Always leave them wanting more.
-- Walt Disney (or P.T. Barnum or Bobby Womack)
In past columns I’ve tried to raise awareness of resources available to address issues of mental impairment among lawyers and their need for assistance, whether due to issues of aging or the onset of dementia or other mental illness, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse and addiction—the latter of which plagues our legal community in numbers that far exceed those in the general public. My ruminations this month are fueled by the growing trend among law firms to make a conscious effort to embrace “succession planning,” or, as I like to think of it, that most diabolical way of making a 55-year-old feel even worse than when that first AARP card arrived in the mail—at a very “tender age” (under 50).
Those of us born at the tail end of the Baby Boom are watching as our not-so-very-elders are beginning to retire in droves—or worse. The sudden death of Steve Elmendorf, a highly esteemed BAMC member who was a pillar of Linowes & Blocher’s land use practice for decades, dealt our bar a bitter blow. It also caused some of us to ponder our own mortality. According to an Altman Weil survey, some 65% of active, practicing attorneys are over 55. Senior departures from practice, whether by way of planned retirement or sudden illness, disability or death, have law firms considering whether they have properly prepared for the retirement or disability of their senior lawyers.
The answer can and should be determined before a senior attorney’s departure or incapacity, and these events (and other interruptions in practice) are not limited to seniors—it’s never too early to have a backup plan. This takes conscious information gathering, analysis and planning—the kind of forethought we ask our clients to engage in when considering the legacy they will leave to their heirs. Lawyer succession planning is no different. There are numerous resources available to help you be proactive, and to strengthen your practice and increase client satisfaction before a planned or unplanned departure.
You can hire a consultant to help with these issues, but there are many free resources available online for those who cannot devote a significant budget to such introspection. Chief among them are ABA’s Law Practice Division publications (check out the “Law Practice Today” May 12, 2016 article “Succession Planning—How Does Your Capital Look?” focusing on the economics of succession planning, or more generally its May/June 2011 special issue on Succession Planning providing “A Short Course in Succession Planning” that remains cutting edge). In addition, the MSBA makes available these and many more resources for the Maryland lawyer, both through its Law Office Management Assistance program and otherwise. Expect to see these publications and programs proliferate in the next few years in response to the growing numbers of graying (if only figuratively) attorneys. Help is just a Google search away!
On the county level, I expect these issues to occupy increasingly more attention from our Lawyer Assistance Committee, Legal Ethics Committee, Elder Law Section and Solo & Small Firms Section. Why Legal Ethics? Check out this article: “The Transitioning Lawyer: How to Meet Your Ethical Obligations,” from the ABA’s Jan/Feb 2000 GP/Solo publication. If you are a sole practitioner, do you have a backup plan if you become incapacitated? We see opinions almost daily describing the Court of Appeals’ swift action to address issues that arise when attorneys fail to heed the warning signs that it is time to retire or accept assistance. This is no way to end a long, successful legal career. To leave your firm and your clients “wanting more”—more of your knowledge, your skill, your creativity, your services and your company—that should be the exit plan of each one of us.