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Best Practice: Succession strategies for solos and small firms

Asked and Answered

By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Q. I am a solo practitioner located in the Chicago suburbs. I have one staff member. I am 53 and have been practicing law for over 25 years. I try to limit my practice to estate planning and estate administration. However, I do have to take on other general practice type matters to stay busy. Practicing law by myself is beginning to take its toll on me - it gets lonely practicing alone, coverage and backup for clients is difficult, and I have the full burden of the worry 24/7. What do I do with the practice when I get older and reach retirement age? I have not taken a vacation in years. I have been thinking about the pros and cons of joining another firm? What are your thoughts?

A. One option would be to grow your practice internally. You could add a younger associate attorney. However, it sounds like you currently don't have the business that would support the position. Then you would have to train the mentor the assoicate and pray that once they become productive - two or three years down the road that they stay with you and don't leave for greener pastures.

Another option would be to bring in a more senior lateral attorney with experience and a book of business.

A third option would be to look around for another solo or small firm that is looking for someone to carry the firm into the next generation as a part of their succession strategy.

According to a 1995 American Bar Foundation Lawyer Statistical Report the number of bar admissions has been consistently around 30,000 each year since 1977. Further, the number of lawyers by age reached 30,000 for lawyers under 50. Those lawyers in 1995 who were in their late 40s will be reaching retirement age between 2010 and 2015. Law firms have a larger population of lawyers in their 50s and 60s that will be approaching retirement and must develop strategies for transitioning their legal and leadership skills as well as their client relationships and market presence.

Sixty-five percent of law firms’ equity partners are in their late 50s or early 60s. Over the next 10 years there are going to be a lot of successions.

There are a lot of firms looking for someone just like you.

I am currently working with several firms in the Chicagoland area that have asked us to help then find someone just like you. So there is a lot of opportunity to join a firm that is looking for a succession strategy that will carry the firm into the next generation.

The big questions is always the "who" more than the "what". So put together a plan and start looking around and see if you can find a compatible firm.

Click here for our blog on law firm succession

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC, (www.olmsteadassoc.com) is a past chair and member of the ISBA Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics. For more information on law office management please direct questions to the ISBA listserver, which John and other committee members review, or view archived copies of The Bottom Line Newsletters. Contact John at jolmstead@olmsteadassoc.com.

Posted on September 14, 2011 by Chris Bonjean
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