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July/August 2021

Practice Management Advice: Planning for Client Transitions Is Not Just for Solos

John D. Bowers

The collective legal industry shudders at the coming end of Baby Boomers in the workplace. The 2020 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession reports that about one-third of lawyers in the United States are Boomers. Based on your perspective, the cause of consternation may vary, but the idea is nonetheless staggering.

Whether your practice employs aging attorneys or you are a proud purchaser of legal services—or both—the longevity of your long-time client manager will no longer be ignored. In the case of a solo’s death, disability, incapacity or impairment, ABA Formal Opinion 92-369 claims that lawyers have an ethical duty to arrange the safeguard of clients’ interests. But even barring physical disaster, and the firm has more than one attorney, other lawyers within a law practice must be prepared to step in and handle affected clients’ matters.

No matter how necessary or mission critical a client succession project may seem, well-meaning practice leaders do an excellent job of mucking up client relationships. Beware: Client succession planning is not about law firm leaders. A good plan primarily emphasizes what is best for the client and secondarily what helps the client manager share the relationship, carefully analyzing deeply personal bonds to ensure an orderly transition. Leadership must then make a concerted effort to support these parties while alleviating competing interests within the practice.

Mind Your Due Diligence

Affecting the most minimal change necessarily includes selling your idea. During a planning meeting before a client pitch, a great salesman told 23-year-old me and the client team, “selling is listening.” No matter how righteous your cause or the weight of your time and genius invested, leaders must listen to sell an idea.

This may not be very lawyerly, but leaders don’t have to know the answer to every question before asking them. Yes, this sounds like the antithesis of due diligence but, as they begin to turn over every rock, wise leaders quickly identify what they can know and actively listen for the facts that they can’t possibly uncover independently; teachable leaders earn credibility that routinely bypasses the know-it-all.

Likely most crucial, be decisive when alleviating competing interests within the practice. This necessarily includes considering what hills are worth dying on and what simply are not. Effective leaders justly set the interests of the practice first. Yet when they balk at deal-breaker client or client manager priorities, they erode any trust built in the planning process.

Planning to Succeed for the Client

Following a review of your state’s rules on succession, the first step in client succession planning is to ensure that all files are properly documented and billing records are updated. In the post-Rolodex remote world, this must also encompass all client contact information. If the client manager stepped into traffic today, how fast would you be able to carry on the client’s work? The breadth of the relationship and work plays a considerable role in the magnitude of such a problem. The greater the magnitude, of course, the graver the importance of putting a solid plan in place early.

Document and discuss client fee agreements and trust account balances openly and restate them with the client. Again, the target to shoot for is a seamless transition regardless of when such change takes place.

Develop a written agreement that outlines both the client manager’s responsibilities in transitioning their practice as well as the firm’s. Such a step is time-consuming but invariably makes the agreement mutually beneficial. While practice leaders naturally focus on the inflow of revenue and the increase in profit margins, adjust the current client manager’s existing compensation structure, taking care not to cut her off at the knees. Compensation structures based on originating attorney or working attorney numbers may necessarily have to change since the new client manager will acquire much of the credit for the given client.

Allow the client to interview multiple options for the future client manager in-person. Whether one of those options is well known to the client or not, make sure that the client states their preference and then get solidly behind it. Future client manager decisions without preference to the client usually invite long-term problems in the relationship. If the client initially reports not to care, dig deeper to uncover true preferences. If they truly don’t have a preference, get busy either improving on the relationship or preparing to transfer the client’s files.

Notify relevant support staff of the change and enlist their help through the transition. It chills me that some practices simply don’t include or even communicate with nonlawyers who have worked on the client’s account in client succession plans. Depending on the workflow of your firm, some nonlawyers will know specific clients far better than practice leadership. Once the agreement is complete and staffing lined up, outline the organizational chart for the given client and work through introductions for all team members, even remotely if in-person discussions aren’t possible for some team members.

Periodic Review

The moment any plan is written down it inevitably becomes outdated. Set a timeline with the new client manager and the client to evaluate how the relationship is performing. This may be quarterly or annually depending on preferences. Most reviews will undoubtedly be inconvenient for most parties. However, such intentionality will add value by cementing and growing the relationship for years to come. 

John D. Bowers


John D. Bowers is the chief operating officer at Patterson Intellectual Property Law, PC in Nashville, Tennessee. He also serves as executive director of the Tennessee Intellectual Property Law Association, the treasurer of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators, the board chair of Clearview Children’s Center and is a former editor-in-chief of Law Practice magazine and continues to serve on its editorial board. [email protected]

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