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Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

Transition Planning: Leaving a Legacy and Planning Your Next Chapter

Thomas C Grella


  • Begin now to think about a plan transition from active practice to post-practice success.
  • Emphasize the importance of planning for transitions, both within the firm and in personal life, to leave a positive legacy.
Transition Planning: Leaving a Legacy and Planning Your Next Chapter

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I often write about being thrust into leadership of my law firm back in May 2001. Lacking leadership training or experience, I was elevated mainly due to my involvement in the ABA Law Practice Management Section (yes, that is a plug for involvement in what we now call the Law Practice Division). The firm’s senior members thought the knowledge I had gained in law firm management would suit the organization well, since the position I was taking was seen primarily as one of management. I quickly realized the position was not only management but leadership, and I knew almost nothing about it. This position sent me down a lifelong path of leadership education.

I immediately began to study the subject, book by book, attending event after event. A few steps forward, usually followed by a bad decision learning experience, and a step back. My first leadership book was a parting gift at a local event. The speaker was John Maxwell. Reading this book, I wanted to learn more. I found a reference in the book to Dr. Maxwell’s bestseller The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. It became my second leadership book of the more than 100 that sit on my shelves today. Not only do I have the book, but I have his audiotapes and accompanying student application guide. At the opening of the guide, Dr. Maxwell says, “You can read my book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership in a few days, but it will take you a lifetime to fully maximize.” I concur.

Now, over 20 years later, I have become focused on his last law, The Law of Legacy: A Leader’s Lasting Value is Measured by Succession. To me, the message is: finish well.

The law firm I have worked at since 1988 is a unique place. I have described it many times to readers. We are not perfect. We make mistakes. We get frustrated with each other from time to time. Overall, however, I think the word “community” best describes us. We were largely on our way to making the firm a family type community culture prior to COVID, and I believe we became stronger through that experience. Though I credit our success mostly to my stepping away from management and allowing others to lead, I believe I can look back and be proud of where the firm is now, and my involvement over the years. Maxwell’s Law of Legacy largely guided my thoughts and actions at the time I stepped down from being managing partner. The underlying principle expressed in his workpiece, and which I tried to live out, was that one needs to let go of the reins when it is time and walk away with integrity.

But the Law of Legacy does not only regard leaving a position. It is also about leaving a legacy through other successful transitions. So, once again, I consulted his masterpiece for advice.

I am experiencing a different kind of transition now. It really started about two years ago. For almost 30 years at the firm, my office had been located on the first floor of our four-story building––a central location, smack dab in the middle of everything. Through rearrangement of practice groups, my office is now located on the third floor of the building––the firm occupies a portion, but it is mostly leased to a third-party tenant. The move was difficult. I was forced to cull through, and dispose of, years of paperwork (including folders of paperwork from my time in the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division of the 1990s). Through this move I became reminded of the Law of Legacy and began to prepare myself mentally for the inevitable transition to come––retirement.

A Plan for the Firm’s Practice

My firm had two significant retirements during my years as managing partner. Both were longtime partners, each with a significant and loyal client base. Before each retirement was announced, management discussed with these transitioning members the need for their legacy to live on at the firm; not simply honoring each of them with a retirement party or acts of gratitude but assuring care of their significant client. Each partner was asked to put together a list of clients, client contacts and names of current members of the firm who had worked on matters for each client over the years. They were each asked to give their analysis of the true “leaders” of each of their entity clients, the current decision maker when it came to legal services, as well as those they viewed as possibly transitioning into those roles in the future. Finally, each was asked to identify who in our firm might be most suitable to succeed to the position of client relationship manager for each client. After discussion of the recommendations, firm leadership, along with the senior member, discussed a transition timeline. Fortunately, each planned well in advance so that clients could be contacted, and consulted, with respect to the recommendations of the firm for work succession. Obviously, this process takes cooperation, which is only possible when leadership respects the time and commitment of the senior member in making transition a success.

As former leader of the firm in this process, I believed it was necessary that the firm treat this process as important as billable work. At the time our firm had not yet transitioned from a fully numbers-based objective system of compensation to the strategically vision centric subjective system we now enjoy. I discovered that was a hindrance, but not insurmountable, mostly due to the commitment of these senior members to the organization. Now I only have a few years to leave my own client legacy. Having gone through this process from the other side, I feel comfortable from experience, and a long-term firm vision that will help me in this important transition.

A Plan for the Next Chapter

A little over 20 years ago, one of my mentors, a former 30-year managing partner of my firm, announced he was retiring. Being a former mayor of Asheville, North Carolina, the firm sponsored a huge party at the Grove Park Inn and Country Club. I distinctly recall a talk I had with him at the time. I asked him what he was going to do in retirement. The answer was that he would travel some and visit his grandkids. I thought to myself that this workaholic would not be happy in retirement if that was the plan. Unfortunately, as soon as he left active practice, his health deteriorated, and he passed away within just a few years. I’m not sure if there was any connection between his retirement and declining health, but the lesson I learned through observation was that I needed to have a plan for the chapter of life that comes after the practice of law. I realized that I need to be proactive in developing it, and not wait for the day I step out of the office for the last time. For me, the plan that is now in motion involves a change in venue, a commitment, if I am able, to the profession through continued active participation in the ABA and making good on my desire to give back to the community through church and the charitable organizations where I’m involved. I’m sure there will be visits with family, travel and perhaps taking up pickleball. Even so, just like developing strategy for the firm over many years, and the planning for transition of my practice by creating a client legacy, the next chapter for me personally requires an organized plan for long-term life satisfaction apart from the firm.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, I believe I still have several years left before implementation of the plan, and I want to take full advantage of this time to transition well. I’m hoping that some of my thoughts might help our readers who are thinking about how to transition from active practice to post practice success. Some may resist thinking about the topic, as it can be depressing. Regardless, I believe that it’s never too early to develop a plan to leave a positive legacy that benefits others and self.