September 01, 2018

Taking the Lead

Planning for Successful Retirement and Succession

Karen MacKay

If you are a partner in a law firm today, let’s say you joined the partnership at age 30, and you’ve dedicated 35 years to practice. Actual workdays (365 minus 104 for weekends, minus 20 days for vacation with family, and never sick at all) equal approximately 8,400. If you retire at age 65 and live for another 24 years to, say, age 89, you will have 8,760 days to fill. I’m thinking it makes sense to spend a bit of time considering re-inventing, re-engaging and dedicating some time and attention to finding identity, purpose and joy.

If we spin it another way, a 35-year partner likely has dedicated 70,000 hours to the firm in billable hours, investment hours, profile building, mentoring, managing, and so forth. Yet almost without exception leaders are uncomfortable raising the retirement issue with their elder shareholders, and conversations are often tricky at best, difficult at worst. Seventy thousand hours doesn’t leave room in the life of many professionals for other interests, and the Boomer retirement wave is fraught with challenges for these people and their firms.

As leaders, if we get it right, the firm, its clients and its retiring colleagues will be valued, resilient and friends and supporters of the firm as long as they are on the planet.

Succession is about the firm. Retirement is about the individual. The intersection is what we need to talk about here.

The Changing Stages of Career

Succession planned well starts early. In a career development  culture, lawyers are encouraged to review their practice, profile and expertise annually—and shift tasks and matters to others as they gain clarity and focus. Midlevel associates are encouraged to shift work to others to make room for matters and profile building in their chosen area. An expert is far more valuable to the firm and to clients, so encourage that transition early and often.

If part of career development and mentoring encourages dialogue about creating a practice that is engaging and fulfilling, you are making it okay to shift away from some things in favor of finding joy in the practice. Happiness and engagement for the professional result in better services and better solutions for clients and correspondent durability for the firm.

Talent strategy firms have focused countless resources on meeting the needs of younger lawyers. They have created different career paths and found new ways to meet younger lawyers’ needs. These firms have designed career resources, put enormous energy and time into training and development, and have created frameworks that support the potential of their professional talent. Firms that shift some of that effort to re-inventing the paths and alternatives to retirement are not being kind or benevolent—they are being smart.

Noninterventionist cultures, on the other hand, are built around the assumption that a successful lawyer is equally successful in all other parts of his or her life. However, the mere mortals in your partnership often haven’t it figured out. Further, it’s important to note that 75 percent of preretired Baby Boomers in the U.S. see themselves doing some sort of work in retirement.

Consider the Totality of a Career

We all know lawyers who won’t leave. When you really talk with them about it, they don’t have anything else to do. They don’t want to be home all day, and they don’t have anywhere else to go. That’s not surprising. A career gives us purpose, meaning and an identity. It also gives us structure—something to go to and a social network, people and a sense of belonging. Being a member of a firm provides a community, and being part of the firm is often linked to identity. It offers meaningful work, and a productive contribution is essential to happiness. Work can be paid or unpaid, but purpose and meaning are critical to happiness.

What if the agenda for management conversations was developed to follow the arc of a career? The themes could be explored before they have a name attached to them. Early in a career you explore themes around developing skills, competence and confidence. By midlevel these conversations are often about profile, opportunity and leadership. As the afternoon of a legal career unfolds, leaders need the confidence to explore the shifting balance of priorities experienced in the lives and work of their colleagues. Leaders need resources and tools to raise and explore these subjects with confidence.

Themes around identity, social connection, purpose and meaning can be powerful, and the firm can help with a successful transition over time, and issues can be raised in a nonthreatening way. As an example, when you decide to pull back or retire, what will you miss the most? If you will miss the people, what can you do as part of your networking while you are still at work to bring a new group of people into your orbit? Or another example: Can a not-for-profit board be supported by the firm and then can you continue to participate in it during your retirement years?

A firm cannot guarantee to keep people in the firm forever. Not all partners have the same options or the same perceived value. How leaders handle the generations that came before them speaks volumes about dignity, values and trust. A partner who is pulling back should not feel like he or she is failing. Trusted leaders will invite these conversations, and a firm that provides resources and tools for its people to reflect, prepare a plan for a positive, meaningful and, indeed, joyful retirement is a legacy to be proud of.

Karen MacKay

Karen MacKay created the consultancy Phoenix Legal Inc. in 2002 after a decade in firm leadership. In 2004 she did ground-breaking research into the needs, aspirations and values of the youngest in the profession and those who mentored them. Her practice continues to evolve along with her clients, focusing her work on leadership and strategy execution for law firms. The firm is particularly skilled at engaging partners in the business of their firms and finding solutions that make sense for their firms.