Issue 22, Spring 2008
There is a lot of talk these days about generational issues,
most of it about the youngest lawyers, the Millennials, and their impact on the
profession. This issue of Management Solutions focuses on the other end of the
generational spectrum: baby boom lawyers who will be retiring in record numbers
in the next few years. We discuss the importance of transitioning retiring lawyers'
clients to the next generation of partners, and present a framework for doing
it. This issue also looks at the limitations and marginal benefits of "speed mentoring," describes
two creative professional development practices, and highlights two initiatives
by women lawyers designed to retain and promote women in the profession.
OF THIS ISSUE
Hastings Leadership Academy for Women
Speed Mentoring: A Misleading Misnomer
Two Creative Professional Development Practices
Women Supporting Women in the Legal Profession
Leadership Academy for Women
The 2008 Leadership Academy will begin on May 29-31 and continue on July
17-19. This program is essential for women partners who want to advance their
careers and for law firms that want to see their women partners move into positions
of leadership. Information and registration forms are available at www.pardc.org/LAW,
and the brochure can be seen at http://www.pardc.org/Publications/LAWbrochure.pdf.
For further information, please contact me by email or
"It was just an amazing, enlightening experience. I have never had
such a useful forum for advancing my effectiveness..."
Law firms are facing a looming generational crisis - the prospect of thousands
of baby boom partners retiring within a very brief time period. One source
reports that more partners will retire from law firms in the next 10-15 years
than the total number who retired in the past 30 years.1 According
to recent surveys2:
- 70% of law firm partners are boomers
- 60% of law firm partners are now 55 or older
- In 69% of AmLaw 200 firms, 20-39% of equity partners are aged 50 or older
While many of these partners expect to continue working past retirement age,
two-thirds plan to retire at or before they turn 65. When those partners
retire, what will happen to their firms? Who will step into firm leadership?
Who will take over their clients? These are questions crucial to the survival
of a law firm. But fewer than half the major law firms in the US and Canada
are adequately planning for the eventual departure of their current senior partners
and leaders.3 Over the last
few years, some firms have begun to focus on leadership succession and many have
instituted leadership development programs. But even those firms often
neglect the question of client transition – and that is a potentially fatal oversight.
In the past, firms could count on "institutional clients" continuing to send
work their way because of the deep and long-standing relationship between the
company and the firm. Today, institutional clients are extremely rare. Between
the pressure on clients to cut costs, increasing client service demands, and
the constant efforts of lawyers to bring in new business by drawing it away from
others, clients today look for the firms that will provide the best, most cost-effective
service. And if that means changing firms, so be it.
Some law firm partners may welcome boomers' retirements because the decrease
in the number of senior partners will create openings for new leadership and
potentially raise profits per partner. But firms may be in for a tough
surprise. Because of low hiring and promotion rates during the economic
slowdowns in the early 1990s and 2000s, many firms have insufficient numbers
of partners in their 40's and early 50's to replace the partners who leave. More
importantly, many senior partners hold the sole or primary ties to their clients. They
usually want to hold on to those client relationships as long as possible to
protect their ego, status, or compensation, or because of their closeness to
the client. But in holding on too long, they neglect to prepare the next
generation of partners to move into primary client roles, which in turn jeopardizes
the relationship between the client and the firm when the partner finally retires.
Having a plan to transition clients is imperative for law firms who want to
retain the clients of retiring partners. It is also an opportunity to achieve
another important law firm objective: increasing lawyer diversity. Clients
increasingly expect their law firms to be more diverse, both at the associate
and partner levels. Many are insisting that women and lawyer of color be
placed in responsible client relationship roles.4 Without
a plan in place that ensures diverse lawyers are considered and groomed to take
over client relationships, retiring partners (who are predominantly white men)
are likely to assume that "since the client likes me, the best partner to take
over my client is someone like me." This thinking leads to the perpetuation
of law firms as white male institutions and prevents women and lawyers of color
from inheriting significant client relationships. A client transition process
ensures that all partners who are qualified to assume responsibility for a client
Elements of a Client Transition Process
The purpose of a client transition process is to ensure that every partner expecting
to retire has a plan that ensures a smooth transition of their clients to "next
generation" partners. With an effective plan, the successor partner
has ample time to learn the client's business and earn the client's trust before
the senior lawyer departs. It maintains continuity for the client and the
firm, and preserves the client relationship. The importance of a client
transition process applies to firms of any size. It may be most important
for a small firm where the firm's founding partners hold most of the business.
