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Law Practice Magazine

The Big Ideas Issue

Preparing Your Practice for Succession

Ruby Lichte Powers


  • Succession planning ensures continuity and stability in a law firm.
  • It involves creating a plan, evaluating the firm's current position, and considering growth, merger, or exit strategies.
  • Key aspects include financial stability, client satisfaction, and leadership continuity.
Preparing Your Practice for Succession

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Preparing for the future demonstrates a firm's resilience and foresight. Recognizing that the desired outcome shapes the journey, lawyers must navigate the complex process of succession with precision and care. It is crucial to allocate time and effort to contemplate personal and professional aspirations for the future.

Recognizing the necessity of an exit strategy is pivotal in the life cycle of a law firm. It embodies foresight and strategic planning, empowering lawyers to steer the course of their professional trajectory. An exit strategy transcends mere closure of a chapter; it safeguards the firm's legacy, ensures continuity for clients and lays a clear path for future leadership. It also brings personal peace of mind, ensuring that one's efforts translate into a lasting impact, both professionally and personally. It involves gracefully concluding one chapter, paving the way for subsequent stages of professional and personal pursuits. If done with foresight, it can maximize the financial return on investment of their work for the parting attorney.

With this context in mind, the discussion on the significance of succession planning gains even greater relevance. Preparing the practice for seamless succession, whether through growth, merger or eventual strategic exit, starts with an accurate and comprehensive understanding of its current position and potential future trajectories. During this reflective phase, it is crucial to evaluate not only tangible assets and status but also intangible values and characteristics that define the essence of the practice. This comprehensive approach ensures that the succession plan aligns with both the business objectives and the essence of the practice. Initial steps of assessment and planning set the stage for a smooth transition, whether expanding the practice or gracefully transitioning away from it.

Step One: Create a Plan

The first step in preparing the firm for seamless succession involves creating a plan. There are two primary scenarios: growth and expansion, which involves scaling the firm's operations and increasing market presence; or transition and exit, which focuses on smoothly handing over responsibilities and ownership to new leaders or planning for the eventual closure of the firm. Before charting the desired course, conducting a comprehensive audit serves as a crucial foundation. This critical evaluation unveils the firm's status and illuminates the optimal path. It encompasses more than financial aspects; an audit unveils team strengths, process efficiency and client satisfaction, providing a holistic view of the firm's health and prospects. Auditing guides the firm toward the necessary adjustments for growth or transition.

Growing and Expanding: Paving the Way for a Seamless Transition

Growing and expanding your practice extends beyond numerical metrics; it involves reinforcing its fundamental aspects. Expanding by merging with other firms can introduce fresh perspectives, enrich knowledge and expand the clientele. However, successful mergers require a strategic approach, focusing on financial stability, cultural alignment and long-term synergy. Technology plays a crucial role in this process; integrating systems is as essential as aligning cultures and visions. It is vital not to prioritize immediate gains over a well-thought-out merger plan.

In the realm of growth, innovation and adaptation play pivotal roles. As the legal landscape evolves, your practice should evolve accordingly. This may entail embracing new technologies, exploring untapped markets or even reshaping your firm's services to address emerging legal demands.

Opening Another Office: Calculated Expansion

Expanding your footprint by opening satellite offices can be an exhilarating yet challenging endeavor. It demands a deep understanding of the new market, careful planning and a substantial commitment of resources. This move requires not only logistical preparation but also an understanding of the nuances of the new location. Understanding local regulations, market demands, and community dynamics; having regular interaction with the satellite offices; practicing cautious budgeting; and developing a solid marketing strategy are essential to transform this opportunity into a triumph.

Buying: The Fast Track

Buying an existing practice offers a shortcut to growth, instantly providing an established clientele and operational framework. Still, this route is filled with responsibilities and risks. Comprehensive due diligence, understanding the seller's future role and ensuring client retention are important. Additionally, post-acquisition integration is a critical period. It demands meticulous attention to melding different cultures, systems and expectations to create a cohesive and coherent entity. Embrace the “earn-out” method for a predictable financial transition, in which payments are structured over a specified period and are based on predetermined criteria such as revenue targets, while also focusing on “the sale after the sale” and fostering strong relationships with the acquired clientele. The earn-out method is a financial arrangement in mergers and acquisitions where the buyer makes additional payments to the seller based on the future performance of the acquired business. The continued engagement with clients ensures customer satisfaction and cultivates loyal client relationships. 

Selling Your Firm: Leaving on a High Note

Making your firm attractive to potential buyers or successors is like preparing a home for sale. Organize your financials, prepare a detailed sales agreement and consider the nuances of selling your firm in parts if needed. Also, consider the emotional aspect of this transition. Clear and compassionate communication with your team about the future can alleviate uncertainties and foster a positive environment during this period of change. Remember––how you exit is as crucial as how you have led.

Exiting or Stepping Away: The Graceful Goodbye

Deciding when and how to step away from your firm requires a profound introspection of your goals and financial needs. Whether it's a well-planned sale, a generous giveaway or a necessary closure, your exit strategy should reflect your legacy and life's work. It's also about crafting a narrative that honors your contribution and ensures that the values and principles you've instilled in the firm continue to guide its journey forward. For solo practitioners, the path may seem more straightforward, but it's no less significant. For larger firms, the transition involves ensuring leadership continuity, client retention and handling financial intricacies with finesse.

Large Versus Small Firms: Tailoring the Transition

The scale of your firm informs the nuances of your succession plan. Larger firms must focus on leadership transitions, retaining client relationships and navigating partnership agreements. In contrast, smaller firms might engage in a more personalized approach, where the emphasis lies on maintaining the unique culture and personal touch that defines their practice. Solo practitioners enjoy flexibility but face the challenge of charting a personalized exit path. Despite the size, the transition should be handled with strategic planning, empathy for all stakeholders and a keen eye on the future.

As you stand at the crossroads of your professional journey, remember that preparing for succession is not just an administrative task but a strategic endeavor that ensures your legacy and the continued success of your practice. This journey is not just about the end goal but about crafting a legacy that resonates with your values, benefits your community and inspires the next generation of legal professionals. Embrace growth opportunities, plan meticulously, and when the time comes, exit with grace and confidence, leaving behind a firm that's not just surviving, but thriving.

Step Two: Start Preparing

Proactive succession planning ensures that the firm can continue to operate smoothly even in the absence of key leaders or partners. This continuity enables stability, instilling confidence in clients and employees.

The legal landscape is continually evolving, requiring firms to adapt and innovate. By preparing for succession, firms can respond effectively to changing client needs, regulatory requirements and industry trends. Whether through internal development or external partnerships, having a clear succession strategy enables firms to capitalize on growth opportunities. By acting and starting to prepare for succession now, firms can position themselves for growth, mitigate risks and uphold their commitment to clients. “Dig your well before you’re thirsty.” Start your succession planning well in advance of when you need to make it happen. Otherwise, if the succession were to become necessary unexpectedly, you would likely not have enough time to execute a successful one without having a plan in place. On the positive side, if you have done your thinking in advance, you can pounce on an opportunity as soon as it presents itself.