This is a first in series of articles on the issue of law practice succession planning. Over the coming months, I will address the following questions:
• What is law practice succession planning?
• Why should a solo practitioner or law firm develop a law practice succession plan?
• What are the driving forces in law practice succession planning?
• What are the restraining forces in law practice succession planning?
• What are the options in law practice succession planning?
• Does a law practice have any monetary value and goodwill?
• What are the ethical considerations in law practice succession planning?
I first became interested in law practice succession planning as an attorney and administrator at the Inheritance Tax Section of the Indiana Department of Revenue. While talking with attorneys all over the state of Indiana about inheritance tax issues, we became “phone friends” and discussed their practices and lives. I had many conversations with them about slowing down and retiring from the practice of law. Some were getting pressure from spouses or family, but they didn’t know how go about it. Some of their questions included: What are my options? Does my law practice have any monetary value? Can I really afford to retire? Some even wondered if they could really be happy if they stopped practicing law. Declining health was forcing some to face the harsh reality that they couldn’t practice law forever.
I also helped several younger attorneys find work in smaller firms all over the state. This experience reinforced that law practice succession planning is important. An Indianapolis probate and trust litigation attorney who was planning on retiring in a couple of years wanted to bring in a younger attorney that she could mentor to take over her duties. I recommended a young deputy attorney general, and he has had a successful transition to private practice and is still with that small law firm.
I also helped my mentor in inheritance tax, Russ Bailey, to find a position in a small law firm. Russ was from northwest Indiana, and I knew of a possible opportunity in that part of the state. One of my probate attorney friends in northwest Indiana encouraged Russ to contact the firm. Russ practiced with the firm for two years, and then Russ started his own practice in DeMotte.
I also worked with Jason Gray, formerly an inheritance tax analyst. He was interested in attending to law school, but had taken on significant undergraduate debt and hesitated to take on more. In his duties at the Department of Revenue and later at the Marion County assessor’s office, he had worked with many Indianapolis attorneys and paralegals. One of those attorneys had an opening for a paralegal position in her office and hired Jason. Understandably, if Jason knew that he had a position in a law practice after school, he would attend law school. We discussed whether he could see himself practicing law with his current employer. He said yes and talked with her about the possibility. I met with her, and she was very positive about discussing this with Jason. She liked him, his work and his work ethic. They agreed that he would attend law school, continue to work for her, and buy into her law practice when he passes the bar examination. Jason is currently in his third of four years at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.
My involvement with the Indiana probate bar has further stimulated my interest in law practice succession planning. In 2011, I started attending the quarterly meetings of both the Indiana State Bar Association’s Probate, Trust and Real Property Section and its Probate Review Committee. The section and the PRC are composed of probate, trust and real property attorneys from around the state. I got to put names with faces since I had talked with many of these attorneys on the phone on inheritance tax issues. I have developed relationships with many of these attorneys as we seek to address our clients’ real-life problems and issues. Their example of service to the Indiana bar has inspired me to give back to the legal profession by helping attorneys throughout Indiana develop law practice succession plans, especially solo and small law firms.
I started my law career in a small law firm in Crawfordsville where I also served as a deputy prosecutor. I continued by managing a legal service program that served low-income people in several counties in west central Indiana. I left the full-time practice of law and served in the ministry for more than 20 years. Before coming to the Indiana Department of Revenue, I started a mediation practice. I believe that my life and career experiences have prepared me to help Indiana attorneys pass the torch to the next generations. I look forward to addressing the critical issues of law practice succession planning in the coming months and receiving your feedback.•
• Don Hopper is founder of Hopper Legal Consulting Services and a partner at Harrison & Moberly LLP. His focus is serving solo and small law firms in developing law practice succession plans that will continue their legal legacies in their Indiana communities. The opinions expressed are those of the author.