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Law Firm Succession Planning: The restraining forces in law firm succession planning

April 4, 2018

sucession-planning-hopper-don.jpgIn the last two articles, we have looked at some of the forces that are driving the need for law practice succession planning. We’ll now turn our attention to forces that restrain attorneys from developing and implementing succession plans.

In an April 5, 2017 issue of The Indiana Lawyer, Indianapolis attorney John Trimble stated in his column, Eye on the Profession, “According to recent polls of American law firms, only about 5 percent of firms of any size have an actual succession plan. Moreover, an alarming number (nearly 75 percent) of law firms dissolve after the founding partners retire.” When I read this, I was shocked at those percentages. Why do so few law firms have an actual succession plan?

John attempted to answer my question: “There is one word to describe the reason why lawyers and law firms do not plan for succession — denial. Lawyers as a group are fearless and bulletproof. The nature of the profession is such that lawyers do not see their careers ending at age 65 (or anything close to traditional retirement ages). Indeed, the word ‘retirement’ is not in their vocabulary.” This is the attitude I often describe as the “die with my boots on” attitude. Some attorneys plan to practice law until their dying day; for others, it just happens that way. I’ve talked with many senior attorneys who expressed this attitude. To avoid their own feelings on retirement or end-of-life planning, they seem to be willing to not make any plan or consider the interests and welfare of their clients, family and staff.

Another restraining force happens as we age. Aging attorneys may still have a real passion for practicing law; however, because they choose not to develop any succession plan, they are not protecting their clients’ interests. A few months ago, I had coffee with an attorney who I have known for 45 years who had carefully worked out his own succession plan. He told me, “Don, I’ve seen too many older attorneys whose faculties have declined, but they didn’t realize it, and other attorneys were afraid to speak the truth to them. I realize that I’m not as sharp as I used to be. I wanted to retire so I didn’t dishonor my clients or our profession.”

For most of us, as we become older, our energy lessens and our faculties gradually deteriorate. Often, we are mostly unaware of our condition unless someone calls it to our attention. Generally, those closest to us are the ones who will see this change, but they may be the least likely to say something to us about it. Practicing law when we are no longer able can have real consequences, which can come in the form of malpractice claims, disciplinary action, or both.

Procrastination is another major reason for not developing a succession plan. We simply put it off. “I’ll get around to it someday.” We can all struggle with procrastination, but we are ignoring some sage advice attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” and “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” I’ve had many conversations with a senior attorney who practices probate and real estate law in a small county-seat town. He’s in his early 70s, and he has told me several times, “I know that I need to develop a succession plan for my solo law practice, but I can’t seem to pull the trigger.” He texted me after he attended a seminar I led on law practice succession planning, “I need to talk to you about what to do. My estates are in the millions, but I have to let go and enjoy the future. The seminar made me aware that I have to have a plan. I will call you next week.” He didn’t call me and still doesn’t have a succession plan.

Sometimes, we can become too immersed in the day-to-day practice of law, too caught up in our clients’ lives and legal needs, that we don’t deal with our own tomorrow. The urgencies of today pushes out the important issues of tomorrow. The needs and demands of our clients keep us very busy. Helping people deal with their problems for many years does take its toll on us. We don’t have as much of a capacity to serve our clients’ best interests. We may not have the energy to plan adequately for our clients and our futures. I recently talked with a 61-year-old lawyer who has an active litigation practice. He told me, “I’ve had a plaintiffs’ practice for over 30 years, and it has really drained me. I help people who have significant issues. I need to develop a succession plan for my law practice and do something else.”

For some of us, we may not have saved enough funds for our retirement. If so, we may feel that our only option is to continue to practice law. One of the key questions in retirement planning is, “How much is enough?” If we think that we don’t have enough, we keep working so we can save more and push retirement and succession planning down the road.

In our next article, we will look at other restraining forces to law practice succession planning.•

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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.

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