Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Succession

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Jul 24, 2018


Law Firm Succession Planning – Getting Partners to Discuss their Future Plans

Question: 

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.

Response: 

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.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Jun 06, 2018


Law Firm Succession Planning – Getting the Conversation Started

Question: 

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.

Response:

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.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Oct 25, 2017


Law Firm Equity Partner Succession – Transition in a Multi-Partner Firm

Question:

I am an equity partner in a thirty-six attorney firm in Miami. We have seven equity partners, eight non-equity partners, and twenty one associates. Our practice limited to civil litigation defense and our clients are institutional clients consisting of business firms, governmental agencies, and insurance companies. The ages of our equity-partners are: 64 62, 60, 58, 54, 48, and 44. The firm does not have a succession plan for the senior partners and has not even discussed the matter. I am not sure what the partnership agreement provides. I am concerned about our future if we don’t start addressing this. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

With three members already in their sixties you are going to have some retirement bunching issues before long and I agree that you should start planning and deal with this sooner than later.

The partners as a group need to start talking and the senior partners should begin sharing their ideas and plans concerning their retirement goals. There should be an ongoing dialog with your senior partners. Review the firm’s partnership/operating/shareholder agreement. After reviewing these documents, determine how the firm’s policy regarding retirement, if there is one, will affect various partner’s retirement timelines, compensation, and payout. Does the policy require mandatory retirement at a certain age? Ascertain whether the policy provides for phase-down. How does the phase-down handle management and client transition? Is there an “Of Counsel” provision after retirement? The firm needs to reach an agreement with its senior partners nearing retirement concerning their retirement timelines, client and management transition, and retirement payout or return on invested capital.

The initial challenge in a larger firm is to determine who the successor or successors will be to transition clients and management responsibilities. This may be no easy task especially if the firm is in first generation and the retiring partner is one of the founders.

Client Transition

In firms your size, clients are more likely to be large sophisticated clients, possibly Fortune 500 companies, which refer many matters to the firm during the course of a year. Often such clients may be both a blessing and a curse for the firm. A blessing in that their business provides the firm with huge legal fees during the course of a year. A curse in that their business represents a large percent of the firm’s annual fee collections and a significant business risk if the firm were to lose the client. An effective client transition is critical, takes time, and must be well planned.

Successful client transition – moving clients from one generation to the next – is a major challenge for larger firms. Shifting clients is not an individual responsibility but a firm responsibility. To effectively transition clients the individual lawyer, with clients, must work together with the firm to insure the clients receive quality legal services throughout the transition process. Both the individual lawyer and the firm must be committed to keeping clients in the firm when the senior attorneys retire. Potential obstacles include:

Management Transition

In larger firms, partners may have management responsibilities as well as client responsibilities. A retiring partner may be a managing partner, executive committee chair or member, or serve as a chair or member on other firm committees. Retiring partners will have to transition these responsibilities to other partners in the firm.

Transitioning client relationships and management responsibilities effectively can and where possible should take a number of years – preferably five years – typically not less than three years. For this reason, many firms use five-year phasedown programs for retiring partners. These plans provide detailed timelines and action steps for transitioning client relationships and management responsibilities.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Jul 26, 2017


Law Firm Succession Planning – Impact of Firm Size for a Solo

Question: 

I am a solo practitioner in upstate New York. I am 66 years old and I am looking to retire and am trying to figure out what to do with my practice. My practice is a general practice and there is just me and one secretary. I welcome you suggestions:

Response:

The size of the firm will present different retirement succession, transition, and exit challenges. Firm size will affect the number of moving parts, specific steps that a firm will have to take, and the overall timeline. Solo practitioners and sole owners will have the most moving parts and face the greatest challenges.

You will have the greatest challenge since you have no associates or anyone in place to transition the practice. Therefore, you could both hire and groom an associate that could buy the firm or become a partner and buyout your 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 can be problematic for the solo. If he or she does not have sufficient business and does not originate business, the associate will be an expense and the your net earnings will suffer. Other issues include:

You could 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.

Merger with another lawyer or law firm is another option. This is often a better option for solos that want to gradually phase-down 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 agreed 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 phase-down to retirement.

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.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

Apr 18, 2017


Law Firm Succession/Exit Plan – Merger, Selling, Laterals, or Promoting Associates to Equity

Question:

I am the owner of a small estate planning firm in Worcester, Massachusetts. I have three associates and three staff members. I am fifty five and am wanting to begin putting in place my succession/exit plan. I would like to retire and exit the practice in ten years. Would I be better off selling to another firm or attorney, merging the practice, bringing in laterals, or selling to one or both of my associates? I am interested in your thoughts.

Response: 

The biggest challenge for many firms, is finding the right WHO.

