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While preparing for the recent three-part blog posts on retirement and client succession planning, I reached out to the Wicker Park Partners for their advice on the best ways for a senior partner to transfer client responsibility to a junior or mid-level partner. Not surprisingly, they emphasized the critical importance of client participation in the process. Here’s what they told me:
Sanju Kripalani, the newest WPG partner, was a colleague of mine at Stoel Rives and Perkins Coie. He noted that “client involvement vastly improves the odds of the handoff going smoothly.” Indeed, he reminded me of the simple, successful technique Henry Hewitt, former partner at Stoel Rives, used. Henry would assign younger partners work on matters for his clients and let the clients pick whom they liked best. As Sanju notes, “It was a natural, organic process.”
Billable Hours, Compensation and Other Internal Issues
According to Sanju, “many firms focus on compensation and other internal issues” that diminish this organic process. WPG partner Laura Meherg agrees. She recently completed a string of interviews with law firm clients who voiced “serious succession planning concerns” not limited to retirement situations. The interviewees were unsure who else was knowledgeable on their matters should the partner in charge be suddenly unavailable. Junior lawyers often are not included in client meetings designed “just to talk about the client’s business and philosophy.” The priority of billable hours keeps junior partners and associates from attending these meetings, denying the juniors of the opportunity to build relationships as well as watch senior lawyers provide strategic business advice to their clients.
The Value of a Team Approach
Sanju also notes that client teams “make the handoff much smoother.” Laura suggests that team leaders give team members the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership skills. One of her law firm clients divided the client team responsibilities into small “project groups” that allowed attorneys besides the team leader to demonstrate the traits the clients valued.
Time is of the Essence
It’s never too early to start. Laura and WPG partner Tara Weintritt cited numerous stories where the law firm begins to think about transition when a retirement is “official.” Yet successful transitions take months, if not years, to be done properly. They must include the client. Added Laura: “Clients are thinking much further in advance than the law firms—several years vs. six months.”
Nat Slavin echoed and emphasized the “start early” advice. Reflecting on several interviews this year, Nat noted, “When aging partners don’t integrate the next generation into the relationship, the client actually starts looking for more efficient lawyers at other firms.”
About three percent of AmLaw 200 partners are 72 years or older. There are many incentives and strategies available to help senior attorneys hand off key clients to the next generation. But clearly, as our interviews have taught us, the most important component of these strategies is to engage clients in early and meaningful ways.