May 1st, 2014 by Jim Cotterman
The evolving role of a senior partner as s/he transitions away from the private practice of law takes many paths. Some are specific and short – “In a year I shall retire to my cabin in the woods.” Others are longer duration – “I would like to slow down and phase out over the next five to seven years.” And still others are indefinite – “I want to maintain a part-time practice with a few of my cherished clients as long as I can.” Obviously, there are many permutations on these. And what works best depends on the specific path taken. It is likely that each firm will have multiple paths in process and thus require flexibility in dealing with these differing situations. Compensating senior partners requires a view that considers that chosen path and recognizes that most partner compensation arrangements are designed not for this transitional role, but rather for the full on partner.
Generally, what a partner leaves behind is the client and referral relationships built up over a career. Those relationships have value if the successors can retain them and maintain/grow the revenues and profits from them. There are variables to consider. For example, founders may have some additional value attributed to the risk and start-up costs that successors do not incur with an established business. The area of the law may also alter what and how value is recognized. For example, an estate practice has value in the will bank and contingent fee practices have significant investment locked up in cases that can span years. It is appropriate to consider if and how to deal with the compensation deferred by virtue of a start-up and/or locked up in unique practice assets.
Another key financial aspect of retirement is the return of capital. Senior partners carry disproportionate amounts of the total capital invested in the firm. With buy-outs that tend to occur faster than buy-ins, it is easy to foresee the stress retiring boomer partners are likely to have on capital structures. Add to this mix additional stress points such as the increased use of non-equity partner, thus delaying or eliminating potential future sources of capital, as well as the generally increasing capital needs of law firms. Law firm financial leaders need to be conversant with capital planning.
Beyond the valuation and compensation aspects of retirement, thought should be given to how to transfer the intangible value of senior partners – their wealth of legal, business and life knowledge; their leader, manager, mentor and steward roles; as well as their client, referral and market relationships. This requires some internal discussion as well as discussion with the clients/referrals. Professional service firm relationships are often trust-based, thus they are harder to transfer than skill-based relationships. It takes a number of touch points (face-to-face interactions) to effect a transition of trust. And the changing nature of practice delivery has and will continue to decrease the opportunity for face-to-face interaction. This is the succession planning that firms refer to — working in a coordinated and thoughtful way towards retirement and well in advance of that retirement.
Ideally one would like the retiring partner to have worked him/herself out of a job on their last day at the firm. Good concept, but devilishly tricky to accomplish.