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.




Hastings Leadership Academy for Women

Transitioning Clients

Speed Mentoring: A Misleading Misnomer

Two Creative Professional Development Practices

Women Supporting Women in the Legal Profession
  Hastings 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, and the brochure can be seen at For further information, please contact me by email or phone, 510-339-6883.

"It was just an amazing, enlightening experience. I have never had such a useful forum for advancing my effectiveness..."
-- 2007 program participant


  Transitioning Clients

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 are considered.

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.

1 "Dos & Don'ts for Successful Firm Succession Plans," Law Office Management & Administration Report, October 2007

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

5 Goldberg, Gray Matters


  Speed 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 and help.

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 relationship.


  Two Creative Professional Development Practices

Using evaluation forms to reinforce mentoring.

Farella 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 specific.

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.


  Upcoming Speaking Engagements

May 5-6: Association of Legal Administrators Annual Education Conference, Seattle, WA,

May 15: Project for Attorney Retention Conference, Positioning Law Firms for Long-Term Success: New Strategies for Advancing Women Lawyers, Washington, DC,

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 Association,

"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)



©2008 Ida Abbott Consulting