A client transition process requires two critical features: It should
apply to all partners and it should provide incentives for partners to create
and carry out their plans.
- Applies to everyone. To avoid making any partner feel singled out or
"pushed" out, all partners who reach a certain age or career point should be
expected to meet with their managing partner, practice group leader and/or department
head to discuss their future plans. Whether partners intend to continue
working full time beyond retirement age, cut back at some point, or leave early,
they should be encouraged to think several years out. Those who hope to
retire within 3-5 years should develop a client transition plan for all their
clients. On occasion the impetus for these discussions may be a business
development opportunity rather than the partner's age. For example, if
a client's General Counsel steps down, a different partner may be better suited
to work with the new, much younger GC. Whether due to age or circumstance,
these discussions require sensitivity. Client transition planning may be
psychologically and emotionally difficult, even painful, for some partners.
- Financial incentives and protections. It is important to make the
senior lawyer comfortable and eager to help with the transition. Most will be
engaged in the process because they feel personally responsible for the continued
well-being of their clients. During the transition, they may spend less time
on the client's work as the new partner spends more. But partners whose client
work hours decline would be penalized under systems that base compensation on
productivity and billings. (Similarly, junior partners might be reluctant
to take on clients when they would receive no origination credit, preferring
to find and serve their own clients instead.) Compensation should
therefore be aligned with the client transition plan so that partners are protected
financially during and after the process. Arrangements should be made for
origination and management credit so that both retiring and new client partners
feel they are being treated fairly. The firm might even give partners a
bonus for a smooth transition. As an extra incentive for retiring partners,
one suggestion is to pay them post-retirement royalties, i.e., a percentage of
fees generated by the partner's legacy clients.5
How Does a Client Transition Process Work?
Client transition planning should be part of a firm's overall management. With
a system in place, the firm can prepare for the future whether it faces one or
two retirements or dozens at a time. The process has three key elements:
analyzing the client relationship and needs, identifying suitable candidates
to take over the client relationship, and preparing the partner selected to take
over the client relationship.
- Analyzing the client relationship and needs. This analysis has several
parts. The nature of the current relationship and the kind of work currently
being done for the client is one line of inquiry. Another considers the
client's anticipated future needs, which may be quite different. The process
involves asking a lot of questions:
- What is the nature of the existing relationship between the senior partner
and the client? Is the relationship based on personal or family ties that
the firm may not be able to duplicate when the partner leaves? Or will
the client be more concerned with the legal services the firm provides than with
the individual partner in charge? Does the client interrelate regularly
with several lawyers in the firm or principally with the senior partner? Does
the client rely on the senior partner as its sole advisor? Does the senior partner
have unique expertise that the client depends on and that will be hard to replace
among the firm's other lawyers? If so, would the firm be able to train
(or hire) another lawyer in that specialized field?
- Who is the client? Is there one key decision maker within the company
or are there many? Will the firm have an opportunity for multiple partners
to develop relationships with their in-house counterparts? Does the client
have any expectations or requirements about the characteristics or expertise
of their relationship partners? Are any retirements contemplated on the client's
side? Who will be their likely successors?
- What are the client's current and future legal service needs? What
kind of work is the firm currently doing for the client? Is the client's
work occasional or ongoing? Where is the client's industry headed? What
other legal services does the client need now and what might it expect to need
in the future?
The way these questions are answered will raise various opportunities and
challenges for the firm. They will also lead to another fundamental question: How
important is it to the firm to keep this client? The answer to that question
will determine the effort and resources the firm is willing to devote to retaining
the client when the current senior partner leaves.
- Identifying and selecting successor relationship partners. The client
will of course have the final say as to who their new relationship partner will
be. The firm's task is to decide which partner they will present to the
client as their best candidate. Sometimes the best candidate to succeed
the retiring partner is obvious. A junior partner who has worked closely
with the senior partner and client for a long time and has developed a strong
bond with the client may progress naturally into a role of greater responsibility. The
transition plan simply facilitates the process.
