Succession planning and the real estate practitioner

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Like me, many of my real estate practitioner friends are retirement age. Before COVID-19 prevented travel, I often visited our law firms across South Carolina and at some point became acutely aware of our aging population. Real estate must not be as fascinating to young folks as it is to me and many other lawyers my age. I announced last week that I will retire next February. For corporate employees like me, the retirement process is easy. Let me restate that. Once the extremely difficult mental threshold is crossed, the paperwork is easy.

Retirement from a law firm is much more difficult both in the decision-making process and the paperwork! The old not-so-funny joke is that lawyers don’t retire; they die at their desks. Don’t do that!

My office encourages our real estate lawyers to seriously consider succession planning at least five years before they plan to step away from their offices. For sole practitioners, no succession planning means the value built over a lifetime of work vanishes the moment of death or disability. Lawyers who practice in firms can also lose their sweat equity if they don’t have the foresight to plan.

We encourage sole practitioners to consider hiring younger lawyers to train up to take over their practices. We also encourage lawyers to identify other lawyers who may be interested in purchasing their practices or merging practices. Conversely, we encourage younger lawyers who seek to grow their practices to reach out to lawyers nearing retirement age to explore purchasing or merging practices.

Several years ago, I contacted my friend Bill Higgins, a practitioner here in Columbia who has worked extensively with ethics and business entity issues, and asked him to develop a practice area that includes succession planning for lawyers. Bill has done that, and if you need legal advice in this regard, I highly recommend Bill as an excellent source.

If you want information about the firms who practice real estate and who might be open to discussing the issues of merging or purchasing practices, reach out to your title insurance company. We are singularly positioned to know what’s going on in the market place and we might be able to point you in the direction of a lawyer or firm that may want to discuss these issues.

The reason this topic came to my mind now is that the Ethics Advisory Committee issued new EAO 20-03 that touches on the issue of succession planning. The question in this opinion is a little complicated. “A, B, C & D, P.A.” is the name of an existing law firm.  Lawyer A is already retired. Lawyer B is the 100% equity owner of the firm, and now seeks to retire. Lawyers C and D are non-equity members who have each practiced with the firm more than ten years. Lawyer C plans to practice with another firm.

Lawyer D seeks to purchase most of the assets of the firm and to operate a new firm called “A, B & D, P.A.” in the same location, using the same phone number and website and retaining two or more of the employees. Lawyer D seeks to continue to represent Lawyer B’s current clients in ongoing and future matters if the clients elect to retain the new firm’s services via formal substitution of counsel agreements. The question became whether Lawyer D may ethically utilize the names of retired lawyers A and B in the name of the new law firm.

Analyzing Rules of Professional Responsibility 7.1 and 7.5 and prior Ethics Advisory Opinions 79-06 and 75-01, the Committee opined that Lawyer D may use the names Lawyers A and B in the new firm name.  The Rules have changed since the prior opinions, and the Committee sought to provide us with this updated analysis. The Committee assumed Lawyer D had the legal right to use the names of the two retired partners.

In Opinion 02-19, the Committee opined that a law firm may continue to use the name of a deceased or retired partner if the new law firm is a “bona fide successor” to the prior firm.  The question for the current opinion became what constitutes a bona fide successor, and the Committee stated that Lawyer D will be a part of the continuing line of succession of the firm and may use the names.

The Committee encouraged Lawyer D to review the comments to Rule 7.5 and EAO 05-19. The Committee also suggested that Attorney B remain at the firm for a time after the purchase to increase the “bona fides” of the firm name since both lawyers will work under the new name and therefore provide a continuing succession in the firm’s identity. Additionally, Lawyer D was encouraged to take care to avoid misleading the public by using asterisks or some other means to show that Lawyers A and B are retired.

This brief discussion is an example of how complicated succession planning can become. I encourage you to start early!