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Episode 141: What You Need To Know About Succession Planning

by Heather Moulder | Life & Law Podcast

Succession planning isn’t something most lawyers think about. Some lawyers might think about it when planning for their retirement (but often, it’s not considered enough even then!).

Join me and expert succession planning guest David Ernst to learn why you should be thinking about succession planning now – both from the law firm perspective and the individual perspective.

Here’s what we cover in today’s succession planning conversation:

  • When succession planning comes into play (hint: it’s not just applicable when retiring).
  • The many benefits of succession planning (for clients, younger lawyers, law firms and the person doing the planning).
  • Why young partners should consider their succession plan at an early stage.

Episode Transcript

[00:00:48] Heather: Hello, everybody, welcome to the Life & Law Podcast. I’m your host, Heather Moulder. Today we have a special guest: David Ernst, a litigator and trial lawyer for 37 years who retired from law practice last fall.

[00:01:06] David worked at two law firms over his career and developed an interest many years ago in succession planning for lawyers and firms. At his last firm, David held the position of succession planning partner, with responsibility for helping the firm’s 200-plus partners with all aspects of succession planning. Having just completed his own succession planning journey, David is now working with lawyers and firms as a succession planning consultant. His focus is on helping firms embrace succession planning to strengthen client relationships, honor the contributions of senior lawyers, and develop the next generation of rainmakers and firm leaders. Welcome, David.

[00:01:43] David: Heather, thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.

[00:01:46] Heather: Well, I’m really excited because when we first met online through LinkedIn, and then we talked in one of my coffee chats, I keep telling people out there, if I ask you for a coffee chat, you should take me up on it because you might end up on the podcast.

[00:02:01] David: I think I did.

[00:02:02] Heather: Yeah. I think more than half of my podcast guests in the last year, year and a half have been from coffee chats because there are a lot of interesting people out there. You intrigued me because of what you do, and it’s not something I’ve heard a lot of people doing.

So I thought it was a really interesting topic that we needed to bring onto the show.

But before we get into the specific succession planning talk, let’s get a little into your journey. Obviously, you were a lawyer for many years, and then you worked inside the law firm, whatever firm you were with at the time, for succession planning. How did you end up even getting to that point? What made you become a lawyer in the first place? And then we’ll get into the rest of the story.

[00:02:46] David: Oh, boy. How much time do we have on this podcast?

Well, I graduated from college with a music degree, and so that ought to tell you a few things about my future employment prospects.

But I did enjoy that. I went to law school straight through, and I worked at a grand total of two firms in my career. So, I moved around quite a bit and was lucky enough to, in my career on the firm management side, work in a lot of firm management roles including a managing partner role at my first firm. I had the opportunity to work with some lawyers on succession retirement, just approaching that.

So, I was always interested in this subject and thought that firms could do better, both from the firm standpoint and from the senior lawyer standpoint. I got to do this at my second firm, Davis Wright, and like you said, was succession planning partner for several years, really enjoyed working with lawyers, talking about and helping them with succession planning at all stages of their careers. I want to get that point across, not just what we would call senior lawyers, but also with young partners and talking about what they can do to help lawyers and hopefully also gain clients. So that’s my short story.

What Is Succession Planning?

[00:04:28] Heather: Okay, tell me what you mean by succession planning. I think most people probably have something in their mind already, which is.

[00:04:37] David: You mean the “R” word, retirement? Sure.

[00:04:41] Heather: Tell me what it actually means, though, because I’m gathering it means a lot more than just planning for retirement.

[00:04:48] David: Yeah, well, to me, it means a lot more.

Succession Planning For Retirement

I know that if you asked ten lawyers, you said succession planning, they would say the r word. Some would say the whole word, by the way. But we can talk about that. To me, it’s a lot broader than that.

The way I like to think about it, and the way I observed over a lot of years was, I think succession planning is more of a map to a new destination. Now, that destination could very well be retirement. It was for me. But it’s more than that.

Succession Planning For Taking On An Administrative Role

It’s things like, what if you are in a firm, and what if you’re asked to take on a very big administrative role?

A lot of times you cannot maintain a full-time practice. It depends on the size of the firm, but you might have to devote 30, 40, 50%, or even 100%. Well, that involves some succession planning because you have to figure out where those clients are going to go and how the firm and you are best going to be served by that.

