Reid Wilson, left, and Tony Marre, right.
Reid Wilson, left, and Tony Marre, right. (Courtesy photos)

Reid Wilson was convinced that the future of his firm, Houston-based Wilson Cribbs and Goren, depended on having a younger lawyer at the helm. So he started grooming his protégé, Anthony Marré, to succeed him as managing shareholder even before Marré knew he was in line for the top job.

Wilson, who served as managing shareholder of the real estate boutique firm for about 20 years, said the firm’s management committee started thinking four years ago about the steps they would need to take to successfully pass the management reins to a younger group of lawyers. But change can be difficult, and the firm decided to take it slow.

Three years later, in February 2016, the firm named Marré managing shareholder and Wilson took on a new role as chairman. Marré was 34 years old.

Both Wilson and Marré say the transition has gone well, and the firm has prospered in the year since Marré assumed the firm’s top job. The story of how Wilson Cribbs was able to pass the mantle from a group made up of firm founders to a new generation—methodically planning for the change of power—demonstrates how aging firms can successfully plan for succession and survive over many decades.

“Sometimes you need to talk about the change, get everyone to buy into [the fact] that change is a good idea,” Wilson said. “Then you need to have some time for implementing the change.”

That time started in 2013 at Wilson Cribbs, which Wilson founded in 1986 with shareholder Abe Goren and now-retired shareholder Ferd Cribbs. The management committee prepared a document discussing the firm’s leadership. “We started thinking with intention about the aging of leadership, when leaders would naturally need to move on, and getting everyone’s mind around the anticipation of change,” he said.

Marré was voted onto the management committee that year, and Wilson, now 62, said he started grooming the younger lawyer for the managing shareholder job “not necessarily with his knowledge the whole time.” Wilson explained that he groomed Marré by helping him understand not only the profession of law, but the business of law.

Wilson said he knew Marré was “the one” after the younger lawyer had served on the management committee for a while. There, he showed his commitment to the practice of law and to the firm’s business and its overall philosophy. Wilson said the firm hired Marré out of its clerkship program, and the younger lawyer’s office was next to his for 10 years. “He is a rising star, well known in the real estate industry and he’s a worthy successor,” Wilson said. “Besides being a fine lawyer, he’s a very good leader.”

Marré said the day-to-day job of managing the firm over his first year turned out to be easier than he expected, primarily because he had served on the management committee for three years and before that was in charge of recruiting. Because he had hired about half of the firm’s 16 lawyers, he knows them well. His biggest challenge during his first year was hiring lawyers to replace two who had left­; one had retired and the other had relocated.

But Marré said the pressure of serving as managing shareholder is far weightier than his prior responsibilities.

“There really isn’t a way to properly describe the weight of having the livelihoods of 30 people and their families on your shoulders, until you are actually doing the work,” he said.

He thinks about his work every day, every night and every weekend.

He is not focused on the firm’s finances. Instead, what keeps Marré up at night is wondering how the firm can meets its goals before Wilson and Goren retire.

These are his worries: “How do you maximize that time, the time you have with them? How do you absorb operating knowledge from them? How do you develop the young attorneys you have into business originators?”

Wilson, who does land use work, said he sees his new role of chairman as one of an adviser with an active practice. “My goal is to share with all of the lawyers the good and the bad I’ve learned over 35 years of practice,” he said.

William Cobb, a firm consultant in Houston, said Wilson Cribbs did the right thing by planning for the leadership transition and training Marré for that role. Cobb said that critical time when the founders of a firm step down from leadership or retire is a risky time for any firm’s longevity.

Wilson Cribbs is signaling its focus on the future in ways other than just a new managing shareholder. Its building, located in the Midtown area, is contemporary with modern art and concrete floors. Wilson said a committee of younger attorneys, led by Marré, considered branding, and tweaked the firm’s name by substituting a modern plus sign for the traditional ampersand. “The plus is to indicate we are adding value,” he said.

The firm is also using a modern type font for documents. “As lawyers we are trying to be clear and direct in our communication and our drafting,” he said.

Wilson said all of this—the new managing shareholder, a modern building, and marketing items like the typeface and firm name—helps project the firm’s forward-thinking image.

“It’s a message to our clients,” he said.