icon Legally Speaking

The Next Generation of Superstars

7 min read

When you get where you’re going, . . . turn back around . . . help the next one in line.” – Tim McGraw, Humble and Kind

Years ago, while moderating a session at the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association’s Summer Institute on Martha’s Vineyard and faced with an audience far more interested in the then ongoing TV coverage of the Summer Olympics than “Year 15” issues, I analogized my affordable housing panelists to the “Dream Team.” Basketball’s brightest lights were easily identified by first names or nicknames, like Magic, Larry, MJ and Scottie. My panel of All Stars included David, Larry, Ben and Monica. Every housing advocate knew who they were. The TV show Cheers self-anointed its location as the place where “everybody knows your name.” I ask, who today are our industry’s “everybody knows your name” superstars?

Those next-generation stars are out there. We have met them. They are our colleagues; they are developers, investors, state regulators, asset managers, bankers, brokers and politicians. In many cases, we are their mentors. But I fear we, within our industry, have not done enough to push forward our next generation of leaders – those who, through their talents and determination, will accelerate our country’s progress in dealing with the pressing need for more affordable housing. At NH&RA, the executive team has modeled how succession can be done seamlessly, with the evolution from Peter Bell to Thom Amdur and now to Kaitlyn Snyder. It is time now for our businesses to follow. It is time to give our next-gen superstars the space to grow, by stepping slightly to the side and letting the spotlight shine on them. To do so is not an indication that current leaders have not served us well. They have! Bringing forward our new leaders is a sign of our depth and strength. 

Even before the pandemic, new ways of conducting our businesses had emerged, driven eagerly by advances in technology, we shifted how we interacted with each other, negotiated deals and even how we closed transactions. In-person meetings were displaced by weekly scheduled multi-party conference calls and then by Zoom meetings. Equally life-altering was how the younger generation “communicated” with one another. Text messages, voicemails and exchanging “red-line” edited documents made most of our business exchanges less personal. Rarely do we meet in person and even the post-closing dinners (which are usually not business but fun-social get-togethers) are less prevalent. 

Some might say “so what,” deals are still getting done. But ask yourself – are we really saving time or being more efficient? Is the ultimate product any better or any less expensive?  And, at what cost? 

My observation is that even at conferences where we bring everyone together, there is less playing golf, going for boat rides, enjoying non-business off-site dinners or just running into each other in a lobby and engaging in the one-on-one contact that has been a natural part of how we older folks have operated.

I am not saying we are failing – I am saying we can, and must, do better. And it starts with doing more to bring along the next generation of leaders . . . to do that effectively, we need to:

•    Identify them within our own offices;

•    Include them in our industry organizations;

•    Bring them to conferences; put them on panels;

•    Introduce them to others; and then

•    Step aside and let them flourish.

Where do we find these future superstars? Within our respective businesses, of course! It is, after all, businesses that make the Low Income Housing Tax Credit industry succeed. It is our respective businesses that find the sites, permit them, develop, construct, finance, manage, operate, dispose of or “recycle” the properties that house the intended beneficiaries of our industry. While there are always new entrants into the industry, because the LIHTC program has historically emphasized long-term investment and sustainability, the industry is dominated, at every level, by businesses with decades of experience and therefore leaders with similar lengths of service. Last I looked, the majority of NH&RA’s Board of Directors had entered their second “extended use” period. That translates into decades of personal relationships that have made our jobs easier and more fun. And while no one wants to give up the fun; it is time to share it. 

What can we as an older generation of lawyers do? At our best, we are facilitators and problem solvers. How do we best facilitate – by teaching the next generation to draft clear documents, incorporating our client’s wishes in a balanced, yet protective way; by helping legislators, regulators and housing agencies adopt clear and fair rules; and by finding solutions that preserve the essence of the business deal when problems do arise. Emphasize problem-solving skills. Beating the other side is not the goal; achieving a collective “yes” is!   

More than just bringing them to conferences, teach them the “ins and outs.” Gladly pass on whatever little “pearls of wisdom” someone told us when we were younger, or we learned ourselves from the last generation of leaders. For me, those pearls include, “the collaboration isn’t done when the deal closes,” do not forget to say, “thank you,” and stay in touch with everyone who has had a role. Repeat business is better than one-and-done. Don’t hold back. Talk to your successor and listen to them, for no one ever got smarter listening to themselves talk. Immerse yourself in making your successors better than you are/were. 

Tying these two concepts together—succession and facilitating—is easy. As we mentor our less experienced talent and introduce them to clients and endorse them as capable successors, we help our clients economically. Moreover, we often can match our succession plans with our clients’ similarly aged next-generation business leaders, ensuring long-term ties between our client businesses and our law firms that represent them. It isn’t easy; it may not be fun. But it is necessary, and it takes work. Their success is your success and reward.

I have focused attention on industry organizations because I believe it is usually industries that accelerate progress on the national stage. But succession must be addressed equally at a granular level. For lawyers, the planning starts at our firms.

Succession plans are part of good governance and most sizeable law firms invest countless non-billable time creating workable plans. Some plans focus on mandatory retirement; others mandate the transition of client responsibility at a specific age to encourage more senior lawyers to wind down. Succession plans are complicated and could result in unintended consequences, such as partners who may leave or don’t buy-in and as a result, their succession planning is done ineffectively. It is important for those within the firm who understand the need and benefits of effective succession to lead by example.

Life events, especially unplanned ones, can force succession planning during inconvenient times. Waiting until everything is falling apart is not the best time to start succession planning. To paraphrase Witter Bynner, “The biggest problems could have been solved easily when they were small.”

Whether it is for our industry organizations, our firms or our own personal lives, address the “what’s next” question now, while you can and don’t think about yourself; think about the “next person in line.” As Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher and the founder of Taoism, directed “to lead people walk behind them.”

For over 35 years, John has concentrated his practice in the development of real estate projects. While his clients have come from a broad range of diverse industries, most of John’s day-to-day representation involves housing. John’s clients have built, owned and/or managed hundreds of thousands of multi-family housing units, including housing for the men and women who serve in our armed forces. John has extensive experience in complicated financing structures including syndication of State and Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits, State and Federal Historic Credits, New Market Tax Credits, Brownfields Credits, energy-related credits and other state credits. Working with owners, lenders investors, industry groups, as well as municipal, state, federal, governmental and regulatory agencies to obtain approvals and support for proposed developments, John’s skills and experience have earned him the reputation as a lawyer who “gets the deal done.” John currently serves on the Board of Directors of Preservation Massachusetts and the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association (NH&RA). He assisted in drafting laws and regulations dealing with affordable housing properties to better facilitate the advancement of his clients’ projects, including the preservation law, enacted in 2009, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Chapter 40T – An Act Preserving Publicly-Assisted Affordable Housing). John continues to serve on the advisory committee which provides advice and recommendations relative to the implementation of Chapter 40T. He also serves, or has served, on the boards of a number of local community banks, hospitals and other social organizations.