The who dictates the what – the actual succession/transition/exit strategy. In other words, many law firms find that they start down one path and end up on another. Not all non-equity partners and associates want to own a law firm. Not all lateral and merger candidates will be a good fit for your firm and culture. The key is the right relationship and sometimes that takes the form of making someone at the firm a partner, bringing in a seasoned lateral, merging with another firm, or selling the practice. Therefore, succession/transition plans have to be flexible and often the key is not get stuck in creating complex succession plans at the onset. Establish timelines, outline a general course of action, generate some momentum and see where that takes you. Then build the plan when you can see where the firm is headed.

Unless the retiring partner in a larger firm has a unique practice that requires the firm to conduct a search for lateral or merger candidates, larger firms will not have to embark on a search. However, solo practitioners and often sole owners will have to explore their options and conduct a search for the following:

This search and exploration often is the most time consuming and difficult part of the process and often the options identified through this process ends up dictating the succession/transition/exit strategy.

If a firm has associates, does the firm have the right associates on the bus for the long term? In other words, has the firm hired associates that want to be business owners and own a law firm? Many owners and senior partners in law firms are approaching retirement age and are beginning to think about succession strategies. As they examine their associate lawyer ranks, some partners are often surprised to learn that there may be few takers. While their associates may be great lawyers, they may not bring in business and may not be interested in ownership or partnership. Such firms have hired a bunch of folks that just wanted jobs and have no interest in owning a law firm. While this hiring approach may have satisfied the firm’s short-term needs – it may fall short in the long term.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

 

 

Dec 20, 2016


Law Firm Succession Planning – Selling My Stock to Several Associates

Question:

I am the sole owner of a five attorney personal injury plaintiff firm in the Dallas suburbs. Over the years I have built a sustainable brand through advertising. I have helped my associates develop their reputations, handle substantial cases, and be involved in various areas of firm management. I am planning on retiring in five years and I would like to begin the transition early next year by selling some stock (minority interests) to deserving associates with the remainder of my shares to be purchased upon my retirement. Originally, I had through about selling shares to two associates that have been with the firm for over fifteen years – now I am thinking about selling shares to all four associates. I think it would be easier for the four to come up with the required money. I welcome your thoughts.

Response:

If you are asking for a goodwill value plus cash-based book value as well as a percentage of completion estimated value of your contingency fee cases in process, the amount you are asking for your stock could be considerable. This would indeed be difficult for one or two people to raise and on its face it would make sense to sell your shares to all the associates. If this is not the case if may be possible to the two senior associates to raise the required funds.

Here are my thoughts:

  1. You know your people best but give consideration to the future partner dynamics. You are going from a sole owner structure to a five attorney ownership structure if you bring them in all at the same time. This will require some major adjustments in governance, compensation, etc.
  2. Are the two newer associates deserving of ownership? Have they developed their skills and earned the respect of the other associates in the firm and others outside of the firm?
  3. What do the two senior associates think? Do they want to be future partners with each other? Are they able to come up with the money? Do they initially, after your retirement, want other partners? Do they want the other associates to be their partners – initially or down the road?
  4. Interview your two senior associates and get their thoughts on the above questions. They may want to enjoy the benefits of leverage from having less partners as you have over the years. 
  5. My guess is that your senior associates would prefer to go it alone if they can swing it.

Don't try to force future partners on your two senior associates. I will rather see you initially admit the two senior associates as partners and let them admit other partners after your retirement when they are ready.

Click here for our blog on succession

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

Sep 14, 2016


Law Firm Succession – Transition of Partners and Transition Plan

Question:

Our firm is a twenty-five lawyer firm with ten partners. Six of these partners are in their sixties. What should we be doing concerning planning the succession of these partners?

Response:

In a larger firm with multiple partners, shareholders, or members, succession and transition involves transitioning client relationships and management roles. Such transitions take time. Many larger firms have five-year phasedown retirements for this reason and require equity owners to properly transition clients and management responsibilities. Some firms tie retirement pay or compensation to completing a successful transition program.

A plan might included the following:  

Some firms are providing economic incentives for the transitioning partner to handoff work to others.

The internal succession/transition plan provides a mechanism for the firm to outline a general timeline for a senior partner’s retirement, a process to effect an orderly transition of clients and management responsibilities, and a vehicle for starting initial discussions.

Click here for our blog on succession

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Jun 28, 2016


Law Firm Succession – What to do When No One is Interested in Equity Ownership

Question:

I am the owner of a fourteen attorney insurance defense practice in Baltimore. I started the firm twenty years ago after leaving behind my partnership in another firm. Of the other thirteen attorneys there are four non-equity partners and the rest are associates. I am sixty three years old and beginning to think about retirement and how I am going to transition out of the practice. Two of the non-equity partners are well seasoned attorneys, have major case responsibility, and have developed solid relationship with clients. I have discussed equity partnership vaguely with two non-equity partners but their interests seem lackluster and they have been non-committal. I would appreciate your thoughts and advice on what my next steps should be.

