When William Larry Latham decided it was time to come up with a game plan to eventually retire from his one-man law practice in Jackson, and called several associations in search of a source to help establish an efficient exit strategy, he found, instead, a roadblock.
“I’ve had a solo practice since 1971,” said Latham, 57, a general practice lawyer who handles a wide assortment of legal matters. “The management community in large partnerships provides contingency strategies, but there’s very little advice available for small business owners. People talk about estate planning, but not about this.”
Even though some law firms buy specialized practices, Latham’s didn’t fit in, he said.
“You can’t really sell a law practice,” he said. “If I sold it to a larger firm, for example, they’d want me to produce and that’s what I’m trying to get away from.”
When Latham, originally from Grenada, started chatting with his friends, he found that many were in a similar situation.
“A Greenwood buddy of mine laughed and said he’d simply die in place,” Latham said. “Some are frustrated now because they can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. The burning question is: How do you get off the treadmill?”
Latham decided that he would find someone he trusted to take over his 70-hour a week law practice. He met G. Todd Burwell, 34, originally from Indianola, when the two worked together on several cases through the law firm in which Burwell was a partner.
“Even though I was a partner in a larger firm, I was slightly younger than most,” said Burwell. “I was very interested in being in a situation where I could grow my own practice and work on a daily basis with Larry, who is a lawyer with a good reputation and provides great advice.”
The first step — and the most important one — was working with a facilitator both men knew and trusted, Latham said.
“Todd and I both knew Robert Crowell, an accountant who had just done the same thing with his own practice,” said Latham. “When I talked to Robert initially about where I would take my work so that by the time I reached 50, I controlled my schedule and it didn’t control me, I mentioned the Olde Tyme Deli (in Jackson), and what happened when Irv and Judy Feldman left. After all, the new owners had the same basic menu, but Irv seemed so delighted when customers dropped by on their way out the door to say what a good meal they had. When he left, that element was missing. I’ve represented families for 25 years that may not have had more than $100 or $200 in legal business in the last few years, but to them, it was all of their legal business and it was very important to them.”
As a facilitator, Crowell met with each individually, then collectively. He explained the risk involved and made sure the two men had the same work ethic and the same mission statement.
“Larry and Todd came to me and explained what they wanted to do and it was simply a matter of listening individually to their wants and needs and then getting them to understand the other’s position,” said Crowell.
Agreements that specified outside controls were defined, and a system was designed with a compensation schedule that allowed for mandatory retirement (at age 70) and an increase and decrease of responsibilities.
The process was “brutal” at times, said Latham, “particularly if you’ve done things the same way for a long time like I have.”
“As a facilitator, Robert’s job was to see if we were both willing to take risks,” he said. “If not, it wouldn’t work. I was used to doing things my own way for a very long time and I had to make changes. We had to make sure the time frame was long enough for Todd to slowly absorb work, build relationships, to work together and for me to slow down. I didn’t just want to dump clients with a letter. A first impression is a helluva lot more important than that.”
In January, the two, both Ole Miss Law School grads, officially went into business together as Latham & Burwell PLLC Attorneys.
“It’s a really good deal for me,” said Burwell, married with two children, ages 13 and 7, and another due in July. “Here, I have the ability to grow my own practice. I had a vote at my previous firm in the partnership, but my vote here says a helluva lot more.”
Small gestures, such as letting Burwell sit at the head of the table during meetings and putting his own stamp on business dealings, have facilitated the transition, Latham said.
“Other lawyers in the same boat have tried bringing someone new on board, but the biggest problem has been bringing someone too new to the business on board,” Latham said. “My advice would be to transition attorneys, not use the firm as a training factory.”
Instead of working 70 hours a week, Latham is down to slightly more than 50, and said working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. would be “a nice slowdown.”
“The PR required for exiting a business is just as important as the PR required to start or grow a business,” Latham said. “Many businesses never deal with it efficiently.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or (601) 364-1018.