No One Here Gets Out Alive is the excellent biography by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman of the late Jim Morrison, lead singer and lyricist of L.A. rock band, The Doors. While unlike the unfortunate Mr Morrison, all of us can aim to depart legal practice still living and breathing, there is nothing that is more inevitable in one’s career than its eventual conclusion. It is a truism that we are happy to discuss recruitment, training, strategy, marketing, technology etc. until the cows come home, but that retirement and succession are for many law firms taboo subjects.
Sadly, the profession is littered with stories of ex-partners who have left practice feeling unloved and undervalued. Instead of their retirement being the happy culmination of a lifetime of dedication to their clients and colleagues, they depart with a sense bitterness. Equally, sometimes when retirement is delayed for too long, resentment can creep in creating tensions between generations within a partnership. The impact goes way beyond internal firm politics. If handled badly, partner succession can often result in clients becoming disaffected with the host law firm and using it as an opportunity to look elsewhere.
The causes of these unhappy outcomes are the same - a failure to plan for succession and retirement and a reluctance to have honest conversations over an extended period. While we are prepared to invest heavily in attracting new talent, there is a tendency to spit it out at the other end without adequate thought or planning.
Yet, it need never be so. If handled correctly, succession can deliver the holy grail of a revitalised practice with partners whose roles reflect their changing contributions and who retire into a new chapter of their lives where they simultaneously fulfil their ambitions and act as exemplary ambassadors for their former firms.
Succession Planning: Ensuring Smooth Transitions for Lawyers and their Firms edited by Katerina Mehennet and published by Globe Law and Business provides the invaluable perspectives of nine distinguished experts and practitioners on various aspects of this challenging topic.
In the first chapter, Sandra Boyer observes how the transition from one generation to another must take into consideration the divergences of view between distinct age groups. She explains how understanding the differing attitudes and the process of transitioning leaders has to reflect the transition of the firm itself.
The redoubtable Hermann Knott zeroes in on the specifics of law firm succession, recognising the different approaches that are required depending on the size and objectives of the organisation. He also identifies how retirement can provide a positive opportunity for a strategic refocus.
Recognising that there is more to succession planning than the departing partner’s relationship with the firm, Susan Duncan examines how to optimise the impact of a partner retirement insofar as the client is concerned. She provides helpful practical advice.
Jaap Bosman has written an excellent chapter on dealing with succession in relation to rainmakers, an issue that often creates tensions that can tacitly support bad behaviour. He addresses how the firm must come before the individual interests of “law firm royalty.” Starting the succession planning well in advance and ensuring that there are two relationship partners for key clients are examples of the sage advice he provides.
Getting retiring partners to let go of a client relationship and effect a smooth transition to their successor in the firm is, according to August Aquila, something that can be supported by a compensation structure where good behaviour is incentivised. But he also makes the important point that it is essential to ensure that the retiring partner feels good about their new role. That human element is so often missing in my experience.
Pam Loch has written a fascinating chapter on future-proofing law firms through diversity. She makes makes the valid point that succession provides the opportunity to create a more diverse partnership and leadership team rather than perpetuate the status quo. I would agree with her view that a more diverse firm is a better firm. A homogenous culture will not bring with it the benefits of challenge and differing perspectives that social, racial and neurological diversity can deliver.
Too often, partners’ departures are postponed because they have made inadequate provisions for retirement. This can result in an unhappy choice having to be made to exit a partner whose personal finances are challenged or retain them for longer than ideal with the consequent irritation to the rest of the partner group. Veronica Mann discusses how this should be addressed both by the firm and by the partner.
The hardest issue to deal with is perhaps succession planning for a sole practitioner. Shelley Dunstone identifies the options and importantly explores how to make a practice more marketable. She concludes with the following blunt, but sound advice: “Importantly, do not depend on selling your practice to fund your retirement. Over the course of your working life, make sure you set aside some of the income from your successful legal practice, to prepare for life after work.”
The book concludes with a chapter by the legendary Ronnie Fox, who shares with us wisdom accumulated over more than 50 years in practice. He forensically examines the reasons - organisational and psychological - as to why lawyers and law firms find it so hard to deal with retirement and succession. His ideas and solutions for addressing these reasons are not just practical but shared with a humanity that marks out the approach that a law firm wishing to follow best practice might choose to emulate.
Ronnie Fox touchingly observes: “I am pleased that my career as a City solicitor is now winding down as I had hoped and planned.” Sadly, that is not a sentiment I hear universally shared.
Learning from this book, I hope that many more practitioners will be able to reflect similarly while their firms advance and prosper.