Make Yourself Indispensible Through Client Connections

Published on: 
11/28/2011
Earlier this year, it was my privilege to be quoted in a New York Times article about the difficulties law firms and other organizations face in enforcing a mandatory retirement age.

The headline, "Easing Out the Gray-Haired. Or Not," plainly expresses the dilemma.

On the one hand, employers are reluctant to continue carrying (as they see it) older producers who no longer seem to be pulling their own weight. On the other, those individuals often still see themselves as being viable contributors and resent being forced out — to the point of filing lawsuits to stop it.

There is a vastly different dynamic for that issue in large versus small firms.

In large firms, every partner targeted for retirement, forced or otherwise, was originally added to the partnership because the firm had a strategic goal for his or her practice. However, when the firm's overall strategic goal for profitability is not being met, the older partners are asked to go. The days of "professionalism" and "collegiality" are replaced by tough competitive circumstances and high financial expectations. Something has to give.

Partners who refuse to leave quietly can sue to keep their positions, as the article pointed out in the example of a large firm like Sidley Austin and Kelley, Drye & Warren.

My suggestion was more positive and more proactive: Staying at your firm is not a question of skill, it's a question of contacts.

"Very few people are so skilled that they can't be replaced by a younger, more current practitioner," I noted. "You've got to be so connected to important clients that the firm is going to fear your departure."

That doesn't mean holding the firm or clients hostage. The key to avoiding obsolescence in the autumn of one's career is to be so connected to important clients that the firm wants and needs you to stay.

Such lawyers are the ones who inspire confidence and who all clients want to handle their matters. They are the lawyers who get results and are in frequent communication with clients about how their matters are progressing, without untoward surprises.

When the time comes for career transition, senior attorneys perceived as indispensible can play an active role as a service team coordinator — for example, representing the firm to clients and maintaining key contacts while helping direct work to younger lawyers.

Senior lawyers remain engaged in the business and maintain the firm's client contacts without fear of financial loss, while firm and client benefit from a planned transition.

What happens in the small firm? Every one represents an investment of years of hard work and financial resources in growing the practice and building goodwill, which can be sold when the lawyer is ready to retire.

Contrast that to the big-firm senior partner who is facing an abrupt and painful end to a career. Large firms believe there is no goodwill attributable to the individual partner. The sole practitioner, on the other hand, has definitely built something of value and can be in the position to enjoy the fruits of those labors.

The big-firm partner who has not proven to be indispensible may have few alternatives: connect with a client and go in-house, walk away with whatever savings he may have, or sue the firm for age discrimination or other perceived violations — real or not — and hope for a reasonable settlement.

Assure your success in the "second season" by doing the same thing you've done in growing your practice: Envision your future and develop a personal plan.

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