Starting out in any profession can be a daunting process, as can moving roles or organisations. The same is also true of finishing one’s career.
After four decades in the law, the last 15 as a sole practitioner Wellington lawyer John Swan is very carefully and meticulously shutting up shop. For John this has not been a simple process of closing the blinds, pulling the door shut and walking away. He’s acutely aware of the duty he has to his clients.
“It has been a daunting process getting ready to finally close the business,” explains John.
“I’ve had so many loyal clients who have followed me from firm to firm, continuing to place their faith in me that it’s only right that I repay that loyalty.
“When I first started thinking about retirement, I knew I had to put in a plan for each of my clients in terms of who I could pass them on to. I had to think carefully about who would be a good fit for them and how I could manage my retirement so it posed the least immediate and ongoing inconvenience to my clients.”
This is where local networks have proved invaluable to John, particularly as a sole practitioner.
“It’s really important to build a sense of collegiality with fellow lawyers. There’s not so many opportunities to do that these days but it is important for those times when we need to support each other.”
John recognises that spending time proactively planning for and putting in place mechanisms to ensure continuity of support for clients if something happens to their lawyer is a time-consuming exercise that can be hard to prioritise. It can be confronting and challenging to consider what will continue when we have gone, but it is critical to put that pre-planning in place to leave the best legacy we can.
“It’s been a pretty time-consuming process retiring,” admits John.
“I started thinking about winding things up in 2018. At the end of that year I sent out a mailer to all my clients to let them know I was scaling back my work.
“I began working with a couple of other practices and sole-practitioners to hand on clients where they would be a good fit. We did an introductory interview between the proposed lawyer and my client to ensure they would feel comfortable transferring their confidence. There was no charge for that first interview.”
As well as considering the ongoing support for clients, there are many other aspects of practice to think about as well as business protocol when retiring.
As John notes, one of the difficulties of not having a central repository for important documents like deeds is that it can be challenging for people to know who holds those once a lawyer is no longer practising. This is one of the many reasons why it’s so important to keep clients up to date with your movements.
There is also the need to plan for the storage of records for the required time, information that the Law Society requires and specific requirements around Trust Accounts amongst many other considerations.
John is still making his way through many of these processes, but at least he’s comfortable that his clients know who to call when they need legal advice now that he’s no longer picking up the phone.
Moving forward, a home office has been established and John’s family history has reached the working draft stage. An interest in public art is fostered through association with the Wellington Sculpture Trust.
“There is more time for family involvement, albeit through digital channels to grandchildren in London,” he says.
“The Wellington Club is a venue for snooker and convivial occasions with fellow lawyers, clients and friends both at work and retired. Retirement can be recommended without reservation.”
The Law Society has a practice briefing that provides further details about what’s required when closing down or selling a law firm. In terms of taking a proactive approach to retirement – former lawyer Emily Morrow has written previously about taking a strategic approach to succession planning in LawTalk 935.
There is information on Business.govt.nz on closing a business, including one where you are a sole-trader or leaving a partnership.
Keeping in touch
Lawyers no longer in active practice can keep up-to-date with the happenings in law by signing up to NZLS Weekly, the Law Society’s weekly e-newsletter for non-lawyers. This contains most of the information in LawPoints. To sign up, go to News and Communications/Email updates on the Law Society website.
LawTalk is also uploaded onto the Law Society’s website. Another option is to apply for associate membership of the Law Society.