Succession is uppermost in the minds of majority of lawyers

More than 23% of the Washington State Bar Association, a mandatory bar, are 60 years or older. Several years ago, the American Bar Association, a voluntary bar, estimated that 400,000 lawyers would retire in the next 10 years.  For the ABA, that’s equal to its entire membership. And that’s equal to about 40% of all lawyers and a majority of private practitioners.

How will the ABA, in effect, replace itself?  Will the WSBA replace these 23% as they leave the practice? Law school admissions are down by more than 10%. Will our recent economic turmoil be played out in the supply and demand of legal services? This is the 50,000 foot, or macro, perspective.

At the ground level, lawyers in the Baby Boomer generation will need to look at their “second season.” What plans do they have for their future? Or, as I ask myself each day, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” What is it that “turns me on?” What do I enjoy doing? How is it that I want to make a contribution?

One-third of the 23% in Washington have said, their “exit strategy” from the practice of law is to “die at their desk.” In cowboy literature, it’s the equivalent of “dying in one’s boots.” In other words, doing what they’re doing is what they love doing and that is how they want to be remembered, not as a faded shadow of themselves in retirement. Some might say that it is a shame that that is all they have, their law practice. On the other hand, think of the valuable contribution they’re making to the lives of all their clients. Better that than nothing. Better that than feeling useless. Better that than aging overnight because your hobby and profession, one and the same, were removed from you.

A friend, and former trial court judge in California, Ellen Peck developed the idea of an “Estate Plan for the law practice.” She says it’s equivalent to malpractice not to plan for how one’s clients will be served in the event of death or disability of the lawyer.

Recently, I was engaged by the family of a deceased lawyer to value the practice and assist in its sale. On inspection, we found that there were inadequate time records; a trust account that was in shambles and needed an audit to reconstruct and reconciled; and inadequate client records to know precisely what had been done and yet needed to be done. This is a perfect example of where an “estate plan” for the law practice would have served everyone’s interests, the family, the clients and the judicial system.

Those lawyers who fail to address this issue put their families and loved ones at risk. Not only will the family have to deal with the emotional trauma of a sudden death, they will also have to deal with the economic turmoil left by the lawyer. If negligence is found after the lawyer’s death, or if the lawyer failed to balance the clients’ trust account (to the penny!), the family could be responsible.

In the case of a famous actor, who was educated as a lawyer, he failed to have an estate plan … and his family paid the consequences (estate taxes). This left quite a hole in the wealth of the family. Fortunately in this case, there were no other repercussions. But, this result is not necessary. 

Do all lawyers need to have a succession plan was one question raised in my recent WSBA presentation.  Yes, and no.  No, in the sense that some lawyers … those lawyers in firms … will have other lawyers in their immediate environment to take on his/her practice and files. Thus, the lawyers will be protected. The interests of the lawyers will be protected and the heirs will receive their appropriate due. This assumes, of course, that the firm has addressed the issue of how to compensate the lawyer for the value of his practice. That, unfortunately, is not always the case. But at least, the files will be parsed out and the clients protected.

One-third of the lawyers in WSBA … and more in the ABA … are sole practitioners. They must have a plan or force their heirs and loved ones to close their office and transition their clients to other lawyers who can serve their interests.

And Yes in the sense that all lawyers need to decide when to retire … to leave the practice … how they will do that, whether by merely closing the doors (a tragedy in my opinion) or selling the practice … and what they will do in their “second season.”

One WSBA member said we’ve always gone TO somewhere. We went to grade school, went to high school, went to college, went to law school … became a lawyer … and now, what will we do … where will we be going TO? That is a question that all lawyers must address … or “die at their desk.”

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