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Two years ago, Thomas Snow started telling some of his colleagues at Carlton Fields that he wanted to retire while he still had spring in his step. As president and chief executive officer of the Tampa, Fla.-based firm, he was up-front about his plans for a graceful exit. So when Snow, 59, announced his retirement last month after 22 years at the firm, it was little surprise to his partners. He had worked with other attorneys at Carlton Fields during the last two years to formulate a succession plan for a smooth transition upon his departure. By involving himself in the firm’s succession arrangement, Snow helped alleviate the discomfort that many firms experience when trying to plan for a changing of the guard while their current leadership is still in place. LOOKING TO THE FUTURE Out of concern that the existing leaders will feel slighted — or worse — if firms make plans beyond their current manager’s tenure, many avoid the process altogether. But such an approach is risky, say experts, who warn that a fear of dealing with the future can leave a firm without one. Partners resist putting the subject of a managing partner’s retirement on their business agenda because the phasing down of a leader’s responsibility can be an unpalatable topic, said Joel A. Rose, a law firm consultant with Joel A. Rose & Associates in Cherry Hill, N.J. The situation in some firms, he said, is akin to “telling your father that he now ought to take the back seat.” Firms particularly vulnerable are those headed by an aging founder who has served as the decision-maker for much of the organization’s life span. Often, Rose said, those firms have not determined who will take the leaders’ place should they retire or die, and have not decided how a successor will be selected. Without such plans, firms frequently go into a reaction mode and quickly form a management committee to make decisions. That approach, Rose said, proves unwise if those committee members are accustomed to doing little more than rubber-stamping the decisions made by the former leader. When a committee has to start making decisions by a consensus of many, who may have little experience in handling firm management issues, the firm’s stability can suffer, he said. Midsize firms and small firms more often lack succession plans than bigger firms, said Leslie Corwin, whose practice at Greenberg Traurig focuses on devising law firm partnership agreements. The tight-knit structure of these firms often makes it difficult for partners to sit down face-to-face to talk about where the firm is headed in the next generation. Corwin advises firms to spell out succession plans in partnership agreements. Such agreements can call for term limits of sorts for managing partners or gradual transitions out of their leadership roles. Some firms’ agreements still include mandatory age retirements, though a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the firm formerly known as Sidley & Austin alleging age discrimination has reduced the popularity of such limits. Besides merely affecting a firm’s decision-making process, the loss of its leader can rip the heart out of a firm — sapping morale, identity and confidence — if attorneys are not braced for it. Such seemed the case with Boston’s Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault, which dissolved earlier this year. The beginning of the end for the 250-lawyer firm appeared to happen when founder and Chairman Richard Testa died in 2002. Testa started the firm in 1973 and served as managing partner until he became chairman in 2002. A three-partner management committee took over day-to-day operations after he assumed the chairman’s job. But the firm’s leadership, reportedly fraught with indecision, ultimately failed to hold it together. Testa’s death, coupled with a major hit the firm took from the slump in Boston’s technology sector, proved insurmountable. Key partners began to leave. “It created a crisis of confidence,” said Roger Lane, former head of litigation at Testa Hurwitz, and now with Greenberg Traurig. In most firms without specific succession arrangements in place, their management structure is evolutionary, Rose said, with specific milestones as they age. Firms often initially are governed by what he calls a “benevolent dictator,” one or more founding partners or a strong domineering partner. This leadership is then followed by “rampant democracy,” where every partner is equal and expected to pitch in. “Committee leadership” comes next, which is a cycle that Rose says consists of “committees and more committees.” At this point, partners begin to realize that they are spending too much of their time on management duties. They also discover that the responsibilities of each committee may begin to overlap, and that authority issues are problematic. Finally, the management structure transitions into a “representative democracy,” with an executive committee or managing partner and subordinate, special-purpose committees. Planning for a leadership transition, however, can eliminate these trial-and-error steps as a firm moves to the next generation. FRIED FRANK’S APPROACH One firm that recently made such a transition is 510-attorney Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. When Michael Rauch, the former chairman who joined the firm in 1968, became of counsel last year, Fried Frank had no formal succession plan ready. But the New York-based firm, especially after an unsuccessful proposed merger with London’s Ashurst and some significant attrition in 2003, was looking toward its future with high expectations. Valerie Ford Jacob and former Ashurst managing partner Justin Spendlove had worked as co-managing partners prior to Rauch’s move. Now their roles are stratified, with Spendlove continuing as managing partner and Jacob at the helm as chairwoman. At 52, she is the youngest chair in the firm’s history. “It’s a very together firm,” Jacob said. “It’s very energized.”

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