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Tips for Communicating Changes: Retirements, Title Step-Downs and Obituaries

We’ve recently experienced an uptick in questions about communicating around late-career or end-of-career milestones – a line of inquiry that makes perfect sense when you consider that a full 27 percent of the U.S. workforce are members of the Silent Generation (born 1928-1945) or Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964).

While the desire to commemorate career milestones – like the retirement or passing of a firm partner or colleague – is often strong and unilaterally supported by an organization, like all good communication, it’s important to get clarity about the appropriate audiences with which the firm should share and the communications channels on which to share such information.

Professional services firms should consider:

  • The individual and close family members – Be considerate of the personal wishes of the individual and their immediate family.
  • Internal audiences – These include colleagues (fellow partners or shareholders), employees and close collaborators, which might extend to other service providers or consultants who may have had contact with the individual being honored.
  • Current clients – Firms do well to communicate major changes in a professional’s job status and availability directly to clients via emailed letter or other announcement format. For some, personal phone calls may be appropriate.
  • Past clients, firm alumni and friends – This might be the firm’s full contact list, so a careful evaluation of the professional’s firmwide impact will help determine who to include.
  • Professional organizations – It’s likely that the firm may pull the laboring oar in noting career milestones for firm-supported memberships, such as bar associations, networking groups and on professional listings (for example, Super Lawyers or Martindale-Hubbell).
  • Media – Media outlets do not typically cover late career milestones; however, in the event of a noteworthy professional’s death, trade outlets may be inclined to publish an obituary. (More on this to come.)

Especially for employees, but also for other audiences, if the individual has had a significant impact on the culture of an organization, a public celebration and opportunity to showcase their significant accomplishments can have a profound impact on morale and firm culture. The same is true, in a negative way, if people sense that the individual’s contributions have been dismissed or forgotten. Providing an outlet for memorializing memories demonstrates firm values and is an emotional investment in the people of your organization.


A professional’s retirement is important to discreet audiences, like clients and colleagues. In a well-managed practice succession, this milestone should not be a surprise. Clients and colleagues should be aware of the gradual transition of relationships and responsibilities. Ideally, the retiring professional will have adequate time to make introductions to colleagues and nurture representation transitions. A retirement announcement should be a celebration of the completion of a successful succession – and it is best celebrated amongst clients and colleagues.

From a communications standpoint, this generally involves leveraging the firm’s “owned” communications channels, such as a direct email to clients, mention in the firm newsletter or on social media channels, and direct verbal acknowledgement at a firmwide meeting or other event. Sometimes, the messaging around the retirement will be coordinated in conjunction with one or more special events to celebrate the transition, while re-enforcing the message of service continuity. If the soon-to-be retiree was active in specific trade, civic or professional organizations, the firm might consider paid advertising announcing the retirement as a way to both share the news and demonstrate the firm’s continued commitment to the organization. Messaging can include career highlights and accolades, as well as post-retirement plans (whether that’s consulting, spending more time with the grandkids or community volunteering).

On the website, an archived bio can serve as a landing page or hub for announcements pushed out over other vehicles, with inbound links from social channels and emails. Just be sure that it’s clear the individual is no longer actively practicing (otherwise there could be advertising ethical issues). This can be done by simply putting “(retired)” after the person’s name, but if you have a number of individuals in this category, you may want to set up a special area of the website for retired individuals or include information on founding partners, former managing partners or other highly visible practitioners as part of a “Firm History” section. Just be sure to have a clear policy regarding who gets included in this section so as not to create an internal political nightmare.

There’s another, more technical, reason to keep the individual’s profile page on the site (ideally with the same URL or a URL redirect). After a long career, some former clients or colleagues may try finding them via internet search. In addition, there are likely many inbound links from older web content, from directories and listings to published articles and news references. Give those people a path to meet your firm and the professionals who are continuing the practice.

Senior Partner >>> Senior Counsel

Generally speaking, and from the external perspective, “partners” (or shareholders) in a firm are seen as having equity – whether or not this is the case based on the firm’s compensation model. There is little reason to announce or otherwise “celebrate” a senior practitioners’ de-equitization or the change in their title, even if this is based on a pre-set age limit for partnership eligibility. If the senior professional is continuing to work with the firm – even if semi-retired – the change in title (and accompanying implications about equity status) should simply be updated on the website, internet (LinkedIn and membership groups/listings – like AIA or ABOTA) and business cards.


When a senior professional passes, firms typically want to offer comfort and shine the spotlight on the deceased’s outstanding career. This reaction is quite noble and sends many a communicator scrambling to compile an obituary and mobilize the web team for a banner to go up ASAP. Not so fast!
It’s important to remember that while the professional was a valued colleague at the firm, they were also a spouse or partner, sibling, parent, grandparent, etc. It is critical that before announcing – or even publicly acknowledging – a professional’s passing, the firm should appoint a liaison to the family that can ascertain and communicate to the firm the FAMILY’S wishes, which almost always override the impulses, thoughtful wishes or even well-prepared plans of the firm.

In major metropolitan markets, the obituaries in the daily newspapers are typically paid placements (and these can run into the thousands for a 1/8-page “tribute ad”). This is a great place for the firm to show its support for the family (and leverage its resources). Offering to compile an obituary (or work with the family-written obituary) and pay for its publication in the local business market is often a welcome gesture. The firm is often also in a good position to help share news of the professional’s passing with trade media outlets and professional membership organizations, some of which may publish tributes in newsletters or other member communication vehicles (all of which should be compiled and shared back with the family).
The firm may want to make a donation to an organization identified by the family or consider matching employee donations, as a way of collectively honoring the person.

On the website, a deceased professional’s bio can be handled very similarly to a retired professional’s bio. You should make it clear that they have passed by adding a birth-death date range or placing verbiage such as “In Memoriam” on their page. It also may be appropriate to update the content of the page to a professionally focused version of their obituary, removing sections like “representative work.” The obituary can also be posted on the site as a news item. In this case, you may want to pin it to the top of your feed or showcase in a special banner section for a period of time, especially if the firm frequently posts news, such that it would push lower in the feed rather quickly.

Cultural Continuity

Whatever the late career milestone, some professionals’ impacts warrant a little more attention, particularly if the individual was a clear cornerstone in the firm. It may be appropriate to name an annual firm event, award, communal space or tradition in honor of the professional. When doing this, be sure to communicate the story behind the activity or honor, passing it along as “firm lore” as new individuals join. Have it written somewhere, so the intent remains pure over time.

Take time at the next firmwide function to acknowledge the passing, if appropriate. This might be at a firm retreat or annual social gathering.
Again, the most important communication around these late career milestones is often with your senior-most professionals and/or their families. Understanding what’s possible will help facilitate the conversation, and respecting the individual’s or family’s wishes is simply the best practice.

Traci Stuart, Lydia Bednerik Neal

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