaction, fee production, and client origination, he or she should have similar values and goals for the firm that you do. Will you mesh well? At least the associate is somewhat of a known quantity since you know the associate and have worked with the associate for several years. However, the experience will be different. Being a partner with someone is different than a boss-employee relationship.
Here are a few ideas you might consider:
I suggest you think about your succession and eventual exit from the firm and what, if anything, you are looking to receive (goodwill value) in monetary terms when you leave the practice. Rather than having a large buyout upon your retirement/exit from the firm tie this to the value per share or unit of ownership interest and establish this is the purchase price as ownership shares are acquired.
Since you are a proprietorship you will need to change the structure of the firm to a multi-owner structure such as PC, APLC, or LLP. (LLC’s are not permitted in California for law firms).
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
I am a member of the executive committee of a fourteen attorney firm in Houston, Texas. We have ten partners and four associates in the firm. Seven of our partners are in their sixties and we have done nothing to prepare for the succession and transition of our senior partners and have concerns whether we will be able to continue as a firm. Where and how do we start?
You need to begin to have some serious discussions with your senior partners as to their retirement goals and timelines and determine how close together their exits will be. Can the remaining three partners hold and serve the clients? How experienced and senior are your associates? I suspect that you will have a large talent gap and you will need to either bring in some experienced lateral talent or consider merging with another firm. This could take a considerable amount of partner time and needs to be managed like you would manage a project, otherwise you will not have the focus and momentum to keep a things on track.
A key question will be how your partners will manage the work of the succession/transition/project while continuing to practice, serve clients, and managing the firm? How will they balance billable client production with the non-billable time that a succession/transition/project will require? Otherwise, the project will drift, will not be prioritized, and will fail to receive the proper attention to keep it moving forward. Newspaper reporters are taught to ask the following question when working on a story:
To succeed at managing a succession/transition/project you will need to ask and answer and address many of the same questions.
Who will lead, direct, and manage the project? In a solo or solo owner firm, this may be the owner, or an outside consulting firm retained to lead, direct, and manage the process. In a larger law firm, this may be the management or executive committee, a managing partner, or a transition committee formed for such purposes. Larger firms may also retain a consulting firm as well. Other outside advisors such as certified public accountants, financial planners, and insurance professionals may also be involved as well. Specific roles, expectations, and accountability should be developed for everyone, inside and outside the firm that will be working on the project.
What is the specific nature of the project? The law firm should define the succession/transition project specifically. Will the project involve looking into all possible transition/succession/ options or will it be limited to a single specific option, such as sale of the practice to another law firm, admission of a non-equity partner or associate to equity ownership, or merger with another firm? Define the specific scope of the project and put it in writing in the form of a succession/transition/ project charter or project plan. Define desired outcomes.
If the firm has multiple offices what office location, is the primary focus? In the case of a practice sale or merger, what geographical areas should the candidates be presently located? Will the project team have to be located in the same area as the law firm? Can the law firm and team members be located in different locations? Will the law firm require face-to-face team meetings? Will the meetings be able to be held remotely?
Why is the succession/transition/ project necessary? Why the project being considered? What are the consequences for failing to start and successfully complete the project – loss of key clients – loss of retirement payout and or sweat equity from the practice? Why is important to start the project now – rather than later?
When should the succession/transition/ project start? When should the project be completed? What are the key milestone dates, specific tasks, and specific task start and completion dates? Examples of two milestone dates in a larger firm that has a transition/phase-down plan might be;
The HOW involves the how of managing the project. In other words, some of the basic project management tools used to keep the project:
The HOW also involves deciding upon and implementing the succession/transition/strategy that achieves the goals of the solo, sole owner, or equity owners in a larger law firm. Usually the project planning HOW leads to the specific strategy and implementation HOW. The strategy and implementation HOW might involve selling the practice, admitting a non-equity partner or associate to equity ownership, or merger with another law firm. In the case of a larger law firm, it may involve the specific transition and phase-down activities.
If you put in place a solid project plan your partners will be able to balance priorities and transition the firm in a timely and effective manner.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC