Hypocrisy and Selfishness Abound When Failing to Plan for Succession

If there was ever a wake-up call for solo and small law firm owners to create their succession plans, it is now. COVID-19 is a serious health risk that, as I write, is showing no signs of when it will go away. We’re not talking about the existential risk of getting hit by the proverbial bus, but a real crisis that’s affecting people everywhere.

I’ve written before about the myriad reasons why lawyers avoid succession planning and the calamitous consequences for spouses, family, clients and staff when no plan exists. What I haven’t done, until now, is call out the hypocrisy and selfishness of lawyers who delay or refuse to put together a plan. I can stay silent on this no longer.

Hypocrisy

I’ve had inquiries about my services from estate planning and small business lawyers in their 70s who have practices worth hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of dollars. When these lawyers contact me, I’m not optimistic they’ll retain my services. They haven’t been in a rush to do anything in the past, so I have no reason to believe they’ll do anything now.

I suspect they call me because it feels good to have taken one step toward a plan. When all is said and done, however, it’s simply a tactic that makes them feel less guilty. Now, they can go to bed at night thinking, “I’m finally looking into it. I’m doing something.”

Who’s kidding who? Without a written plan in place, they’ve accomplished nothing.

Compare this to an estate planning or small business lawyer who has a potential client in their 70s walk in the door. This potential client has an estate or business worth six or seven figures. Show me a lawyer in this situation who does not urge the potential client to get a plan in place ASAP, and I’ll show you a malpractice suit that’s ripening fast.

Shame on the lawyers who, for years, have preached about the importance of estate planning and succession planning to their clients, yet have done nothing to preserve the value and continuity of their own most important asset.

Selfishness

If you’re that 70-something lawyer stuck in the contemplation stage of succession planning, what other than selfishness explains that you’ll risk:

  • Having your grieving spouse or executor of your will (neither of whom is likely to be a lawyer) make decisions about shutting down or selling the firm? They’ll be forced to spend thousands of dollars on lawyers and other advisors to assist them.
  • Having your clients take their business to lawyers you don’t like or trust?
  • Having your heirs get nothing for the firm’s value? If you’re a solo, by the time everyone gets their act together, your clients will have found other counsel and there’ll be nothing left to sell. If you have other lawyers working for you, do you have faith those lawyers will properly compensate your heirs for the clients handed to them on a silver platter?
  • Having your employees scatter when they realize nothing formal is in place to ensure the continuity of the firm?

Lawyers willing to take such risks point to their selflessness and devotion to the wellbeing of others who have depended on their law firm—family, clients and employees. The truth is this is a purely selfish move by lawyers who are not willing to do the work themselves.

Solos and small firm owners should never leave, in the wake of their death, the burden of selling or closing a law firm in the hands of a loved one or unprepared employee. The work needs to be done now before things take a turn for the worse.

Haven’t Created a Succession Plan Yet? The Time Is Now.

I realize my frustration is showing here. I believe this COVID-19 crisis is the wake-up call for all boomer lawyers who haven’t yet created a succession plan. I also believe it’s my wake-up call to get this message out, however impassioned, to help as many lawyers as possible through the process.

The world as we know it has changed. The life-or-death risks we face are real, perhaps now more than ever. It’s incumbent on all of us to do our part now, while we still can, to make it easier on the ones we’ll leave behind when our time comes.

Categories: Attorney Retirement

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