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Published Wednesday, September 27, 2017

If you're thinking about retiring from your practice, you may not know quite where to start. All the boxes you'll have to check — from terminating building leases and utilities to making sure you've tied up loose ends with all of your clients — can be daunting. The first step? Recognize that retiring from the practice of law involves more effort than simply retiring from other professions.

Depending on the state in which you practice, you may have three viable options:
 

  • Close the practice
     
  • Sell the practice
     
  • Transition the practice to a successor.
     

Matthew Fitterer, CNA Risk Control Representative, Lawyers Professional Liability Program, describes these options in the recent edition of Professional Counsel, "Retiring from Practice: Understanding your Options."Here, I will help you decide the option that may be best for you.

Should You Close Your Practice?
Closure may be the only realistic option for attorneys who either cannot sell their practice due to professional rules or have not engaged in an effort to name a successor. Selling may require as much as two years, and a transition can take even longer.

When choosing to close your practice, the first step is to set a target date, ideally six to 12 months in advance. It's unrealistic to presume that all client matters will come to a conclusion before you retire, so it is advisable to create an inventory of all active matters, such as:
 

  • The identity of each client and nature of the matter
     
  • Each client's current status and any unresolved issues
     
  • Any time limitations or deadlines
     
  • Whether client property or funds are being held
     
  • The amount of any outstanding fees
     

Based upon this information, you can decide whether a client's file can be closed before your practice closes, or transferred to another attorney. Remember, ABA Model Rule 1.16(d) requires the attorney to fully cooperate with successor counsel and ensure that the client's interests are protected post-termination.

Even when all cases have been finalized or transferred, consider tail coverage, also known as an extended reporting period, as, applicable under the terms and conditions of your Professional Liability policy. An extended reporting endorsement provides coverage for legal malpractice claims reported after the termination of a professional liability policy and during the tail coverage period, provided that the acts or omissions that form the basis of the claim occurred prior to the policy termination date.

Should You Sell Your Practice?
Selling allows an attorney to reap the benefits of years — or even decades — of hard work and enter retirement with a little extra cash in hand. The process, however, can be lengthy, and attorneys must understand the numerous ethical limitations that can delay a sale or prevent it entirely. In addition, a number of factors arise affecting the sale of a practice, such as sufficient revenue to justify a sale, the likelihood of clients remaining with the purchasing attorney, the practice area, and the reputation of the practice.

As noted above, the sales process may require as long as two years. While local bar association newsletters and online marketplaces are available, you also may want to utilize a broker, who can help locate a buyer, assist in valuing the firm, establish an asking price and negotiate the sale.

Prior to completion of the sale, identify and resolve any conflicts of interest. In some states, it may be necessary to obtain client consent to disclose certain information to the buyer. ABA model Rule 1.17(a) requires the seller to refrain from practicing law, either entirely or in the practice area sold, within the geographic location where the practice was conducted.

How Do You Develop a Succession Plan? 
Transitioning a practice is actually often overlooked, yet it offers several benefits to the existing owner, including consistency for the firm's clients, continued employment for staff, the ability to cut back hours rather than retire "cold turkey," and the increased likelihood of an orderly sale in the end. Again, this option is not for everyone, as significant time and effort are involved in the transitioning process.  Ideally, the predecessor attorney will be envisioning a retirement date at least three years in advance of retirement, but preferably five to seven years.

If you choose to transition your practice, you must have the patience to allow the new associate to grow into his or her role and eventually take the reins. Too little trust will preclude the possibility of engaging potential successors; too much trust may result in a failed business during or shortly after the transition. Here is a transition timeline to consider, as noted in "Retiring from Practice: Understanding your Options."
 

Sample Transition Timeline

Years 0 to 1

Successor works as non-owner associate
 

End Year 1

Successor offered 15% (owns 15%)
 

End Year 2

Successor offered 15% (owns 30%)
 

End Year 3

Successor offered 15% (owns 45%)
 

End Year 4

Successor offered 15% (owns 60%-majority ownership)
 

End Year 5 & Beyond

  • Successor continues purchasing shares until full ownership, or Predecessor retains minority share until fully retiring
      
  • Predecessor assumes a salaried "of counsel" role as long as minimum revenue goals are met
     


The transition represents a gradual sale with "transition activity" built into the transaction.  However, some authorities have concluded that the transaction is not a "sale" as contemplated by ABA Model Rule 1.17, and is exempt from the rule's requirements. The North Carolina State Bar, for example, explained in 98 Formal Ethics Opinion 6 that when a firm is purchased by a current employee, "there is no potential for harm to the interests of the clients of the firm due to the conflicts of interests, breaches of confidentiality, or abuse of fee agreements."

