by Stephen P. Gallagher
This is the second article in the series Winding Down Your Life’s Work, which I started publishing in the beginning of March 2018. In the first article we got to the point where I discussed the timing for when you should announce your plans to retire. I now hope to give you a better understanding of what your journey will look like.
In the previous article, I suggested that you expand your inner circle to include other lawyers who may be able to help you wind down your caseload. I suggested you reach out to local bar colleagues who have similar practice mixes as you. If you have moved away from your local bar association affiliation, this would be a good time to renew connections. Most sole practitioners that I know who are winding down their practice continue to bring in new work if for no other reason than to keep the office lights on as you prepare for an orderly transition.
Your Timing Is Good
The combination of longer life expectancy and technological advances are opening new expectations and new possibilities for all lawyers, so today, everyone is left to plan the next chapter in life’s journey. The sheer number of baby boomers born between the years 1946 and 1964 are in the process of changing the traditional demographic shape of our society, so it is important for the legal profession to involve lawyers of all experience levels actively in re-shaping this new legal landscape.
Aging is no longer just about people fifty and older; it affects lawyers of all generations. In the past, most law firms were able to allow individual partners to slow down at their own pace over a period of time. Younger partners were available to assume greater client responsibility. At least, this was how it was supposed work. This began to change when retirement-age partners began to realize that they may have not saved enough because they may be living another 20 to 30 years. Many firms are now trying to balance the interests of senior partners who are sticking around too long, and the needs of younger partners who wish to assume greater responsibility. The survival on many law firms will depend on how well they manage the transition of clients and revenue to the next generation of owners. So, your timing for winding down your law practice could not be better.
New Beginnings for Sole Practitioners
Jim Calloway, Director of Management Assistance Program for the Oklahoma Bar Association maintains a very popular blog, Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips Blog where he writes about best practice strategies from across the country. In his March 14, 2018 blog, Jim wrote that, “He often counsels and teaches new lawyers about building a practice from the ground up.” Jim went on to add that, “With the number of aging lawyers looking to transition away from full-time practice, it may be a much better situation for many of these young lawyers to work with an experienced solo practitioner for a few years with the goal of taking over the practice.”
Jim was saying that young lawyers can gain experience and receive advice while building a rapport with clients that they hope to retain after their lawyer has retired or transitioned to an “of counsel, but on call” status.” I’ve known Jim for a long time both as a fellow dreamer for what could be, and as a true pioneer in actually getting things done.
I agree with Jim Calloway when he says that young lawyers ought to look to senior lawyers for career growth and development. We know that the number of large firms, government and corporate jobs have decreased in recent years, but I believe that students who aspire to practice as a solo practitioner or in smaller practice groups should have brighter futures if they connect with the right mid-career to more senior lawyers, who are looking to start moving away from full-time law practice. So, the time is good to begin looking for younger lawyers to bring into your practice.
How a Transition Plan Should Work
I recently read a good example for how transition plan can come together. The New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure Section of March 18, 2018 had a very telling story about how Joan Baez, the folk music icon and pioneering activists who has been performing for six decades has recently made the decision to slow down. The Tours will end, not the protests, effectively captures how Joan Baez, 77 has set a plan in motion to begin moving away from her full-time work life. The author, Alan Leight interviewed Ms. Baez and she said that, her latest album will be her last. She announced that her new album, “Whistle Down the Wind,” would be her final recording and she also said that the eight-month-long world tour that kicked off in Sweden earlier this month will mark her farewell to the road.
For Ms. Baez, it was changes in her vocal range that mostly led to her decision to finally retire. Years ago, her vocal coach told her that her voice would tell her when it would be time to stop. She had to give up the high notes over recent years, because they just weren’t working anymore. Miss Baez said “Although her days on the road are coming to an end, she may still turn up on stage in the future if there were a call to arms, or to non-arms, or some wonderful festival in a place I’ve never been, I would go.”
In announcing her transition/retirement plan, Joan Baez did a couple things worth noting for all lawyers.
- Over a period of months and years, she recognized that she physically could no longer put up with her hectic travel schedule. She worked with her vocal coach, family and friends and decided on a plan to phase out your travel schedule over a period of months. You have to learn to listen to your own body.
- She was able to control the timing of her announcement, plus she set in place a schedule where she could celebrate her lifelong achievements. For lawyer this would provide you a period of time to meet with all clients in order to assure them of a smooth transition. This will also give yourself time to develop new interest.
- I believe strongly that, Aging is a process you don’t want to do alone, so you’ll need a period of months to try to find a young lawyer who would be would be interested in growing into an ownership position for your life’s work. I have seen very successful periods of transition that lasted 5 to 10 years where, the original owner works full time for a limited period of time and then moves to a more limited part-time schedule. An agreement is made between both parties to allow the young attorney to invest in ownership over an extended period of time. This can provide the senior attorney with, in many cases, much-needed supplemental income.
- You will need a period of time where you can begin to unfold the old and begin to build the new. While you are beginning to work with your young friend, I’d suggest that you take specific steps no matter what stage a business is in to create a valuable sellable business. John Warrillow, author of Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You has a number of timely suggestions that can help you create a solid business that can thrive long into the future. I will pick up on this on Step 3 of my Transition Model.