February 21, 2019 Practice Management

Planning for Your Retirement: Ride into the Sunset or Sell?

By Terrie S. Wheeler

You might be wondering why a marketing consultant is writing about succession planning for your practice. The truth is that you lawyers who graduated from law school in the 1980s are now facing the difficult decision of whether to slowly ride off into the sunset or take the steps necessary to bolster and sell the asset that is your practice. You worked hard for more than 30 years—sometimes more—to build a profitable practice. As you approach retirement, you have two primary options:

  • Learn to ride a horse and head off into a picturesque sunset
  • Invest in technology and marketing and find a buyer for the asset you worked your entire career to build

The first bullet doesn’t really require any marketing expertise, just basic equestrian skills. But the second is 100 percent marketing.

Ready to Move On?

Many lawyers like you may grow tired of the grind of private practice. After building a successful career as a lawyer, you may decide to transition out of private practice to go into semi- or full retirement. You have labored long and hard to build your solid reputation, resulting in a successful, lucrative practice.

At parties and bar association events, your contemporaries are using the R-word quite regularly, causing you to pause and ask yourself, “What does retirement mean to me?” At this stage in the game, many lawyers begin to look with enthusiasm at the idea of scaling back, hitting the links, traveling, and spending more time with family. As you look at the next phase of your career, keep in mind that you are your practice. Clients hire lawyers, not law firms. You don’t want to simply walk away from the valuable relationships you have built with colleagues, referral sources, and clients. These relationships are an important ingredient to being able to successfully sell your practice to a firm interested in the value you have built. In fact, most law firms will rely on you staying on board in an “of counsel” capacity to transition these valuable relationships to lawyers in the new firm.

Tips to Increase the Value of your Practice

Now is the best time to maximize and leverage your years of experience and name recognition to maintain and even grow your practice. The valuable client and referral relationships that you have cultivated over the course of your career thus far will be key to setting the stage for future success as you ultimately transition out of practicing law. In fact, in this scenario, client loyalty can be transferred and will increase the overall value of your practice. As you look at transitioning your practice, consider the following ideas to help you maximize the asset that is your practice versus simply riding off into the sunset and hoping for the best.

  • Identify your time horizon. Are you looking to scale back in one year? Three? Five? Make sure you set a realistic deadline for when you would like to reduce your time commitment and start spending more time pursuing your hobbies and passions. Try not to put off this discussion with yourself until you are tired or burned out. If you really want to maximize the value of your practice to a potential buyer, aim for a five-year window to transition. It’s a great feeling to know that you are working hard with a realistic and measurable goal in place: to sell your practice in five years at a premium to a firm committed to continuing to serve your clients.
  • Continue building relationships. As you have noticed, many of your best referral sources are also retiring from their own careers, leaving you with an opportunity to build new relationships within those organizations. Be proactive. When you know one of your best referral sources is contemplating retirement, ask them to introduce you to others in their organization and endorse the work you do as a lawyer. Remember that you are viewed as the highly experienced lawyer you are, and use this status to keep your network fresh.
  • Transfer your knowledge and keep your profile high. Now is not the time to slowly fade away. Redouble your efforts to expand your name recognition in the marketplace. Write articles and give presentations. Focus your efforts on reaching groups of prospective clients and referral sources. Doing so will help you maintain your contacts and ensure your relevancy as an exceptional lawyer. If a prospective buyer of your firm goes to your website and sees your last presentation was in 1997 and your last article was ten years ago, it will be assumed that you have lost touch with current trends in your practice area and have already begun the process of fading away. Keeping your profile high is one of the best ways to ensure you will be able to negotiate the highest value for your firm. There are many strategies that work for small firms. Read the article I wrote for the GPSolo e-Report on “Stressed about Marketing? Do What REALLY Works for Solos and Small Firms.”
  • Invest in technology. It is not cost-prohibitive to invest in the latest technologies. Now is the time to make sure you are using the latest practice management technologies. Assess your document management system, time and billing, and communications databases. If you are still using old technology, you are not going to appeal to today’s generation of lawyers who have been raised on technology gadgets and web-based solutions. Don’t respond to every e-mail you receive offering the latest new practice management tools. Rather, consider hiring a consultant familiar with all the options out there, and let that person guide your decision making. The great news is that prices have come down considerably for many law practice management solutions as they have moved to the cloud. For example, you can purchase an e-mail database such as MailChimp for around $30 per month. Need integrated time, billing, and case management? Investigate PracticePanther, Clio, Bill4Time, and MyCase. For $30 to $50 per user per month, you can automate your entire practice.

