Succession planning of client relationships at law firms requires a thoughtful examination of a law firm’s past, present and future.  Managing the transition of a senior lawyer’s practice to younger counterparts is not easy.  Poorly understood and executed, it can result in a loss of both valuable business and a cherished colleague.  The stakes are high.

To retain client relationships and reward the successful transition to a younger generation, law firms can draw on some tried and true techniques.  But before getting to the nitty gritty of execution, it is very important that leadership adroitly approach the senior lawyer whose practice, still vital and valuable, is the subject of the conversation.  Because many senior lawyers find the idea of retirement discomforting, introducing the topic through what can be a difficult conversation requires a deft touch.

A senior lawyer approached unskillfully may perceive the overture as seriously premature thus stifling results. In other cases, the poorly constructed conversation can result in the senior attorney angrily departing to another firm with clients in tow.

Under either result, the intended succession of client relationships has failed.  With so much at risk, five fundamentals should be followed when planning the succession conversation.  Specifically:

Don’t Delay but Talk in Due Time.  Planning for the succession of client relationships should occur early.  And because the succession process typically is neither easy nor intuitive, broaching the topic with a senior lawyer should not be delayed.  But a bull in a china shop approach is a seriously flawed way to advance the firm’s objectives.  It also risks the Boomer bolting to a more welcome place.  A careful and thoughtful analysis of the senior lawyer, his or her practice and relevant firm relationships must be considered before the topic is engaged.

Understand Your Audience.  Like any sensitive and potentially emotional conversation, it is wise to think about the person you are getting ready to speak to.  The senior lawyer’s personality must be considered.  A typically calm person gets approached differently than one that is more volatile or easily offended.  Understanding the senior attorney’s financial circumstances is very important, as is taking stock of the kind of relationships he or she has with colleagues.  The profitability of the client relationships is worth considering.  So too is the senior attorney’s history of moving laterally between firms.

Schedule Flexibly.  Even if the firm has done its homework to adequately plan the conversation and its details, it is wise for the firm to be flexible about scheduling the conversation.  Finding the right time to start the discussion can turn on when the senior lawyer is likely to be more receptive.  A conversation when the Boomer is on edge, feeling vulnerable or after having received some bad news is not recommended.

The Messenger Matters.  Picking the right messenger to kick off the topic is so logical it is a wonder that some firms fail.  People trusted by the senior attorney should lead the conversation.  A respected person with whom a rapport exists is ideal. The Boomer’s archenemy or an unfamiliar person should not be participating.

A Collaborative Approach is Best.  A plan to transition client relationships inside the firm is most effective if is based on a conversation, not an edict.  Succession plans tend to be more effective if they are the product of negotiation in which the objectives of the firm and senior attorney are addressed respectfully.  A plan that emerges from a negotiation likely incorporates the kind of motivations that fosters effective execution.  Collaboratively arriving at a client relationship transition plan ensures the greatest chance of success.

A law firm’s desire to address client succession is not only laudable but necessary.  Yet too often law firm leaders err by jumping into the issue without adequately thinking about how to approach the conversation.  In the vitally important objective of client relationship succession, can there be a more important first step?