Giving Up Control

Kathy Fortin

December 20, 2020


Giving Up Control

What does a former ballerina and fitness guru have in common with your average law firm owner? In the recent sale of her company to fitness clothier Lululemon, the former owner and CEO Brynn Putnam will be staying on with the new owner, a customary practice. Similarly, in many firms, senior lawyers also stay on at the firm after ownership is transitioned to new owners, and remain involved in different capacities.

As lawyers transition leadership, many do not envision themselves in full retirement and instead desire to stay with the firm. It can be a frightening or incomprehensible thought to contemplate that their life would not include helping clients and tackling still enjoyable legal work. For many, not having an office to go to, which has for years almost been a second home and where they can feel a sense of purpose, is hard to imagine. Staying on in some capacity is a desirable option. However, in some cases, staying on is a reaction to the frightening thought of losing the control they had in running the firm. This is particularly the case for those who have built a firm from the ground up. 

As a firm transitions from the first generation to the next, senior lawyers are still very valuable, wanted, and needed. Their ongoing involvement and commitment to the firm offers important value as the leadership transition occurs. They offer the ability to continue maintaining relationships with clients the ability to attract new clients. They also demonstrate ongoing confidence in the reputation of the firm and a passion for the firm’s continuing success.

Ms. Putnam recognizes the changes she must accept as she steps down as the head of her former business (Wall Street Journal; Nov. 27, 2020).  Similarly, law firm founders must recognize the same and also accept that there are also necessary and logical changes that need to happen:

  • Those lawyers passing the baton must be aware there will be change they can no longer control and they must accept the fact that it will be a new firm with new leadership styles, personalities, culture, and perhaps different priorities.
  • The senior lawyers must approach the transition with excitement for the new venture and lend support to the new owners as they chart a new course.
  • They must accept they are no longer the leader and must not disrupt the transition.
  • They must recognize that while it may feel scary to release their hold on ownership, they must restrain their efforts to assert any effort to continue as before.

As the firm is finding its own way, so must the senior lawyer who stays on. Recognizing this  is the inherent challenge in the transition to new ownership. At the same time, there is also a tremendous upside to staying on at the firm. Lawyers can discover gratifying new opportunities in assuming a new role, one without burdens, but instead new rewards in a late-stage career.