October 2020
VOLUME 39, ISSUE 9

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Features

Columns

Tips and Trends Industry Advice and Developments

Making Retirement Discussions with Your Senior Partners More Productive and Succession More Effective

Discussing retirement with senior partners can be difficult under the best of circumstances, and the uncertainty caused by the pandemic won’t make those discussions any easier. Several months of isolation and working from home might cause some partners to rethink their future plans and either accelerate or delay retirement. To anticipate and plan for the future, especially regarding leadership changes and client transitions, firms need to know what their senior partners are thinking and doing about their practice.

Ida O. Abbott

Firms can make these discussions easier — and enjoy more constructive outcomes — by addressing emotional and practical concerns of senior partners. Emotional issues involve the unique difficulty of leaving practice and entering retirement. Practical concerns center on trust and money.

EMOTIONAL CONCERNS

Most people do not appreciate that retirement is one of the hardest transitions in a lawyer’s life. Retirement evokes a sense of loss, of leaving behind what you have built and achieved over a lifetime, and a fear of becoming irrelevant. Even lawyers who approach retirement as a time of joy and liberation find the reality of being “retired” unsettling. The pandemic has further intensified the gloom associated with retirement by labeling people at age 60 as old and “high risk,” forcing them to face their mortality.

Deciding to retire and the transition into retirement are easier if you have something to look forward to. Some lawyers resist retirement because they don’t know what else they might do. Their lives and activities have been so tied to law practice that they have not explored or developed outside interests.

Firms can address these emotional concerns for senior partners and prepare all partners for retiring someday. Here are some suggestions.

For senior partners:

  • In retirement discussions, make them feel respected for their contributions and success, and not as if other partners are devaluing them, writing them off or pushing them out. Teach firm leaders how to have those discussions.
  • Offer access to retirement coaches with whom partners can discuss their concerns and develop their plans confidentially.
  • Invite retired partners to serve as mentors to senior partners, as well as to discuss their retirement transitions and current activities with all interested lawyers.

For all partners:

  • Have periodic programs and conversations about retirement. Topics can include:
    • How to design a meaningful retirement.
    • Envisioning what a fulfilling retirement might look like.
    • Keeping “personal interest lists” of subjects and activities they might learn about or pursue when they retire and have the time.
  • Encourage lawyers to engage in outside interests through pro bono work, non-legal volunteer work or nonprofit boards in areas that appeal to them, such as arts or education groups.
  • Start a “retirement portal” on the firm intranet. Post information and resources about the multitude of possibilities available in retirement.

PRACTICAL CONCERNS

Discussions about succession and retirement must be based on mutual trust and loyalty. Partners need to know they are being treated fairly, not being singled out because of their age or because other partners want to take or exploit what they have built over a lifetime of practice.

One way to demonstrate fairness and engender trust is to have uniform processes and transparent guidelines for all partners concerning retirement and succession. Uniform processes should include discussions with every partner who reaches a certain milestone (e.g., a specific age or number of years in practice) about future plans for their practice, including the people they are grooming as successors for client matters and leadership roles. Asking these questions ad hoc makes many partners feel defensive, threatened and resentful, but discussing future practice plans with every partner at the same career point can make these conversations less fraught and more constructive.

Whenever a partner decides to start the transition toward retirement, transparent guidelines for retiring should set forth the procedures to follow and the factors for consideration and negotiation. Among the topics to include in guidelines are:

  • Options available (e.g., phased retirement, of counsel or other status)
  • Incentives and qualifications for retirement at different ages or career points
  • How and with whom discussions should take place
  • Elements of transition plans
  • The impact of retirement on things like insurance, technology and tech support

Because compensation is often the thorniest issue, guidelines should spell out as clearly as possible how compensation will be determined during the transition period and in retirement, including:

  1. If, how and for how long origination credit will be shared during the transition of a client relationship to a successor
  2. Any financial incentives for successful client transitions

Other financial issues include return of capital, client collections (including contingency fees), payment for nonbillable and pro bono work, and extra work done at the firm’s request.

Actions like these can facilitate retirement discussions and succession planning to the mutual benefit of the firm and its retiring partners.