But firms should have a process in place to make a selection where there is
no obvious successor. The firm's transition process should designate the
people who will work with the retiring partner to choose the best successor. Together
they should review information about the capabilities, interests and strengths
of all firm partners to identify possible candidates. In making their decision,
they should ponder numerous factors, e.g., areas of legal expertise, compatibility
of the partners' and client's personalities, and the firm's commitment to and
client's desire for diversity. They should also consider not just partners'
experience, but their demonstrated potential for client leadership. Candidates
should not be limited to those who currently work with the client. For
a particular client, a better choice might be someone who does no work with the
client now but has knowledge of the client's industry, expertise in a legal specialty
important to the client, or even common outside interests (e.g., memberships
on boards or in community organizations). Having a long transition period provides
sufficient time for the successor partner to learn about the client's needs and
issues, begin to do some legal work for the client, and establish a relationship.
When to inform the client about the proposed successor is up to the senior
partner, who must balance a desire to be up front with the client with the risk
of becoming a lame duck as the new relationship partner moves into the forefront.
- Grooming the successor partner. The transition process involves grooming
a junior partner to step into the senior partner's role. The senior partner
should expect to spend substantial time mentoring the successor and including
him or her in both business and social activities with the client. The
transition process involves transferring legal knowledge, technical skills and
insights about the client to the junior partner. Because many young partners
lack the experience and skills needed to manage large client responsibilities,
they may have to learn those skills from the senior partner over the transition
period. If the junior partner needs to develop knowledge, skills or expertise
that the senior partner cannot teach, the firm may want to provide specialized
training or coaching.
The speed of the transition process varies with each client. Sometimes,
new relationship partners can step in and take over quickly. In other situations,
senior partners remain active and provide services to the client while the new
partner gradually becomes more involved. In some cases, clients identify
so closely with the senior partner that the transition will be difficult and
the transition period may be prolonged.
The firm needs to monitor the transition process carefully. Even a young
partner whom the firm considers ideal may not be received well by the client. The
foremost consideration is maintaining and safeguarding the client relationship. If
the relationship does not appear to be working out, the firm should try to find
out what the problem is and how to remedy it. If it cannot be fixed, another
candidate should be sought without delay.
Law firms will face many ordeals in the coming years, but multiple partner
retirements do not have to be one of them. With proper planning, the firm
can smoothly transition clients to a new generation of partners and preserve
client relationships for the firm.
2 Data reported in Elizabeth
Goldberg, "Gray Matters," American Lawyer Magazine, December, 2007
3 "Who Will Follow the Leaders?,
Robert Half Legal, December 20, 2006
Mentoring: A Misleading Misnomer
A recent phenomenon in the business world is "speed mentoring." Like
its cousin, "speed dating," the process involves the search for relationships. Speed
mentoring takes place at events where young professionals pair up with experienced
professionals for a few minutes and at the sound of a bell, move on to the next
person. During their brief time together, the "mentor" answers a question that
may be posed, offers some career advice, or dispenses some wisdom.
Speed mentoring is being used in some legal associations because it addresses
the hunger of young lawyers for career mentoring that is not being adequately
provided in the workplace. During a single event, these lawyers can speak
with several people in hopes of finding someone who understands their career
aspirations, is sympathetic to them, and is willing to give them a little time
There are benefits to speed mentoring. It enables lawyers to meet and
network in a structured way that promotes communication that is quick and to
the point. People tend to listen carefully and intently when questions
are focused and time is limited. It can also be an excellent tool to spark
mentoring relationships if two people meet and discover an immediate rapport
or shared interest.
But "speed mentoring" is not really mentoring. It is nothing more than
an opportunity that may lead to mentoring (just as speed dating is not
dating, but might lead to a date). True mentors do not simply state words
of wisdom in answer to a few questions from a person they may never see again. Mentoring
requires an ongoing relationship where mentor and mentee get to know each other
over a period of time. It is not always long-term, but it takes more than
a 10-minute conversation.
So long as they limit expectations and use the process to encourage mentoring
more broadly, organizations can adapt speed mentoring to support other related
mentoring efforts. It can be a fun part of the matching process in a formal
mentoring program, allowing associates and volunteer mentors to "audition" for
possible matches. Or it might be incorporated into a summer program, used
to introduce summer associates to lawyers they might not otherwise meet, or as
part of a community-wide diversity initiative to help law students meet potential
mentors from a number of firms. The most important point is that speed
mentoring is a way to help lawyers meet each other and sow the seeds for a future mentoring
Creative Professional Development Practices
Using evaluation forms to reinforce mentoring.