Succession Planning For Taking A Sabbatical

What if you take a sabbatical?

That’s a mini succession planning, and I’ve often recommended that to folks who are a little nervous about getting started with this journey.

Succession Planning For Moving Away From The Law

Or what if you don’t want to be a lawyer anymore and you want to do something else?

[00:06:13] Heather: Like me?

[00:06:14] David: Like you. You had to do some succession planning. You probably didn’t even know it.

So anyway, I view it as a broader word. I’m not afraid of the word retirement. I am retired. Besides, I’m doing these little side projects that I enjoy, and I just finished my own journey. But that’s how I view it, a little broader context than just the word retirement. Retirement is an endpoint, but succession planning is a process.

When To Begin Thinking About Succession Planning

[00:06:43] Heather: And how early would you suggest somebody who is thinking of going on a sabbatical or leaving the law or approaching retirement?

What’s the early stage of that planning process? Because I’m willing to bet a lot of people don’t realize how early they really should start thinking about it.

[00:07:06] David: I’m willing to take you up on that bet.

Part of this is from working with a lot of lawyers and then my own experience just last fall.

So much depends on the size of your practice, how busy you are doing client work, how busy you are doing non-billable work. But I will tell you, it’s very difficult to have a thoughtful succession plan implemented in less than a year. Now, have people done it? Sure have. I worked with people who said I want to retire in four months. But it’s difficult, I think, for the lawyer, difficult for the firm, and puts clients in a bad spot where they may go shopping. And we don’t want clients to go shopping in law firms, if we can avoid it. They’re hard enough to get.

We want to try to keep them. And so that’s my minimum. But really, we can go into this. But really, if you’re thinking about a change that way, you should be thinking and planning, maybe putting something down on paper at least a couple of years in advance because there are many moving parts to this.

And I emphasize the thoughtful in succession planning because you’ve worked so hard to get to the point that you did with a wonderful client base and where you’ve gotten your career. Let’s end it, your career, in a really thoughtful way that respects your contributions.

[00:08:58] Heather: Yeah. I wonder, too, is there a reason for. Well, I think the answer is clearly yes, but I guess, how would you approach this?

You’ve got a young partner or somebody who isn’t senior yet. But they have aspirations for leadership. They have aspirations for kind of moving up in that career ladder, which is going to necessarily mean not doing as much of the day-to-day client legal work. And it might be a year, two, or three away.

But shouldn’t they at least start thinking about succession planning in that context? I know there’s a lot of them are like, yeah, but I don’t want to do anything and assume, but if you really want that, I don’t know. I think you probably have people who don’t want to do it, but I’m not sure it makes sense to wait to know you’re going to get that position because then it would be like a mad scramble to try to figure out what to do. Correct?

[00:06:43] And how early would you suggest somebody who is thinking of going on a sabbatical or leaving the law or approaching retirement? What’s the early stage of that planning process? Because I’m willing to bet a lot of people don’t realize how early they really should start thinking about it.

Team-Building (For A Better Future Succession Plan)

[00:09:59] David: Yeah. I think it’s about building a team, a team that respects what you’re doing, and you respect the individual members of that team, and your clients respect the involvement in that team. So again, maybe in three years, you’re going to be the managing partner of a firm, and that involves, as we said, succession planning as well. So it has to be discussed, and it has to be thoughtful. I appreciate you bringing up the example of the younger partners because that’s one of my messages. Younger partners should care about this too.

You don’t have to retire next year. It’s not about that.

I mean, great if you can retire next year, but that’s not really the thing we’re talking about.

[00:10:56] Heather: Yeah. I would think that it’s at least important if you have any aspirations at all of becoming more active within the administrative side of the firm that you start thinking about this earlier so that when you do start to realize, yeah, I’m going in that direction. Because it’s not like those things come out of the blue, typically.

[00:11:21] David: Right.

[00:11:22] Heather: You can then reach out to somebody to help you plan it more appropriately so that you don’t leave your clients in the lurch, you don’t accidentally drop something when it comes to or in the eyes of clients. So that you could have people that you trust to hand over your clients to.

[00:11:44] David: And what a great way for you to earn respect within the law firm. You’re comfortable letting younger lawyers take the reins, bring a new perspective to a client relationship, think about a problem in a different way. I know we all think that. I’ll speak for myself.

