Book Review: Passing the Torch

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The written material on lawyer retirement and succession planning issues, either in traditional print media or on-line, is woefully inadequate. With so many boomer lawyers approaching retirement age, this is surprising.

Moreover, much of the existing material is not very helpful. Much of it is written by bean counters or corporate consultants, who are usually clueless when it comes to the nuances of law firms – the nuances that make them different from all other service professions.

Therefore, I was pleased to learn that the ABA was taking a stab at these issues by publishing Passing the Torch without Getting Burned: A Guide to Law Firm Retirement and Succession Planning Issues. Author Peter Giuliani seems to be a very-well-credentialed law firm consultant. This book is a worthwhile addition to the lawyer retirement literature.

Giuliani states that the book’s purpose is “to identify the many variables and issues that must be considered” for retirement and succession planning.  In general, he accomplishes that goal, but his treatment of some issues was not what I was hoping for. For some issues, the level of detail was way too great for my appetite; for others, it was way too little and left me hungry for more.

The Good Stuff

Giuliani clearly knows his stuff. I was particularly impressed that he often noted that the resolution of certain retirement and succession issues is fraught with emotions.  Further, he recognizes that these issues can rarely be considered in isolation. To deal with them effectively, you need to take into account a law firm’s history and attorney personalities.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the brief history of law firm retirement plans. Much of what lawyers do is based on precedent, and that includes how firms are managed. Putting these issues into historical context always helps. Many existing law firm retirement and succession operating policies are rarely questioned, based on the mentality that “we’ve always done it that way.”  It’s interesting to learn why these policies were originally put in place.

The OK Stuff

Giuliani does a decent job of discussing important law firm valuation issues. His approach avoids the overwhelming amount of convoluted CPA jargon that many other treatments contain. However, he fails to mention how valuation issues vary significantly based on practice area. For certain practice areas, the personal good will of the selling attorney (for example, a prominent criminal defense lawyer) is so significant that, without him or her, the practice has little-to-no value in a sale setting.

The Bad Stuff

Although the book is only 125 pages, excluding the appendices, almost 30 pages are devoted to a mind-numbing discussion of the various types of retirement plans used by law firms. I question what value such a detailed discussion provides for the average reader.  Plowing through those chapters made me glad I never became an ERISA/benefits attorney! I found much of it incomprehensible. The only people who could benefit from this section would be benefits attorneys and CPAs, who deal with these issues regularly. But these individuals probably already know this stuff.

Giuliani makes liberal use of case studies to illustrate his points. But these, too, include far too many details. I have no doubt that they were largely based on his own consulting experiences and warrant mention. However, he could have made the same points in a more reader-friendly way by using simpler versions.

The Missing Stuff

Although Giuliani admits in his last chapter that his book “by design” lacks a discussion of “the equally important issues of client succession,” I’m puzzled by that decision. Without a plan for this critical issue, there won’t be much a law firm left when certain attorneys retire. In a book of this length, there surely should have been room to cover this topic. This is especially so since like most ABA books, this one is a tad pricey at $79.95.

In all, the book makes a valuable contribution to the literature in the important area of retirement and succession planning. However, more articles and books on this topic are still needed.

 

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