Braun + Martel uses its associate evaluation forms to remind and encourage partners
to mentor and give feedback to associates. The last two questions on the
firm's evaluation form are:
What have you done to mentor this associate during the review period? Be
Describe any substantive feedback you have given to this associate during
the review period. Be specific.
These questions turn the spotlight onto the partners' responsibilities to the
associates whose performance they review. It emphasizes their obligation
to mentor associates and to provide feedback directly to associates they supervise. Because
department chairs and practice group leaders read the evaluations and consider
them when deciding partner compensation, partners know their answers are important. The
firm finds that even if partners skip other questions, they almost always answer
these last two.
The firm also uses these responses to try to avoid surprises in performance reviews. If
partners have criticized an associate in a review, but then stated that they
did not discuss it with the associate, they are encouraged to talk to the associate
before the review is delivered.
Comprehensive career development.
McKenna Long & Aldridge
wondered what it takes to retain talented lawyers in their firm, so they asked.
The definitive answer was "professional development." That was the
key factor for top performers who stayed at the firm, and the lack of professional
development was the key factor for those who left. Since these lawyers wanted
professional development – especially clear career guidance, good work, and a
supportive environment - the firm implemented a competency-based career development
system. While that in itself is not unusual, McKenna has integrated that system
with career planning and work assignments. Each associate is paired with a partner
who helps the associate craft a career plan that is organized around core competencies
and places special emphasis on finding interesting and challenging work experience
for associates. It uses these career plans, and partners' personal knowledge
of their associates' development needs and desires, when making work assignments.
McKenna's system provides associates with a comprehensive, clear and personalized
career path, and helps them envision their future in the firm.
| Women Supporting Women in the Legal Profession
- ChIPs is an organization of prominent women in-house counsel who are or
have been responsible for managing patent and other aspects of Intellectual Property
law within Bay Area technology companies. The founding members of ChIPs include
women who are or have been Chief Intellectual Property counsel for Google, EBay,
Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, Cadence Design Systems, Intuit and Atmel. These
women formed ChIPs in 2005 because they want to see more women practicing in
patent related fields, especially at leadership levels. The group is dedicated
to supporting and promoting the career advancement of women patent professionals
in law firms and companies. They hold three annual events that foster mentoring,
best-practice sharing and other forms of support for the law firm women they
invite. Mentoring is a particular focus of ChIPs, and its members enthusiastically
offer themselves as mentors to the women who attend these events.
- Women Lawyers of Sacramento, CA: WLS plans to undertake three coordinated
projects designed to retain women in the legal workplace. One of the projects
will focus on education; the others will support lawyers and their families.
- Education: They will develop educational materials for distribution to
the entire legal community in Sacramento. Materials will include new texts and
curricula that will (a) present the business case for retaining women; (b) present
ways to eliminate gender bias; and (c) teach women lawyers business communication
and marketing skills.
- Childcare Co-operative: Several law firms are working with WLS to establish
a childcare center for lawyers in the downtown area.
- Personal Administrative Assistance: This project will offer regular, affordable
homecare and concierge services (e.g., someone to wait at home for deliveries,
buy groceries, pay bills, ship packages) for busy lawyers.
Although the impetus for these projects is to retain women, these efforts
will ultimately benefit the entire Sacramento legal community.
May 5-6: Association of Legal Administrators Annual Education Conference,
Seattle, WA, http://www.alanet.org/conf/
May 15: Project for Attorney Retention Conference, Positioning
Law Firms for Long-Term Success: New Strategies for Advancing Women Lawyers, Washington,
June 12: Barristers Club, San Francisco
"The Rules of Engagement," originally published in Issue 20 of Management
Solutions, appears in National Magazine Addendum, Canadian Bar
"The Importance of Informal Mentoring," originally published in Issue 19 of Management
Solutions, was published in Peer Bulletin No. 162 of Peer Resources Network
(March 4, 2008) www.peer.ca.
Ida Abbott Consulting