Discussing the future of law has become a cliché in my professional circles. Science fiction writer William Gibson's famous quote "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed" seems more true than ever as I talk into my smart phone and it talks back to me just like the communicator Captain Kirk used in Star Trek.
Stephen P. Gallagher is a thought leader and deep thinker about our future. He is also a long-term friend and mentor of mine. But his area of interest isn't about the latest technology. He focuses on the challenges of human beings practicing law. His company is LeadershipCoach.us. Leonard E. Sienko, Jr. is a solo practitioner in Hancock, NY.
These two teamed up to write "For Sole Practitioners, the Future’s Not What It Used to Be" in 2015 for the New York State Bar Association Journal. Some of the thoughts that they discussed then about the future of law seem timeless and others are already somewhat dated, even though it has been less than three years since its publication. Mr. Sienko is understandably proud of his career as what we would now call in futurist circles, an artisan lawyer. Today being an artisan lawyer is often referenced as the opposite of the preferred modern "lean" systems-based lawyer. I note that there are many artisan lawyers still practicing and delivering great value to their clients.
Their follow up article, The Legal Profession in Transition, Download The Legal Profession in Transition – Gallagher-Sienko-Sept17 was published in September 2017. In it, they discuss Baby Boomers in the legal profession. Sienko postulates that "The new reality is that many lawyers and others are in no position financially to retire."
The authors state:
"We believe aging of the workforce is a phenomenon that law firms and bar associations can no longer ignore, so we hope to start a dialogue about how the legal profession can better utilize the skills of older attorneys, age 55 and up, currently in the workforce. We are also hoping to convince bar associations to create forums that would enable young lawyers to meet with experienced lawyers for support in finding their place in the profession. The third challenge we see before us will be to convince law firms to allow transition planning to begin much earlier. We believe everyone who holds a license to practice law needs to be involved in figuring out how best to take advantage of this aging workforce." [Emphasis added]
They examine various scenarios (aka case studies) involving transitioning lawyers and note that, while part-time legal work has never been favored, this may prove to be a win-win scenario in the future. There likely are quite a few law firms that can use some experienced help from a competent lawyer who has no expectation of making partner. There likely are, and will be more, senior lawyers who have no desire to sit on the sidelines and let their legal talents go to waste, but also no desire to continue to work nights and weekends or have a billable hour quota to meet. In addition, we all appreciate that there are many lawyers who want to retire and sell their practice, but recognize that the better situation for all concerned would be for the new lawyer to work in the firm for a year or two before the retiring lawyer moves on or slows down so the purchaser can be introduced to existing clients.
There are so many good ideas in this short piece. I know a lot of bar executives follow my blog and I greatly appreciate the NYSBA giving me permission to reprint their article so more bar association professionals can read it.
I often counsel and teach new lawyers about building a practice from the ground up. It would be a much better situation for many of them to work with an experienced solo practitioner for a few years with the goal of taking over the practice. They can gain experience and receive advice while building a rapport with clients that they hope to retain after their lawyer has retired or transitioned to a "of counsel, but on call" status. These "May-December" pairings sound positive in theory, but there is a legitimate fear of the new lawyer that the veteran lawyer might hang on—and keep hanging on.
I'd suggest that a one-year period with the new lawyer working as an employee would be enough for both sides to determine whether this is a good plan and then either the transition purchase agreement must be executed or the new lawyer should strongly consider moving on. The agreement could provide for a partnership type revenue split for another year or two as the new lawyer takes over. While the new lawyer would have to come up with some down payment, a payment schedule secured by the business assets might provide the retiring lawyer a better income stream than a cash sale as well as providing an incentive for the retired lawyer to continue to give the new lawyer a little free advice from time to time.