Bringing Other Attorneys Into Your Practice

I know that I thought maybe my way was the way it was supposed to be done, and by letting other folks have these touch points with clients and see how they approached problems.

It was very eye-opening for me because I wouldn’t have done things that way. But you know what? The client benefited from that. And so it’s a great feeling. It’s not a scary feeling. It’s actually a really great feeling to know that others, you’re giving them the opportunity, and then they’re stepping up while you maybe move on to a different kind of relationship with a client or other clients, or, as you’ve mentioned, firm leadership, because firms have plenty of managers; they don’t have enough leaders. So we need firm leaders in law firms of all sizes.

[00:13:15] Heather: So I think you bring up an important point that is different than succession planning but related to it, and related to a lot of other things, too. There is this reticence by a lot of attorneys to grow a real team because they don’t like letting go of control.

[00:13:35] David: I’ve never heard that.

[00:13:38] Heather: They don’t like allowing others to give advice, to be the final say. So they often:

  • (A) have trouble hiring people; 
  • (B) have trouble keeping and managing and leading people appropriately; and
  • (C) have real trouble letting go and allowing others to grow into it.

But what I’m hearing from you is: that is an important piece to not just succession planning, but really serving our clients as best we can, which then I think gets to some of the benefits for why we want to do succession planning.

But let’s talk about this a little bit more. I think that it would be more helpful for you when you are in a place where you need to succession plan where you are, even if you’re not retiring yet. Right? Like you’re stepping into a more important role, if you have other aspirations. You’re going to need a team, you’re going to need people around you that can take over and you not be “the person” – the end all, be all. Otherwise that work is very unlikely to stay.

[00:14:46] David: Look, you and I have been around lawyers for a long time, and I a lot longer than you. I get these feelings that lawyers, quite successful lawyers, may have had some of those myself, and I just finished a succession journey.

I’ll tell you that professionally, the last two years of my career were among the most satisfying because I saw a team that I had been working on for way more than two years, actually stepping in and having this relationship with clients. Like you did and like we all did, I worked pretty hard to have the clients I did. So, of course, I was concerned that this went well, and it did. So I understand these feelings. I’ve been in the trenches, in a management role watching lawyers as to whether they’re going to do that.

The Satisfaction Of Helping Others To Step Up And Succeed

My message is to everyone out there, it’s really a good thing and it’s very professionally satisfying to see others step up and succeed.

[00:16:13] Heather: Yeah. I would gather that one of the biggest issues that people have when it comes to succession planning is letting go and allowing it.

You’ve seen this, I’m sure. Some are probably, it’s easier than others. But even if they’re retiring, even if they’re wanting to walk away, isn’t it still really hard for a lot of people to let go of these clients that they’ve had for a long time?

Oftentimes they have these strong relationships with them. And so that can possibly, I would think, get in the way of doing the things you need to do to properly succession plan. Yes or no?

Your Clients Are Thinking About What Will Happen Too

[00:16:56] David: Absolutely, yes. Here’s the other thing. Lawyers maybe don’t want to admit this. The clients are thinking about this, too.

The clients, number one, many clients are. I mean, the legal industry, I would argue, is way behind, at least maybe corporate America in terms of succession planning. From all that I’ve read now, I’ve only been a lawyer, so I don’t have that direct experience, but yes, absolutely, that’s going to be important.

But the clients are thinking about this, too. And what a relief to a client if a lawyer comes to them. I mean, it’s no mystery about where you are in your career. And if a lawyer comes, you know, a trusted advisor in that kind of relationship, you come to a client and say “I don’t know when this is going to happen, but it is going to happen. And I want to start the process now of thinking about my successors,” who’s going to feel bad about that?

Isn’t a client actually going to be so impressed that you care enough about this relationship that you’re thinking ahead so that there’s not an emergency?

Either something happens, God forbid, to you, or you decide you’re going to give folks three months notice.

That’s when clients, in my experience, find other firms.

Succession Planning Is About Being Prepared When Life Happens

[00:18:37] Heather: Yeah. And the fact is you never know.

It’s not always because of you being sick or something happening to you. I had one client a couple of years ago who expected to practice for many more years. But some things happened within her family that made her rethink things. And all of a sudden, she realized, no, I’m retiring.

