I am the firm administrator for a twenty-five attorney firm in Baltimore, Maryland. We have fourteen partners and nine are in their sixties. We have no succession or transition plans in place for senior partners. Every time I bring up the topic there is a resistance to even discuss the topic. I would appreciate any help that you can provide.
A decade ago, only the more proactive, well-managed law firms had in place programs and provisions for senior partner succession and transition. A majority of firms simply had not addressed or even given serious thought to the eventual retirement and exit of their senior partners. However, in the last five years, I have seen a lot of interest in succession, transition, and exit planning. The avalanche of baby boomers reaching retirement age has fueled this interest. Firms from the largest to the smallest are getting proactive and actively addressing succession and transition of senior partners. Some are putting in place formal programs, while others are at least addressing succession and transition informally using ad hoc approaches.
A recent Altman Weil Transition Survey gives us a glimpse of what other law firms are doing. Here are a few highlights from their survey concerning responding law firms.
Many other law firms are finding it a major challenge to get senior attorneys to talk and share their plans concerning retirement. In many cases the families of senior attorneys are having the same challenges. Coming to terms with aging is a difficult topic. In the case of law firms, often senior attorneys simply don’t know their future plans themselves, need the income, fear that others shareholders/partners will steal their clients, or the firm simply does not have a mechanism in place that mandates transition planning. Some firms are implementing mandatory retirement and others are putting in place financial incentives to motivate early transition of clients. Client loss is the most significant concern.
Keep at it and don’t give up but it may take a series of baby steps. Educate your partners on the risks of “doing nothing”. Provide them with articles and other resources and keep the topic on the agenda.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Our firm is a seventeen attorney business law firm in Chicago. Our clients consists of mid-size companies and a few Fortune 500 companies. There are eight partners and nine associates in the firm. Four of the eight partners are in their early sixties and the other four partners are in their forties and fifties. The four senior partners are the founders of the firm. Consequently, we have not had to deal with succession of partners until now. While we realize that we need to be thinking about succession planning we have not made much headway. The senior partners are reluctant to discuss their retirement plans and timelines. We would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions.
Client transition, management transition, and talent replacement are the major succession planning issues for law firms. Such transitions take time, especially with clients such as yours, and law firms can not wait until a senior partner comes forward, announces his intentions, and gives his required notice. Law firms should begin having conversations with senior attorneys and begin transition planning five years prior to a partner’s actual retirement. Having these conversations can be difficult. Senior attorneys may not know their plans themselves and may not have even discussed this topic even with their family. In some cases there can be trust issues at the firm and in other situations the firm’s compensation system may be a barrier. Law firm management must force the issue by institutionalizing a transition program and requiring conversation and discussion at a certain age. Some firms have mandatory retirement and others have a five year phase-down requirement with a formal client and management, for those partners that have management roles, transition program. Personally, I prefer the phase-down requirement with an individual tailored transition plan over the phase-down period. I suggest that transition plans be tailored for each retiring partner and reflect partner, firm, and client perspectives. Use compensation to reward successful client transitions.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Our firm is a twenty two lawyer insurance defense firm in Seattle. Over the years we have told our associates that they were hired to work on firm business and there was no requirement for them to develop or bring in client business. In fact we specifically asked them not to bring in business. Now we are rethinking that policy. Many of our equity partners are retiring and we are finding we have a group of grinders – with very few minders or finders capable of either retaining existing clients or bringing in new clients. What are your thoughts?
Over the years, I have seen many law firms hire associates and tell them that there is plenty of work and they are hired to service the firm’s work and there is no need, or even desire, for them to develop and bring client business into the firm. For years, these associates meet their billable hour expectations, work their files, and get good results on their cases. Twenty years later they are still associates – what went wrong? What are they not equity partners? Often it is because they have not developed client business.
Successful lawyers in private practice must not only do excellent legal work for their clients they must also develop client business. I believe that each attorney must invest money and time in building and promoting their expertise, professional reputation, and their personal brand. Law firms should not only encourage but should require, support, and fund (money and non-billable time) marketing/business development at the individual attorney level. Client development skills have to be developed and practiced early on.
Due to your client base (insurance companies) it may not be that easy for associates to actually bring in new clients unless the firm is diversifying into other practice areas (unless that is your goal). However, they can start by being good minders – client relationship managers – and work on getting more business from existing clients and maintaining client relationships that the firm has.
Client Development is externally focused – relationship management is more internally focused.
Skills for developing new clients and those needed for maintaining good relations are not the same.
While you associates will each have different abilities they should be honing their skills in one of the following areas:
Rainmakers – win new business from new clients and their strength is networking.They serve on boards, attend events, play golf, and entertain clients; prospective clients.
Hired Guns – win new business from new clients – emphasis on expertise.(They speak, write, give seminars, and become experts in a specific field)
Brain Surgeons – win new business from existing clients – internal focus; emphasis is on expertise – they solve problems that others cannot.
The Point Person – wins new business from existing clients and have an internal focus.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC