The Early Years
1975 – 1990
I have been working with lawyers in a number of different roles for the past thirty years. I started as a Placement Counselor at Temple University School of Law when regional law firms actually came to campus to hire young grads. The skills I brought to the law school were actually in teaching, counseling and coaching, so working with law students as they prepared for their first career transition as a young lawyer was a natural fit for me. I found this work most rewarding, but it did not take me long to figure out that the rigors of a legal education focused almost exclusively on teaching students to “think like lawyers.” As a placement counselor, I found it strange that very little class time seemed to be devoted to teaching the practical skills needed to actually practice law.
I clearly remember the city’s largest law firms coming to campus for their annual recruiting ritual. Based exclusively on grade point average, firms selected from the top 10%-20% of the class, and the remainder of class were left to finding job leads in smaller law firms throughout the city and the surrounding areas. Many of the larger firms had the resources to provide in-house training and mentoring to help young grads integrate into the profession. It did not take me long to see that the path to partnership was fraught with dangers.
I took particular interest in those students who were not chosen in the annual beauty contest. They were left to their own devices to begin building their personal career path. I celebrate all these young entrepreneurs who have been serving the public for these past thirty years. Today, approximately 65% of most bar associations are made up of solos and small firm practitioners. Many of my former students are now approaching another of life transitions in the form of retirement. Fortunately, an increasing number of law schools are working with incubator and residency programs as models that will enable newly-admitted lawyers to acquire the range of skills necessary to launch successful practices. The talent pool that will be leaving the profession in the next five to ten years is our primary focus in writing this website.
After leaving Temple Law School, I worked as a Legal Administrator in several mid-sized law firms in the Philadelphia area. I learned a great deal about law firm experiences with change and transition during this period of time. Finding balance between work responsibilities and family life was a constant struggle for partners and associates alike.
Next in my own career transition, I worked in the legal department of a regional bank that had merged with a larger bank headquartered in Newark, N.J. It was during this period that I first experienced a change completely out of my control. Whenever a merger takes place, leadership frequently looks to eliminating what appears to be redundant or non-essential services. The new bank had two legal departments so, for about six months, everyone was left to speculate on who would be selected to stay and who would be asked to leave. This certainly made for an uncomfortable transition period for everyone.
As I think back on it, everyone in both departments had taken all personal pictures home, and very little work was being done until the decision was made. Finally, on a Friday afternoon in late spring, while I was in the Philadelphia office a dozen security guards stepped off the elevator to escort the entire legal staff out of the office. I believe we had five minutes to clear our desks, but most of us didn’t need that much time. It appeared that the Philadelphia office drew the short straw, so I learned first-hand how difficult career transition can be for a young family. At that time, I had five boys in elementary school and beginning high school.
1990 – 2003
I was fortunate because the bank corporation provided me with several months of out-placement services that provided me with a place to go as I worked through a career search. I learned the value of executive coaching and the importance handling career search as any other full-time job. My next move was in the form of a new teaching and counseling opportunity with the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA). As a result of the increasing number of law students entering the profession, I was hired to help teach practical skills needed to maintain a practice. In that position, I worked with county bar associations to develop CLE programs to begin teaching the business of law.
After joining the New York State Bar Association in 1990, I gained a reputation for writings in the area of leadership skills training. Today, I continue with a variety of coaching relationships with bar associations and law societies throughout North America. I conduct strategic planning workshops with the American Bar Association, state and local bar associations, as well as The Law Society of England and Wales, and The Law Society of Scotland.
Over the next thirteen years at the state bar association, I met with thousands of lawyers to help them grow their practice. As time went on, I discovered an increasing interest in pre-retirement planning. Very few lawyers would openly talk about retirement planning, but quite a few of my colleagues wanted to move away from full-time practice and into, what I believe is a New Retirement path that we will be discussing.
With my years of experience working with lawyers, I have been fortunate to work with talented individuals who will be contributing to this website on Lawyers in Transition. I met Leonard E. Sienko, Jr. in the early 1990’s when I first started with my new position in Albany, NY. Lenny was and still is a sole practitioner from Hancock, NY, who has been active with NYSBA’s General Practice Section for over forty years.