And she was at a stage in her life where those kinds of things happened more. So it would have helped her to have thought about that earlier.

She still was able to manage it, but I don’t think she managed it as well as she could have. So oftentimes it’s not just us, something happening to us that makes us need to retire, but it’s other things going on in our life that make us rethink our values and priorities and realize, no, it’s time to step away from this.

[00:19:32] David: Yeah, all kinds of things can happen. And so I do appreciate your putting this emphasis on succession planning at many stages of your career. A word I like in talking about succession planning is normalizing discussions about succession planning so that people, I’ve been around enough lawyers and law firms that I know there is some reticence, and I understand the reticence. I’m not judging it. I went through it.

But if you see the senior partner in the firm who has the biggest book of business openly saying the word succession planning, to me, I know law firms. And so that to me, like, oh, well, if she’s talking about that, then maybe I should be thinking about that as well. So that is a longer-term goal of mine and something that I tried to do in my firm when I had this job.

But I feel a good way to think about things for firm leaders and lawyers.

Succession Planning Is A Firm Culture Issue

[00:20:51] Heather: Yeah, I think the point you’re making is it starts at the top, and people need to be talking about it and normalizing it, as you said, so that others will start thinking about it, talking about it, doing it, and then it really does get normalized within the law firm environment.

I think something we’ve kind of danced around, but it hasn’t been said as proactively for those of you. So I’ve known plenty of attorneys, I know you have, who are like this, but I’m thinking of one in particular where this was before I left my practice. There was somebody who was very senior, had a great book of business. He was in his upper sixties and still practicing. And anytime one of the senior associates who worked for him would bring up the r-word because she was like, you’re not going to be doing this forever. There’s just no way.

So what is our plan? She wanted to know the plan. How are we going to take care of the clients? I’m not in a position to take over at this point. Where are we going to be in a year or two if you decide to just leave? And he would bristle at it and not want to deal with it because he took it the wrong way of – you’re talking about me retiring, and I’m not ready. And that, to him, sounded like getting really old and dying, but that’s not really what she was doing. And what he needed was to step back and kind of shift his mindset around.

This isn’t an issue about just me retiring but an issue of ensuring my clients are taken care of.

[00:22:23] David: Such a good point here, and we haven’t talked about this yet, but we have a generation of lawyers that is coming up that has a whole different way of looking at a career arc. They have options that I never had or wasn’t smart enough to figure out.

And working in a law firm in a traditional model is just one of many options. And we owe it as senior lawyers, I’m not including you there, me as a senior lawyer, we owe it to the next generation of lawyers to make sure that they know that there’s a place for them in the way they want to go forward in their career. And it’s not about you, and it’s not about retirement. It’s about, am I going to be part of this team?

Because everyone is going to leave their law firm. They won’t be there forever. So what have we done to ensure this is an attractive, viable place that younger lawyers want to spend their careers? Good lawyers always have choices. I came from law firms, one big and one medium-sized. We think everybody wants to be at a law firm. Well, I don’t know.

And I think this generation, I don’t want to generalize, but I think they are very savvy and want a career they are in charge of. If they don’t see a path, they’ll look at other options.

[00:24:26] Heather: Yeah. I think if you shift your mentality around it and see it for what it is, not just about retirement, but the bigger picture of the culture of your team and the firm, because that’s what you’re getting at with succession planning.

Succession Planning Is The Ultimate Act Of Control For Your Career

Because you’re thinking not just about you letting go, but about enabling the firm to keep the client, enable the younger attorneys you’ve been training and bringing along to step up and take over, and for your clients to be taken care of. So from that aspect, I would argue that if you go into succession planning with the right mentality, we lawyers love control. It’s the ultimate control. It’s a different way of seeing what control is, but it’s the ultimate form of control. You are taking the best control you can over what happens in a good way for that client so that they’re taken care of.

[00:25:37] David: Yeah. I really like the way you’re framing this.

Can I steal some of these thoughts here? Lawyers love control. We all do. I loved it, too.

But if we start talking, if we’re transparent about this and just start the discussion, you might find that doors open for you that’s like, wow, I’ve done something really cool here. I’ve brought lawyers to this client that gives them a different perspective, and I’ve helped the firm, and I think I’ve helped myself.

