Family business law is not a substantive specialty like mergers and acquisitions, securities laws, trusts and estates or federal tax. In fact, a good family business lawyer will probably identify first and foremost as a practitioner in a substantive specialty like one of those, rather than as a family business lawyer.
Family business law is also not a body of law built around an industry the same way bodies of law have developed around fisheries, restaurants, telecommunications and other specialized industries – although family businesses participate in (and make up large percentages of) nearly every industry.
Family business law is the practice of business law, whether through corporate, securities, regulatory, estate planning or other substantive areas, with a unique sensitivity to the challenges, goals and values common to most or all family businesses, and absent in most other businesses. A family business has different constituents than just shareholders – it has mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and, hopefully, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Even when profitable, it is not successful unless it is transmitting the values of the family behind it and preserving its legacy for the generations to come.
Family business lawyers must excel in their substantive field of practice. But they must also go further. They must understand the family dynamics behind the businesses they are representing. They must appreciate the core values that the first generation wanted to preserve and that the current generation wants to maintain. They must understand the importance of community in any family enterprise, appreciating that family businesses are the bedrock of community and local philanthropy. Finally, just as their clients, they must always be thinking about the future of the business.
In ordinary businesses, people retire, new people are hired, existing shareholders sell and new owners take over. This is the natural cycle we can rely on if a company is financially successful. In a family business, though, this is not what success looks like. The older generations work hard, not just for financial achievements, but also to see the business they’ve built carry on in the hands of their children and grandchildren. Family business lawyers work to ensure their family businesses clients can achieve those goals.