October 23, 2012

A Managing Partner's Journey: Coming to Terms with Change

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Retirement Special Issue

Your Next Managing Partner

Succession Planning Strategies: Dos and Don'ts.

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December 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 8 | Page 32

Transitions: Retirement and Succession

A Managing Partner's Journey: Coming to Terms with Change

In recent years I have worked with dozens of law firms in developing transition plans for senior partners. One of those firms is Syracuse-based Scolaro, Shulman, Cohen, Fetter & Burstein. Barry M. Shulman, one of the firm's founding partners and its only managing partner until recently, wanted assistance in developing a strategy for his transition away from the managing partner role-a role he served in for more than 25 years. Over the years he has dealt with multiple layers of transition planning and renewal. I asked him to share insights into both his own journey and that of his firm to help illustrate the transition process. -Stephen Gallagher

A Partner’s Three-Decade Evolution

BARRY SHULMAN: In 1978, when our firm was emergent, we employed 3 full-time people, including lawyers, as opposed to the more than 80 we have now. From the beginning, we sought to redefine ourselves continually. We strived to bring in the best lawyers, who merged their practices into ours, so that it resulted in a blended firm defined both by those aspects of the law in which we would provide services and those in which we wouldn’t. We relocated our offices a couple of times and consistently tried, when we could afford it, to update technology. Later on, we couldn’t afford not to, of course. It was into this mix that I was asked to be managing partner.

As managing partner in a firm like ours, I maintained a full practice while also trying to assemble a central staff. I was fortunate to find an office legal administrator who has helped me lead the firm through literally hundreds of transitions over the years. She not only understands technology and accounting at esoteric levels, she also understands people. No one, I found out, can manage growth alone.

As a young managing partner, I quickly learned that growth is dynamic, and not always in a positive sense (with deaths, departures, additions, retirements and changing relationships). I realized early on that our ability to prosper depended on finding a way to rise above the daily frenzy. I used to tell people that, while we worked harder than many, our firm prided itself on our atmosphere of informal professionalism. As such, we attempted to listen rather than always speak, seeking to make collegiality between professional talent, attorneys and staff one of our hallmarks. We encouraged those who might have made mistakes to tell us about them—without fear of retribution. We genuinely care for the people we work with. I’ve even terminated people who spoke in a hostile manner with staff. Many of the employees have been with the firm for over 25 years.

It wasn’t long before I involved most partners in leadership and self-improvement projects. We held partner meetings every two weeks and turned to the younger partners in planning client development and substantive legal conferences. Annual retreats allowed us to be attentive to all levels of lawyer concern. Even partners performing annual associate reviews were instructed to listen as much as speak. Everyone had a share in making us a more responsive firm. I especially tried to involve partners in planning the firm’s major events, such as tax and other seminars held throughout the year.

About four years ago, I started seeding the firm with the thought that it would be healthier into the future with newer, younger management. To my selfish enjoyment, this thought wasn’t shared, almost at all, but I persevered. I understood that my successor would need to have a good understanding of how the firm works and what it takes to be successful. For me to step down as managing partner, we also needed someone whose practice would permit it. We’re still small enough to need a managing partner who maintains a full-time practice. But this person would need administrative strengths; a sound understanding of balance sheets and accounting concepts; the ability to listen; and the ability to consult and make decisions as well. We also needed someone who would be comfortable working with and through transition.

It was then that we called on a transition coach, Stephen Gallagher (whom some of my partners knew through their work with the state bar), to help us develop a strategy for my transition away from my managing partner role and into a new role—which is still in the process of being defined.

In working through my new and continuing responsibilities, we knew we also had several other founding partners nearing what others have referred to as the traditional retirement age. Transition planning was a very hard topic to broach with each (when you’re in good health, it’s difficult to focus on retirement), but several of the younger partners saw transition planning as a pressing need. I understood that. In my case, I recognized that moving away from the role of managing partner would allow me to extend my earlier interests and client involvements. I found myself looking forward to this transition—I like to think of it as yet another growth step in my legal career.

Lessons Learned

STEPHEN P. GALLAGHER: In my experience with law firm transition projects, the atmosphere of interdependence and mutual respect among the generations in Barry Shulman’s firm gives a firm a much better shot at coming up with a plan that will work for each of the individuals involved in leadership transitions, as well as the organization itself. Keep in mind that four other of the Scolaro Shulman founding partners are still actively involved in the practice but within a couple of years all four will have reached the age of 65. Shulman understood the transitions on the horizon so he looked closely at establishing a process not just for himself but for dealing with future transitions as well.

I have found that firms that genuinely care for all their personnel are better prepared to help their pre-retirees through the transition period. However, firms must also recognize that once a senior lawyer begins winding down a long career in the law, he or she may need support to attain this new self. In a law firm setting, managing transition means helping people make the difficult process of coming to terms with change less painful or disruptive. Let’s use Shulman’s journey to clarify what is involved in the main stages of the transition period.

  1. Letting go of certain aspects of what’s past. Successful transitions start by letting go of the past. In Shulman’s case, he was faced with handing the reins to a new person after 25 years as the firm’s leader. Income may be affected. Certainly there is concern about a loss of intellectual challenge—although perhaps with other, new challenges on the horizon. One may also be facing the loss of a group of colleagues and friends; a regular place to go every morning; and changes to the familiar way one has structured one’s time over many years. Firms need to encourage older leaders to be willing to test these assumptions, which Shulman was willing to do in publicly stepping down as managing partner of a firm that bears his name.
  2. Assessing the present. To help senior lawyers through the “downshift” phase, firms may need to devote more time and resources to their senior lawyers. First, they must find out where the senior lawyers are with their own transition plans. This will require discussing where the lawyer is currently, so there’s a basis for preparing to shift down from current client responsibilities and billable expectations. Shulman and his team were fortunate to be familiar with each of the partners’ billable hours expectations for the coming year, since each estimated the number of hours as part of their budgeting process. As managing partner, Shulman helped them develop individual strategies for the future while looking back at the previous year’s performance.
  3. Generating options for the future. Today it appears obvious that many senior lawyers need to approach retirement as a way of gaining renewed purpose in their lives. Pre-retirees may or may not be ready for something new and different, but certainly something interesting at deep personal levels is required. Shulman, who is remaining in his role as firm president for now, reports that he gives the new managing partner advice when asked, but he works hard not to get in his successor’s way. Instead, he enjoys still having a full practice and still fulfilling charitable and civic roles. Other senior lawyers, of course, may want—or need—to reduce their responsibilities. It is important for the firm to help them generate options for this stage of their lives.
  • For additional insights and resources, visit www.abanet.org/secondseason, where the ABA Second Season of Service Commission provides a significant list of tools for senior lawyers. The commission focuses on helping members of the profession who are approaching their retirement years but don’t necessarily want to hang up their briefcases. Among other tools, the commission’s Volunteer Opportunity Search Engine consolidates opportunities from multiple volunteer-assistance organizations and also allows attorneys to focus their searches in their particular state.

About the Author

Stephen P. Gallagher President of Leadershipcoach, is a former practice management advisor for the New York State Bar Association. As an executive coach, he works with law firms and practice group leaders to develop exit strategies and retirement transition plans for senior partners.