If I want to stay at the firm for how many other years, I mean, that’s fine. I’m not going around telling people they need to retire.

I’m just talking about succession planning and the advantages of it.

Managing Clients Through Your Succession Plan

[00:26:42] Heather: Let’s go through a couple more benefits, right? Because there are benefits that are really obvious, and there are probably some that aren’t as obvious. Benefits extend to three different groups, at least, maybe four, because:

  • There are benefits to the individual attorney who is eventually going to leave and needs the succession plan.
  • There are benefits to the clients.
  • There are benefits to the team members, the younger lawyers who have been working with that person.
  • And then there are benefits to the firm.

Many people are benefiting here.

[00:27:16] David: Yes.

[00:27:17] Heather: So what are some of the main benefits of having a good succession plan and then following it? Obviously.

[00:27:25] David: Let me mention one thing that hasn’t been brought up, and I’ve seen this working with senior lawyers. Given a choice, the client is very likely going to continue to call you and want to hire you if you haven’t started a succession plan, or even somewhat in the beginning if you have. I’ve worked with several lawyers who were actually doing the right thing, but they just couldn’t help themselves. So when the client says, hey, Heather, we really need you on this one, who isn’t flattered by that? Right.

And the person in good faith was just becoming very frustrated because they actually wanted to retire.

And so you do have to at some point say, I am retiring, leaving, moving on to my next adventure on this date.

And if you don’t start doing that, you’re going to end up all of a sudden. Five years have gone by. I’ve seen that over and over. Because part of it is they want you, right? You didn’t get to where you were, but they’re not opposed to other options. But if they know you’re still there.

[00:28:48] Heather: Oh, yeah, they’re going to want you first. I would say, while you’re in that process, the best way I could suggest talking to a client about it is every time they call you when you’ve already made it clear they should be calling somebody else first or somebody else needs to handle it and they’ve asked you to do it. I would just say this is not in your best interest for me to be the lead on this because, remember, I am retiring.

We’re going to give it to person x. I will ensure, I’ll talk to them about it. I’ll oversee it. The first time, the first couple of times, maybe you’re involved a little bit, but they take it and then you slowly but surely get out of it. So from my perspective, you’d want a longer period of time. This is why it’s good to plan this, to tell them way early and have a long runway.

But during that runway, you actually have benchmarks that you’re meeting where you pull away more and more and give over more and more to other people.

[00:29:58] David: Heather, that was my experience. I started telling clients twelve to 15 months in advance. When I came to the date that I was going to, I sat with this for a while. But when I came to that date, then I started telling clients, and here’s another advantage.

You are there during that period of time. You are still a member of the firm. You can hear privileged information and, in the background, help the clients and help the lawyers. But if you retired and it happened pretty quickly and your successors are calling you every other day, that’s a problem on many levels.

I don’t think people think about the issue of, I mean, you’re not a member of the firm anymore. I don’t know. I’m not an ethics expert, but I don’t know that that’s privileged information.

So that’s something to think about too. But this idea that you can still be available, but the client knows, I mean, you’re there, but you’ve told them. My experience was clients are supportive of what you’re doing. They just forget. They don’t remember when you’re retiring.

It’s more on your mind than theirs. They’ve got 25 other things they are doing, and they’re supportive, but they don’t remember.

[00:31:27] Heather: Well, this coaching thing that we learn when we become coaches is everybody looks at everything from their own perspective. And your own perspective is your own selfish perspective, not in a bad way, but that’s what it is. The fact of the matter is they’re thinking, which is true. We have this long history. You know us like the back of your hand. You understand us. There are things that don’t have to be said anymore, so why not go to you?

But on the flip side of that, that’s why you need to get somebody else involved in leading it while you’re still around so that when things like that come up, you can go, oh, yeah, you need to know this, right? So you can cover those scenarios as they happen while you’re still there in the firm.

I kind of think of this as, so I’m the mom of an 18-year-old who is a senior in high school, and I remember when he started driving. Now we’re dealing with this with him with longer curfews and not coming home as early and all that stuff. And I’ve had conversations with parents around, well, you let him drive as soon as he was 16. He got his license. We were pushing him out to drive as much as humanly possible. As soon as he’s been able to do certain things, we’ve been pushing him to do that. My two cents has always been, wouldn’t you rather your kid do those things and go explore and be more independent and make mistakes while you’re still there, and he’s still at least coming to sleep at your house, and you can kind of know what’s going on and help guide them, as opposed to the first time he does it when he’s off in some other state and you’re not close by, and you have no idea what’s going on?. I think it’s kind of the same thing. 

