Five Keys to Helping Law Firm Partners Embrace Retirement

Elizabeth Zelinka Parsons

It is well understood that to stay competitive in today’s environment, law firms must implement effective strategies relating to succession planning, which also requires firms to tackle the thorny issue of partner retirement. Law firm leaders continue to struggle with how to implement effective succession strategies when those strategies depend heavily on the cooperation of the firm’s longest-tenured partners. Even when firms create mandatory retirement policies, without the active cooperation of the retiring partners, client transitions are often fumbled, resulting in lost client relationships. Or, exceptions to the “mandatory” policy are made so frequently that junior partners defect to other platforms, fearing they will never inherit key roles with clients or in firm leadership.

While law firms do a spectacular job of helping their partners achieve the financial independence necessary to retire, only a handful have programs in place to assist senior partners with the non-financial (but significant) aspects of retirement. Until a partner can develop confidence that life in retirement will be as good or better than life in the practice of law, there will be resistance to retirement, and succession strategies will falter or fail altogether.

In my fifteen years working with retiring law firm partners, I have come to deeply understand the challenges they face. Below are five ways that law firms can better prepare their partners to retire successfully, making this final career stage a win for both the partner and the firm.

1. Remove the Cultural Stigma of Retirement
For too long, retirement from law firms bears a stigma. Many partners fear negative consequences from colleagues or the firm at the mere mention of the topic. Law firms should look for ways to normalize the topic of retirement and to encourage their partners to discuss it openly, whether it is on the immediate horizon or not. Successful strategies include offering retirement workshops, providing confidential assessments, and including the topic at partner retreats. The more openly the firm discuses the topic as a natural part of the career arc, the less partners will avoid it themselves.

2. Include Practice Transition as Part of Practice Planning
In connection with the broader strategy noted above, law firms should look for ways to include practice transition topics in partners’ annual business plans or similar exercises. As far as ten years out, partners should be asked to identify specific skills or technical expertise that are critical to their client base. Identifying younger legal talent to groom is also crucial, along with proactively seeking lateral talent to fill in gaps. Not only will this long-term planning improve client service and transitions, but it will also allow a partner to begin getting comfortable with the fact of their future retirement.

3. Create an Economic Incentive to Transition Clients
Many partners on the verge of retiring (whether voluntarily or not) have a specific fear of negative economic consequences as they begin to shift client work to other colleagues. They have spent their entire careers working to maximize billable hours, and the idea that they would actively taper their workload is not only foreign but probably not economically incentivized. Client relationships must be transitioned to other colleagues, and firms should consider economic incentives that encourage retiring partners to do so. It might be as simple as assuring a partner that their compensation during their final year will remain at least at the prior year’s level, despite an intentional delegation of billable hours to younger colleagues.

4. Provide a Program for Personal Strategic Planning
It takes much more than financial planning for an intense career professional to embrace retirement with confidence. Some firms provide access to strategic planning resources that help an individual develop a personal plan for life in retirement. Such work might include strategies for:

  • Addressing the loss of a professional identity
  • Establishing new routines that support health and energy
  • Building a broader social portfolio
  • Identifying new ways to engage with meaning and purpose
  • Creating a new base of operations (such as email, tech support, professional profile)
  • Networking to new opportunities
  • Navigating changing dynamics with spouses or other family members

5. Use Firm Resources and Firm Alum to Support Retiring Partners
Law firms can offer further support to retiring partners by exploring ways to make law firm resources available to its retiring partners. Ideas include:

  • Formalizing access to the broader law firm network (to identify opportunities, including volunteer as well as paid)
  • Offering research support
  • Offering marketing assistance where relevant
  • Assisting with developing a new professional profile (for example on LinkedIn)
  • Connecting law firm alum to each other
  • Hosting law firm events for alum

Elizabeth Zelinka Parsons, J.D., is an accomplished lawyer, facilitator, author, speaker, Board Certified Coach, and the visionary behind multiple thriving consulting firms. Following a distinguished tenure at the international law firm of Milbank, Elizabeth decided to leverage her rich professional background to empower others. She co-founded a consulting firm, Zelinka Parsons, to help organizations design succession planning and retirement solutions and is now offering her programs and insights to a broad audience of individual clients through her most recent venture, Encoraco. Her focus is on steering high-achieving individuals towards crafting purposeful, satisfying lives post-intensive careers.

Her forthcoming book, Encore: A High Achiever’s Guide to Thriving in Retirement, will be released in September 2024.