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Law Firm Owners

Why Lawyers Procrastinate on Succession Planning

By Roy S. Ginsburg

Roy Ginsburg counts down 13 reasons small law firm owners have a tough time creating a law firm succession plan — and reasons to get it done.

Some of my clients are estate planning lawyers. When I recently followed up with one of them, I came across an excellent blog post by this particular lawyer titled “A Baker’s Dozen of Why People Procrastinate About Their Estate Plan.” I had always suspected that the people who delayed putting their estate plans in order were similar to the small firm owner-lawyers I know who avoid succession planning.

Sure enough, after reading the post, I was right. So, giving full credit to lawyer Eric Matlin for his baker’s dozen, here’s my take on why so many lawyers avoid and delay succession planning.

13 Reasons Lawyers Procrastinate on Creating Their Law Firm Succession Plan

13. “Most people don’t like to think about death or money.” Succession planning certainly compels lawyers to think about their death. Who wants to think about that? And for those who believe they still need to make more money, succession planning will mean less future income for many.

12. “[Succession] planning is something most people are unfamiliar with.” Most lawyers are undoubtedly unfamiliar with succession planning. Oddly enough, even those who assist their small business owner clients with their succession planning are as unfamiliar with planning for their own as lawyers in other practice areas.

11. “There’s no hard-and-fast deadline. Deadlines move things along.” That’s why litigation has scheduled deadlines. Unfortunately, a court clerk can’t tell you the precise timing of a succession plan.

10. “It’s not much fun.” Running your own practice hasn’t always been fun. Just add another unpleasant but necessary task. Have a party once you’ve completed your succession plan if you need fun.

9. “People hate spending money on lawyers.” Not only that, but lawyers hate spending money on lawyers more than most people. Instinctively, many lawyers think they know everything. Heaven forbid that they should spend money working with a succession planning lawyer or consultant! I’ve got news for you. The chances are good that your loved ones will be spending money on lawyers figuring out the mess you left by not having a plan.

8. “People are afraid of massive amounts of paper.” This applies more to estate planning than succession planning. There will likely be some paperwork, but certainly not anything overwhelming. And lawyers generally have a higher tolerance for paperwork than the average person.

7. “You won’t live to see the benefits of your [succession] plan.” Once again, not so much for succession planning. In fact, who could ask for better benefits than seeing your clients continue to be well served by a competent successor you’ve chosen — and jobs preserved for your staff?

6. “It might mean making decisions that could arouse negative feelings in loved ones.” While that is certainly possible for succession planning, failing to have a succession plan will probably arouse feelings of uncertainty for loved ones and your clients and staff.

5. “The size of the job can be daunting.” Much like estate planning, succession planning can be perceived that way. The reality is that it is not a big time-suck or expense. Don’t let perception overrule reality. In addition, if you don’t have a succession plan, someone you care about will have to spend time after your death sorting out what you’ve left behind.

4. “Not doing your [succession] planning can be a form of passive-aggressive behavior.” Yes, I know that no successor will be as good as you. Don’t allow that type of thinking; in the end, it will adversely affect your family, clients and staff.

3. “Some people just like to live for the moment.” You’ve had clients who thought that way, and you made a lot of money to clean up their messes. You should know better.

2. “Seeking perfection in your [succession] plan.” No such thing. The biggest mistake is thinking the stars will align with the perfect plan with time. Time is not your best friend. Don’t forget that. Something that is not perfect is far better than nothing.

1. “Guilt feeds upon itself.” Many people who feel guilty about not completing a task then further avoid the task to avoid the feeling of guilt associated with it. Don’t fall into that trap. The best day to start succession planning is yesterday. The second-best day is today.

Weigh the Perils of Delay Against Your Fears of Law Firm Succession Planning

Matlin’s advice for potential estate planning clients is no less true for lawyers who fail to plan for their succession:

All of these reasons to delay are perfectly understandable — but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous or counterproductive. Keep in mind that doing nothing can make your worst fears come true. Whatever keeps you from properly planning, the damage arising from your own inaction will inevitably be greater than doing nothing. Weigh the perils of delay against your fears and you might discover that doing your [succession] plan is easier not only in the long term, which is obvious, but also in the short term, because the whole subject can then be put behind you.

— Eric Matlin

Lawyers are people too, and they can fall victim to the same mental and emotional traps as other people. The difference is that most lawyers have seen firsthand the trouble failing to plan can cause.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Roy S. Ginsburg

Roy S. Ginsburg is an attorney coach and law firm consultant who has practiced law for more than 30 years. He works with individual lawyers and law firms nationwide in the areas of business development, practice management, career development, and strategic and succession planning. Learn more at www.royginsburg.com and www.sellyourlawpractice.com.

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