[00:33:13] David: At the end of the day, it’s a reverse succession planning, Heather.

The Many Benefits Of Succession Planning

It’s exactly right. If you’re there, the younger lawyers, number one, are going to feel good about that. But they also know this. I can’t keep going back to Dave, or I can’t keep going back to Heather. You need to step up, and they want that, but it’s nice to know that you’re there to do that.

It’s also really good for the firm.

It shows leadership within the firm. It shows gratitude and grace, words that are important to me.

We haven’t talked yet about the advantage of bringing up women and lawyers of color.

You probably shouldn’t have as your successor someone who thinks and comes from the exact same perspective that you do, if just for a business reason. How about bringing up some folks that approach problems from their own learned perspective? And I’ve seen that too.

In other words, DEI and succession planning are something that rarely gets written or talked about, something that we also can make a lot of progress on. We default sometimes to, “Well, my successor is going to be this person who I’m comfortable with, or I’ve worked around.” I’m asking lawyers to step back from that.

And firm leaders should be talking about that too. Is this the best person for the client and is this the best person for the firm, especially if we’re raising up new leaders?

[00:35:06] Heather: Absolutely. I would say also that we should be thinking that way before we’re succession planning: by who we hire to bring onto our team and which partners we pull in to assist with particular clients. And we should probably broaden that and not just go to the person that we’re more comfortable with because they’re just like us.

Because you are going to get differing perspectives, which is going to get better. We love to say we’re outside the box thinkers, we lawyers. And if you look at websites, they say those all the time. In my experience, that’s not actually true all the time.

A lot of it is because of human nature. We like to be and work with and stick with people who are just like us. Well, you’re not going to be as outside the box then.

[00:36:00] David: No, we should be thinking of the client first.

That’s our job. And when we do that, good things happen, and the clients are watching.

They’re thinking about the choices you’re making. If you’re not making any choices and you’re at a certain stage in your career, and the client’s never heard about your successors, that makes a client nervous.

My experience is that’s when they, if you don’t approach this for whatever reason, that’s when the client, there’s a discussion, maybe that happens and says, we need to be talking with some other firms here in the next couple of years.

[00:36:44] Heather: Yeah.

Okay. So when we come back to the benefits, they’re obvious benefits to the firm, obvious benefits to the client.

The benefits to other attorneys are that they get the ability to step in and take over some work and get new opportunities.

Are there any other benefits that we’ve not touched upon, or at least as proactively touched upon?

[00:37:13] David: Are you talking to other lawyers or the successor lawyer?

[00:37:17] Heather: Either other lawyers or the successor lawyer?

[00:37:20] David: Okay, well, I’ll give you my own experience because I just finished. Benefits were: knowing that I felt calm and comfortable, that had great people that were going to take over the work. It’s a great feeling. It’s also pretty cool when a client calls you and says, hey, Dave, this other lawyer, your successor, just did a great job on this project or on this motion or whatever it is. Thank you for putting me in touch with this lawyer. And that happens, and what a great feeling it is.

It’s not, oh, that could have been me. I got those opportunities.

I had that, and I felt professional satisfaction by letting others have that opportunity, knowing that hopefully I was setting an example for some of my partners. And then I finished. You’ve heard stories about the day the lawyer retires, and they’re actually pretty sad about things. I wasn’t sad, and I’m not sad a year later.

I love my firm. I love practicing law. I always wanted to try a few other things, so I’m trying a few other things.

[00:38:50] Heather: So I think a couple of things there. It obviously reduces stress because at some point you’re going to leave. You can leave kicking and screaming, abruptly not knowing that they’re being taken care of, and then feel stress and guilt over that. Or you could do it in a more organized, intentional, planned manner, which is obviously going to reduce the amount of stress.

Secondarily, I hear it also allows you to give back to your firm, to others within your firm, which feels great. But also, I agree with you. I think we have a responsibility to some extent. We lawyers should give back to the profession and the firms that have helped us and the people around us that have helped, supported us along the way.

