Leading Change: Transitioning Partners to Retirement

Volume 39 Number 5


About the Author

Karen MacKay is president of the consultancy Phoenix Legal Inc., focusing her work on leadership and strategy execution for law firms. 

Law Practice Magazine | September/October 2013 | The Finance Issue

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT succession planning—the process of leading your law firm through the pending storm of retiring baby boomers, those partners born between 1946 and the early 1960s. In your role as managing partner, you have booked a meeting with Dave—a 59-year-old partner in your firm. How much do you know about him beyond his reputation as a lawyer and his practice-related (read: billable) contributions to your firm? Does he trust you? How do you feel? How does Dave feel? How can you lead the firm and support Dave and others through this transition? This column was inspired by recent conversations I have had with partners and law firm leaders in an effort to begin this important dialogue.


Baby boomers, as a demographic group, have put work first. Work took priority over many other things in their lives. This will create unique challenges in the years ahead, for them and for you. Boomers value money and, generally as a group, have had a significant burn rate, with the resulting constant need for more and more cash. Work identity and the need for money are a dangerous combination. An environment that has fostered and valued production leaves little time to develop a purpose beyond the billable hour. Combine that with an erosion of cash flow, either by a departure from the firm or at the behest of the compensation committee—well, think about that for a minute.

How much do you know about the lives of your partners when they get on the elevator at the end of the day? How much do you know about Dave beyond his role as your partner? How can you value and recognize him beyond billable hours and compensation? Baby boomers value recognition, both by their peers and by the public—yet law firms have not been good at providing that. Making partner was success; anything else was failure. So what happens when you are tasked with easing these partners toward the door? They can feel a loss of identity, value and control. As leaders, you are working with the whole person—and never before has this been more important.


In their formative years, your pending retirees didn’t trust anyone over 30. Now they don’t trust anyone. In any group of lawyers where I ask questions about trust, the room goes quiet, people get uncomfortable and they focus on their newspaper, BlackBerry or iPad.

Try this yourself. Stop right now and jot down 10 words that come to mind when you read the word trust. Did you get to 10? Unfortunately, many lawyers can’t.

Trust is tough to find in a law firm. When a lawyer I know told her partners that she would likely not be at the table at the next annual partners meeting, her colleagues were extremely uncomfortable and stopped making eye contact. They questioned her loyalty and didn’t know how to handle the situation or her. In another firm, when asked about their plans for retirement, senior partners simply would not discuss or disclose what they intended individually. Why? They don’t trust their partners, and their partners don’t trust that the senior partners would put the firm first. In firms where the allocation of profit over the next few years is heavily weighted to production, these soon-to-retire partners become the victims of the very compensation plans that they designed. They don’t trust that they will be treated fairly (in their own estimation) and they don’t believe they will be valued for their contributions.

For leaders reading this column, just to add a layer of emotional complexity for you, imagine sitting down with the partner who was your mentor and supporter. He was perhaps the partner who was your work provider when you were an associate. He shared his knowledge, he was generous with client work and he was your champion. He taught you skills, and he trusted you on matters and with his clients. How might he feel? Does he trust you to have his back, or will he feel that you’ve turned on him?


So far you have read the word feel six times, including this one. Not particularly comfortable territory, is it? You also can’t duck this part of your role as the leader of your firm. Succession planning is about getting the firm through generational change. Retirement planning is about arming and supporting the individuals at the heart of the generational shift, and this is an extremely personal journey. Leading effectively these next few years may very well define your mark on the firm and define you as a partner and a leader.

While many of us have been raised to anticipate retirement at a particular age as an event, it is not. Change is a process, not an event. And if it is an event, some may not survive. As leaders, it has never been more important to connect both intellectually and emotionally with your partners. Respect and recognize Dave’s contribution, and give him a timeline to shift from past to future. Develop your skills as a leader and learn to recognize the signs of progression.


A successful generational transition requires generosity, respect and trust. It requires putting the firm and its clients first. The tension between doing what is right for the firm and what is right for the individual is fraught with challenges. It is a delicate balance—but go ahead and take the lead. Begin the dialogue. You can’t duck this one.



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