While you may be retiring from the profession, your duties as an attorney never truly retire. Keep careful records, preserve copies of client files and continue to adhere to a strict standard of confidentiality. By selecting a plan that works for you before you retire, you can ensure that your ethical obligations will be fulfilled, your legacy will remain intact and your retirement will be worry-free — as it should be.
 

Insurance for Law Firms

CNA is the nation’s leading insurance provider of professional liability insurance, with the financial strength, industry experience and broad portfolio of products to meet your property and casualty insurance needs.

As a partner or an associate of a law firm, you've worked very hard to establish a client base and build a successful firm. Even with stellar client service, unplanned events can present challenges to your firm's mission. You need a trusted carrier that has the specialized solutions to help your firm meet its insurance needs.

CNA is the nation's leading insurance provider of professional liability coverage, insuring more lawyers than any other carrier. Insuring more than 50,000 law firms and 155,000 lawyers nationwide, we are the Bar-endorsed Lawyer's Professional Liability insurer in Arkansas, Connecticut, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania state, as well as the bar endorsed carrier of other city and county bar associations. Whether it's lawyers' professional liability, other property and casualty insurance, cyber liability, management liability, workers' compensation, automobile, umbrella coverage or more, we understand the unique challenges in serving your clients and growing your firm.

We are the premier insurance provider to law firms of all sizes, delivering the unique combination of financial strength, industry experience and a broad portfolio of products to meet your property, casualty and professional liability needs. Our CNA Paramount® product with Law Firms Property Extension Endorsement was designed specifically for firms such as yours, and insures against common property exposures that can prevent your firm from conducting business.

Our underwriting and claim teams include licensed attorneys who offer tailored coverages to meet the specific needs of law firms. Direct billing options and a simple renewal process provide an ease of doing business with CNA. We also have four dedicated attorneys focusing exclusively on risk control services and educational programs. In the event that a claim arises, our highly experienced claim team, which utilizes the services of leading panel defense attorneys, will work with you on your matter.

For more than 50 years, we've developed a reputation for offering more than simply a policy — we deliver seasoned experience that helps lawyers confront their challenges and risks.

Products

Learn more about our broad portfolio of insurance solutions specialized to meet the needs of your business.

CNA offers a broad portfolio of insurance solutions — from general liability to property to professional and management liability and more — specialized to meet the needs of your business.

Services

Explore our services designed to help you manage your claims, understand your exposures, address potential losses and maintain business continuity.

CNA offers an array of services designed to help you manage your claims, understand your exposures, address potential losses and maintain business continuity.

Business Insurance Fundamentals

Learn more about how to identify the insurance and services you need to safeguard your business.

Are you looking to learn more about the kinds of insurance coverage you need before you contact your local independent agent or broker? We've developed some helpful resources and tools to get you started.

What kind of insurance do I need?
Identifying the right coverages that address your risk exposures and your greatest challenges is important. To help determine your business insurance needs, use this checklist to help guide your discussion with your independent insurance agent.

What is risk control?
Preventing and controlling risk can be just as important as being properly covered. CNA Risk Control offers a wide range of services focusing on management accountability, cost drivers and business solutions to help you improve your bottom-line profit.

Why use an independent agent?
Dedicated to offering the broadest selection of policies and coverage to best meet their customers' needs, independent agents represent multiple product lines from more than one carrier. CNA is proud to support the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America and their Young Agents Committee. Find a local independent agent for you.

How can I prepare for an emergency?
Learn how to safeguard your business, your employees and your family in the event of an emergency by visiting Resources to Manage & Reduce Risk for online tools and resources from CNA's own business continuity planners and government organizations.

How can I better prepare for my policy renewal?
Your independent insurance agent is your best resource to ensure your business has the proper insurance coverage as it changes and grows year over year. Review this list of 10 items to prepare for your conversation about how your business and its insurance needs have changed since your policy was issued.

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