Use Your Website and Social Media to Stay Relevant!

  • Use LinkedIn. Make a commitment to actively add contacts to your LinkedIn profile. At your level you should have well over 500 contacts. If not, proactively connect with everyone in your “real” network. Then, post and comment on LinkedIn. Show contacts you are still extremely relevant by providing links to interesting information and news. Take notice of promotions, awards received, and interesting updates by commenting on your connections’ news and accomplishments. Many things have changed with social media. You may want to read the article I wrote for the GPSolo e-Report in October 2018 entitled “How to Master the New Rules of Social Media Marketing.”
  • Give your website a facelift. Nothing will turn a possible successor off more than going to your website and seeing a blocky, visually unappealing site your nephew created for you ten years ago. With the advent of platforms such as WordPress, website development has become more accessible to smaller firms. Find a website developer in your area and invest in a new website. It underscores the perception you are creating of being actively engaged in your practice. You may enjoy an article I wrote last summer on “How to Turn Your Website into a Lead Generation Machine.”
  • Share your knowledge with video. As a senior-level, highly experienced lawyer, you are a font of important and relevant information for clients and referral sources. Hire a professional videographer and create 20 to 30 videos to embed on your website. Many of our clients find having videos eliminates the need for “free” consultations. Here are a few examples of video rooms we have helped our clients create: Maxim Law Video Consultation Room, Micklin Law Group Videos, and Cedar Creek Energy Video Library (this last is a solar company so you can see how another type of business uses video on its website).
  • Remember that content is king. If you don’t continuously add new content to your website in the form of blogs or other practice-specific information, you will not easily be found by prospective clients and referral sources online. Creating a steady stream of high-quality, audience-specific content is the most important component to ensure you come up high on the list of organic (versus paid) results on Google. For more ideas on adding high-quality content to your website, read an article I wrote on “Content Is King: Your Path to Increased Name Recognition and New Business.”
  • SEO is a must-have. Search engine optimization (SEO) is no longer a “nice-to-have” part of the marketing mix—it is a must-have. At my consultancy, PSM, we would not even consider building a new website for a law firm without including SEO to ensure the right prospective clients and referral sources can find the firm when searching Google. SEO can be separated into two parts: on-page and off-page. On-page SEO is conducted when your website is being built and involves optimizing each page of the website by using appropriate keywords and phrases throughout the content, as well as creating meta-titles and meta-descriptions that come up on Google when a page on your website is featured. Off-page SEO is accomplished by securing guest blogging opportunities and seeking out other high-quality back links (high-quality websites linking to yours). SEO is a science and an art. It is not something you will likely want to tackle on your own. For more information on this important topic, you can read an article I wrote on How to Boost Your SEO Without Breaking the Bank.

In summary, have a conversation with yourself about how much longer you want to practice law. Give yourself plenty of time—five years hopefully—to begin planning your transition by investing in both the technology and marketing strategies that will maximize the value of your law firm. Don’t sell yourself short—you have worked for more than 30 years to build the empire you have today. Now is the time to commit to the investments in your practice that will show prospective buyers you are still relevant and continue to offer your experience and knowledge to clients, prospects, and referral sources.

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Terrie S. Wheeler, MBC, is the founder and president of Professional Services Marketing, LLC, a marketing firm she founded after beginning her law firm marketing career in the 1980s. Terrie has more than ten years of high-level ethics experience and served as vice chair of the Lawyers Board of Professional Responsibility. She teaches at two law schools and is a regular columnist for the ABA GPSolo eReport as well as Attorney at Law Magazine. You can reach Terrie at terrie@psm-marketing.com or at 320/358-1000.