The other side of succession planning

The other side of succession planning
Kevin Cheung
Succession planning for lawyers is a topic law societies across the country are emphasizing. Understandably, much of the discussion has been directed towards exiting lawyers. With an increasing number of lawyers reaching retirement age, many practices will require a succession plan and succeeding lawyers.

While last month’s column discussed practice valuation strategies, this month will focus on concerns for the potential succeeding lawyer. Many lawyers in the early and middle stages of their practice, especially those in sole and small firms, will be approached to be a part of a senior lawyer’s succession plan.

Before discussions can be fruitful, though, both parties must know what they want.

Know your plan

Being included in a lawyer’s succession plan can set a young lawyer up career-wise. This is especially true if you are taking over a practice and not merely taking over files. However, being transferred a practice can lull a lawyer into complacency with respect to career objectives.

The younger lawyer risks becoming a means to the exiting lawyer’s end and nothing more. To prepare for serious succession planning discussions with an exiting lawyer, you must first give thought to your career objectives. Failure to articulate your ambitions will result in a career trajectory dictated by someone else. 

Know the community

Before discussing succession planning, decide whether you want to remain in the community. Many younger lawyers end up in rural areas or away from home in the early years of practice because that is where the work is. However, if work is the only thing keeping a lawyer there, it may not be enough.

While technology allows us to practise on the go and from anywhere, you must honestly assess your desire to live in the community long-term. Factors such as family, friends, and lifestyle, in addition to the work, will guide your decision.

Know the practice areas you enjoy

Assess the work and practice areas of the exiting lawyer. Acknowledging what practice areas you truly enjoy is critical. Taking on work and an entire practice that you do not like simply because it is offered to you will only make for a miserable career. Do not be afraid to turn down opportunities you know you will not enjoy.

Know the firm

After connecting with an exiting lawyer in a practice area you like, an assessment of the firm’s financial health and prospects is required. This includes work in progress, client base, liabilities, and the firm’s reputation and goodwill.

Employees should also be a critical part of your assessment of the firm. While the exiting lawyer may have a large staff, you may prefer to run a leaner practice. If you have worked in the firm before the transition takes place, you may know of consistently underperforming staff members or those you simply cannot work with. Which staff to retain and transition plans for staff you will not retain must be thought out. 

Know the transition time frame

An understanding of the exiting lawyer’s time frame and how involved he or she will be in the transition is crucial. If the lawyer is older, he or she may be looking to get out quickly. If he or she is younger, the transition may be 10 to 15 years or longer.

That time gives you an opportunity to develop the legal and business skills necessary to run the practice, and it provides you with opportunities for mentorship. Where you are in your career will factor into your ideal transition time frame.

Succession planning must work for both parties. While financial details of the transition are important, the plan must also work within the succeeding lawyer’s ambitions. Discussing succession planning without knowing your career goals will lead to an unsatisfying result. The better you know your objectives, the easier it will be to make the exiting lawyer’s succession plan your plan. 

Kevin Cheung is a lawyer at Fleck Law in Sarnia, Ont., practising in personal injury and estates litigation. This article was written in collaboration with Pascale Daigneault.

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