I actually go back to that control feature because what I hear, and I know it’s a different way of looking at control, but if you’re going to walk away, you’re going to be letting go anyway. You might as well do it in a way that feels more in control, and a succession plan is the only way you can truly do that.

[00:40:00] David: Also, I didn’t mention this. I got another benefit. I ended up, just because of the practice area that I was in, very narrow, narrow area. I ended up doing a lot of writing and speaking on substantive subjects. After a while, number one, it takes a lot of time and effort to do that. So I just stopped doing it. Not that some people were beating down my door, but I just stopped doing it the last three or four years and said, I can’t do this. But here is a great person in my firm who can. And then they got that opportunity to go to the conference to speak, to meet potential clients, and maybe I take them once to do that, but I had those opportunities.

Let’s let our younger lawyers step up and do that again.

[00:40:57] Heather: It comes down to, what is your approach from the beginning? For those of you out there who are listening, and think, well, I’m not at that point where I need to even think about succession planning yet. There’s still a lot in here that you can learn and reapproach:

  • how you manage,
  • how you let go of things and delegate more,
  • how you see your team,
  • how you build a team that will frankly set you up for more succession success in the future.

When you do get to that point, for any of you who haven’t done it and are getting closer, you could still do a lot in a short period of time. But if you’re further off, I think there’s a lot for them to start doing that will make this easier one day.

[00:41:44] David: Yeah. I tell lawyers, they say, well, I don’t know what date I want to do this. I understand you could still start the process. My succession plan changed, my dates even changed a little.

I had thought about this quite a lot, but they changed a little. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start on it. And again, for younger lawyers, how about the benefit of if you are helpful and you meet the partner halfway and you take the time to learn about the client, how about ending up with a six, seven-figure client origination after the partner leaves? That’s not too bad. And clients are hard to get.

So that’s another reason young lawyers, you’re right. If you say succession planning to a second-year partner, and I have, they’re like, what are you talking to me about that for, old man?

And so I said, well, maybe you should be thinking about how you can be a benefit to the firm and yourself.

How To Find & Reach Out To David

[00:42:57] Heather: Absolutely. So tell me a little bit about, before I let you go, what exactly you do for people when they come to you, how do your services work? How do you help people?

[00:43:09] David: I have a partner, Carol Burnick, and we run a company called Ernst Plus Burnick. Carol was a longtime partner of mine and a wonderful friend who’s focusing a lot on bringing up women lawyers of color into law firm leadership positions. So we’re somewhat separate, but we both have some of the same interests and values.

We are usually hired by law firms to help the firm overall with a strategy that is consistent with your culture. I think that’s so important; succession has to be consistent with what your culture is. Oftentimes, I’ll work directly with individual lawyers – usually people who are open and willing to talk about it and help them develop a succession plan.

I obviously learn about their individual circumstances and help them think about some of the things that I thought about, especially the issue of bringing up successors and timing. I think those are the two biggest issues that I work with lawyers on. Find me on our website at Ernst plus Burnick or on LinkedIn where I talk about succession planning a lot, maybe more than anybody else is interested in.

[00:44:41] Heather: Thank you so much. And I will definitely include the links to both places in the show notes so that people can find you should they want or need to reach out to you about succession planning.

[00:44:55] David: Appreciate that, Heather. And thank you. I know you have a lot of topics that you cover and could cover, and thank you for considering and having succession planning just be put on people’s radar screen a little bit. I really appreciate that very much.

[00:45:11] Heather: You’re very welcome. I’m very happy to have hosted you, and I know people are going to get a lot of great information out of today’s episode. So thank you so much for being here.

[00:45:20] David: Thank you very much.

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About David Ernst

David Ernst helps lawyers and law firms with succession planning. But like most lawyers, he didn’t consider succession planning to be something to even consider until later in his career.

David was a litigator and trial lawyer for 37 years, retiring from law practice last fall. During that time, David worked at two law firms, and developed an interest in succession planning. At his last firm, David held the position of Succession Planning Partner, where he had responsibility for helping the firm’s 200+ partners with all aspects of succession planning.

Having just completed his own succession planning journey, David is now working with lawyers and firms as a succession planning consultant. His focus is on helping firms embrace succession planning to strengthen client relationships, honor the contributions of senior lawyers and develop the next generation of rainmakers and firm leaders.

Connect with David on LinkedIn here.