Conversation with a Law Partner About Retirement

By Camille Stell

Are you ready to have a conversation with your law partner about retirement? What’s standing in your way?

Challenges

  • My law partner and I started this firm straight out of law school, and we have been together ever since
  • We have been with each other through the early days of struggling to make payroll to where we are now – providing a good living for our own families and those of our trusted staff members
  • Our staff is an extended part of our family and have been with us through the early days, as well as the difficult times that have come along as our practice developed
  • I don’t know what I am asking for – permission to leave? Payment for my book of business? Reassurances that I’m doing the right thing?

It’s hard to tell someone you’re leaving. Especially if they aren’t on a similar timetable.

Here’s how one conversation went:

Ellen: Cathy, I’d like to add an agenda item to our weekly meeting, potential retirement plans.

Cathy: Whose retirement? I know you aren’t talking about yourself. We have an agreement, till death do us part.

Ellen: I know I’ve mentioned this before and you always quickly change the subject, but this time I’m serious Cathy. I’m ready to make a plan.

Cathy: This is terrible timing. You know my daughter has just been accepted into law school and I have pledged to help her. I’m still reeling from my mom’s death last year. And the Pandemic has thrown us all into a state of flux. No. I can’t do this now and I’m shocked and hurt you are even bringing it up. Forget a meeting this week, I’m not going to discuss this now and I can’t tell you when I’ll be ready to discuss it.

Ellen: I understand the emotions this brings up. And I respect your feelings and don’t want to hurt you. But I’m talking with my family about this now and I’ll come back to you in a week or so to try to get something on the calendar for us. I really hope you take time to hear me out soon Cathy, I want you to be a part of my planning process.

While some of you will look at this and say, “that conversation was a failure, no wonder I keep putting this off!”, I would encourage you to see the conversation in a different way.

It’s brave of Ellen to bring up a subject she knows is going to bring despair to her law partner and friend. However, because they are partners and friends, they should both want the best for each other. And Ellen is doing the hard work in opening a discussion that will be difficult.

View this as simply the beginning of what will be a longer conversation over time. While Cathy was unreceptive today, Ellen is planting the seed. Given time, Cathy will see that Ellen is not going to give up on retirement because it’s inconvenient for Cathy. She genuinely values Cathy’s opinion and wants her plans to include Cathy.

Here are a few tips to help you jumpstart a difficult conversation:

Approach the topic with care understanding the sensitive nature of the topic. Initially approach the conversation in private. There is no need to alert the entire office of a change that may be months or years down the road.

Make notes about your concerns. Take into account how your decision will impact your law partner, as well as your employees.

Listen without challenging your law partner’s opinions, offering one-sided solutions, or brushing off their concerns. Don’t shut down if you don’t like what you hear, rather take the information and spend time reflecting on what your partner is saying and what you are hearing.

Create bullet points so you won’t forget the important points you want to make. Record your partners concerns so you can identify those during the continued discussions. Do your homework to be prepared, anticipate challenges, and offer solutions for the good of the firm. 

Realize this is just the first of many conversations and even a rocky start means you have begun the hard work.

Excerpt from “Designing a Succession Plan for Your Law Practice: A Step-by-Step Guide for Preparing and Packaging Your Firm For Maximum Value” by Tom Lenfestey and Camille Stell, publication date February 2021 and available via Amazon.

Camille Stell is the President of Lawyers Mutual Consulting & Services and works with lawyers in building modern law firms, strategic planning, and succession planning. Connect with Camille at camille@lawyersmutualconsulting.com or 800.662.8843, ext 133.

Reprint permission by Lawyers Mutual Consulting & Services.