Bye-Bye Brady & Belichick? Patriots Succession Lessons for Law Firms

When your quarterback and coach are the oldest in the NFL people start talking about succession plans. With winning teams, everyone worries about the dire consequences that might arise with the loss of superstars. The Patriots already went down the succession road in 2013 when they recruited Jimmy Garrapollo as a Brady backup. Brady didn’t retire and the rest is NFL history.

Worth a closer look is whether the Superbowl champions are only as good as Brady and Belichick. Could the team realistically overcome a dreaded double-whammy retirement of the mighty B’s?

The answer is yes. Teams (like law firms) can successfully transfer the skills (or clients) that have defined their success (profitability). But, there has to be a plan. For the Patriots, the plan might include another try at drafting Brady’s successor, which will mean throwing lots of cash around to get the top ten picks.

So what’s the biggest mistake firms and teams make in terms of succession planning? “Avoiding the topic altogether is the biggest no-no when it comes to succession planning. For law firms the avoidance issue is usually “because the topic can be seen as taboo, it often doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” advises Jonathan Fitzgarrald, Managing Partner of Equinox Strategy Partners.

Like sports teams, the key to a smooth succession planning strategy is not waiting until top dogs announce their retirement to act. Fitzgarrald suggests the ideal time to start planning is “usually between three-to-five years prior to the attorney retiring.”

Teams can’t ask players or coaches to train their replacements. But for law firms, the passing of the baton in a structured manner is required to keep clients on-board. One issue that arises when firms approach highly productive senior partners who are getting close to retirement age, is that they don’t seem interested or willing to discuss transitioning their clients.

To overcome scenarios where the senior partner is in denial or just plain stubborn, Fitzgarrald recommends that firms put some skin in the game. “From a compensation perspective, reward the senior Partner for the work that is transitioned to the next generation.  Some firms even provide financial planners/consultants to ensure the senior attorney has their affairs in order to be able to retire.”

Ignoring succession planning is an option. But usually puts law firms (and football teams) in a precarious position. Is your firm handling partner succession or has it dropped the proverbial ball? For proven transition steps and advice on partner succession, check out the webinar Lawyer Succession: Keys to Partner Compensation and Client Transfers.

By V.L. Brunskill

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