Response:

It sounds like your non-equity partners are on the fence as a result of the "vague" nature of your discussions. It is hard for non-equity partners or associates to commit to equity and taking on the risk of ownership when they don't know what the deal is. This is a scary proposition for them and they need detailed information so they can evaluate and make an informed decision. A vague discussion doesn't cut it. I suggest that you put together an equity partnership proposal that includes:

  1. Profit and loss statements for past the five years.
  2. Balances sheets for the past five years.
  3. A current accounts receivable and unbilled work in process report.
  4. Tax returns for the past five years.
  5. Malpractice insurance application.
  6. Building and other leases.
  7. Proposed Partnership Agreement
  8. Proposed Equity Partner Compensation Plan
  9. Planned date of admission
  10. Governance and management plan
  11. Ownership percentage being offered
  12. Capital contribution or buy-in requirement
Meet and discuss the proposal with your candidates, allow sufficient time for candidates to discuss with their families and advisors, and set a timeline for their decisions. I think you will see a different reaction. If they still are unable to commit your may have to begin thinking about an external strategy and looking around for merger candidates.

Click here for our blog on succession

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 
 

May 31, 2016


Law Firm Succession – Transitioning Clients to the Next Generation

Question:

I am a member of a three-member executive committee for a 34 lawyer firm in Austin, Texas. We have been in practice for over one hundred years. While we have had partners retire in the past with no issues we are now facing a situation where seven partners are approaching retirement at the same time and each of them controls significant books of business. What can the firm do to ensure that retiring partners properly transition their clients so the firm can continue to flourish after the partners are no longer here? We would appreciate your thoughts.

Response:

This is problem that many law firms are facing as baby boomers approach retirement. Rather than one or two partners coming up for retirement many firms are experiencing a "bunching of retirees" all at the same time. This can have a significant impact upon cash flow planning, client development, and attorney talent management.

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Access your lawyer talent pool to insure that you have people in place that can service the needs of the retiring partner's clients. If your talent pool is insufficient develop a strategy (lateral recruitment, merger, etc.) and develop a plan for locating lateral/merger opportunities.
  2. If the firm does not have a plan for dealing with the upcoming partners retirements and the transition of their clients write a client transition plan and commence its implementation. The plan should include an action plan that is structured like a project plan with beginning and ending dates, specific times, and individuals assigned to specific tasks. The plan should serve to keep things moving over a three to five year transition time period.
  3. Your committee should be communicating with your partners approaching retirement, talking with them about their goals and timelines concerning retirement, and getting them to commit to a date certain even if it is many years into the future.
  4. The compensation should include incentives that encourages retiring partners to transition rather than hoard clients.
  5. Determine a shortlist of who in the firm should take over clients.
  6. Begin client introductions to successor attorneys early. Go deep with relationship building – not just a simple introduction. Your committee and the retiring partners should monitor and follow-up with successors to insure that they are developing relationships with these clients.
  7. Assign co-responsible attorneys to all matters that a retiring partner is assigned.

There are a lot of other ideas that you can explore. The key point is to communicate with your senior partners, get them thinking about retirement rather than pushing it under the rug so there is a three to five year transition period, and start early. I have seen too many situations where a partners walks in and announces that he wants to retire in the sixty days, six months, or one year. This is not enough time if the firm wants to retain retiring partner's books of business.

Click here for our blog on succession

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

Feb 02, 2016


Law Firm Succession – Should I Close My Doors

Question:

I am a lawyer from Carbondale, Illinois area. Last week I attended you Illinois State Bar Association CLE Webinar – Law Practice Succession and Transition – Ideas for Getting Started. I am 66 years old and I fit the "Sole Owner" model that you discussed. I am the practice. I have one associate and one legal assistant and my associate has neither the desire or the ability to take over my practice. I am tired and want to retire by the end of the year. With no successors in site I am thinking that I should just close the doors at the end of the year. I welcome your thoughts.

Response:

It could come to that if you cannot find someone interested in taking over your practice. However, since you have almost a year before your planned retirement I would at least try to see if you can find another lawyer or law firm to buy or otherwise takeover your practice – preferable "buy". Start now as it often takes a year. Make a short list, make some phone calls, have some lunches, get to know some folks, and see what kind of interest there might me. Keep a continual momentum going. Since you are the practice – this will be a concern to a potential buyer especially if you are unwilling to stay on after the sale in a consultative transition capacity. You might want to rethink your timeline – otherwise you may have to simply close the doors and refer out the work and strike the best arrangement that you can.

Click here for a link to my book – The Lawyers Guide to Succession Planning – published this week by ABA

Click here for our blog on succession

Click here for out articles on various management topics

John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

 

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