Over the years, Lenny and I have collaborated on a number of CLE programs, and we have had a number of articles published. Ten years ago, we wrote, “Yesterday’s Strategies Rarely Answer Tomorrow’s Problems,” for the New York State Bar Journal. I wrote about new market challenges facing the legal profession, and Lenny wrote about the impact these challenges were having on solo and small firm practitioners. In December 2015, we were invited to write a follow-up article for the Journal, so we wrote “For Sole Practitioners, the Future’s Not What It Used to Be,” where we wrote again on how solo and small firm practitioners were adapting to new technologies and were changing the legal marketplace. I have grown to appreciate Lenny’s voice as my barometer for anything related to solo practitioners. Our own personal life transitions have been an important part of our ongoing relationship and our work together.
Life Design–For Lawyers in Transition
2003 – Present
Many law firms throughout the US and Canada have a significant proportion of baby boomer aged partners that control a significant proportion of their law firm’s clients and revenues. For many law firms, their future success—and even survival—may depend on how they manage the transition of clients and revenue to the next generation of owners.
Aging is not just about people fifty and older; it affects people of all generations. Individuals are living longer, healthier lives, so, we are constantly on the lookout for new ways of experiencing the world. Young lawyers as well as mid-career lawyers are just as interested in discovering new ways of knowing and being as more senior lawyers who are looking to possibly begin to wind-down their life’s work.
At this point in time, the legal marketplace has very few options available for lawyers interested in winding-down a law practice. The traditional retirement model is based on the “up or out” strategy, which means that based on ownership rights or employee status all lawyers must be treated the same. If an equity partner fails to reach the targeted billable hours set for all other partners, firms have had very little flexibility to work with individuals to help them through these difficult periods of time. Law firms are left with no other option but to encourage or force the lawyer out of the firm, or into early retirement.
It is our hope that the legal profession will take full advantage of the “Disrupt Aging” movement to develop more flexible retirement options. It is not uncommon for senior partners who are forced into retirement from a larger firm to open a practice as a solo practitioner or to join with friends to start a new small law firm. This is certainly a way to gain greater flexibility as a part of a pre-retirement plan. We can expect this trend to continue.
This online community will focus on new approaches for law firms to better serve the large number of baby boomer attorneys preparing to transition away from full-time law practice, as well as new approaches to personal development for the equally large number of Millennials, young attorneys seeking growth in the profession. People don’t live their lives in silos, and lawyers looking to move away from full time law practice cannot make this transition without forming better working relationships with young lawyers who are interested in moving into full time law practice. Too little has been written to help these young lawyers deal more effectively with life’s transitions. We will be developing resources to help individual lawyers of all ages, law firms of all sizes, and the profession as a whole to establish a new social consciousness for the profession that should spark innovative solutions to benefit all generations.
Lawyers in Transition
In building this website for Lawyers in Transition, I wanted to share my insights and life experiences along with contributions from other solo practitioners and small firm practitioners who have worked their way through their own life-transitions that include unanticipated changes in careers and in life. Contributors are friends and in many cases clients from years of bar activities and personal coaching. I may have to mask some people’s identities in order to remain friends. I would like to thank the large number of friends, colleagues, and clients who have stepped forward to share their personal stories to help other lawyers better understand why building a transition plan can be so important.
Our purpose in getting together to tell our stories is to highlight many issues that need to be addressed in order to better understand the scope and breadth of transition planning as it relates to end-of-career issues. This website is laid out as a “do-it-yourself” journey to help individuals navigate their way through unchartered waters. Law firm retirement and transition planning have changed dramatically in recent years, so we are hoping to build this website to serve as playbook of best practices for mid-level and more senior attorneys looking for advice and support in transitioning away from full-time law practice. We will also be providing detailed instructions for solo practitioners who face unique challenges in closing a practice. This is a too important topic to be left to chance.
There are literally thousands of positive-thinking, self-help books on finding happiness in retirement. We will be referencing some of these resources throughout your journey, but unfortunately, we have not found many books that address, what I see as the somewhat unique needs of lawyers in private practice, and solo practitioners in particular. We hope our insights, taken together, will help you develop your own transition/retirement plan.