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Ida Abbott

Ida Abbott has been in the legal profession as a lawyer and consultant for more than four decades. She...

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Charles Volkert

Charles Volkert is senior district president of Robert Half Legal, a premier legal staffing service specializing in the placement...

Episode Notes

Succession planning is top of mind for today’s legal leaders, for good reason. Nearly 65 percent of equity partners are projected to retire during the next decade, according to research cited in a report from the ABA and the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, while corporate law departments expect a similar exodus from their leadership ranks. In this episode of The Robert Half Legal Report, Ida Abbott, principal of Ida Abbott Consulting, joins host Charles Volkert, senior district president of Robert Half Legal, to discuss critical components of succession planning that can position law firms or legal departments, their clients and departing leaders for future success. They provide insights to assist firms in respectfully supporting senior-level lawyers as they prepare to exit the practice and offer strategies to help lawyers identify and plan a positive transition into retirement or their next career post.

Transcript

Robert Half Legal Report

Succession Planning: Transition Strategies for Law Firms and Exiting Lawyers Session

07/26/2019

 

Outro: The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by Robert Half Legal, Legal Talk Network, or their respective officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders, or subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.

 

[Music]

 

Intro: Welcome to the Robert Half Legal Report, where we discuss current issues impacting the legal profession, related to hiring, staff management and more, with leading experts in the field.

 

Robert Half Legal provides lawyers, paralegals and support staff to law firms and corporate legal departments on a project and full-time basis. The Robert Half Legal Report is here on the Legal Talk Network.

 

[Music]

 

Charles Volkert: Hello everyone and welcome. I am Charles Volkert, Senior District President of Robert Half Legal and the host of our program. Our guest today is Ida Abbott, a lawyer, consultant, author and speaker. With more than 40 years working in the legal industry, she currently focuses her practice on advising law firms and lawyers on career development, mentoring relationships, and strategic planning for retirement and succession.

 

For her contributions to the legal profession, Ida has been elected a fellow of both the American Bar Foundation and the College of Law practice management. She earned her JD at UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

 

Welcome to the show, Ida.

 

Ida Abbott: Thank you, Chad. I’m happy to be here.

 

Charles Volkert: Great to have you, and thanks so much for joining me today as well as our listeners. Today, Ida and I will be discussing critical aspects of succession planning in the legal sector. We’ll explore strategies that can position law firms and legal departments, their clients and departing leaders for growth and prosperity at a pivotal time as the number of baby boomer retirements continues to grow. We recognize that succession planning is vital to a legal organization’s long term viability and success.

 

A recent report from the ABA and the National Task Force on lawyer well-being cited that nearly 65% of equity partners are projected to retire during the next decade. Corporate law departments expect a similar exodus from their leadership ranks.

 

Ida, maybe to start can you outline the key steps in developing, implementing and managing a comprehensive succession plan and also explain why each step is important?

 

Ida Abbott: Sure. To begin with, starting a succession plan, it kind of presumes a certain number of things are already in existence. One is an understanding of where the firm is and where it wants to be.

 

The whole idea of succession is looking forward and many firms in fact, I think the research shows that most firms don’t really pay much attention to succession planning and they’ve got a number of other things that they were worried about, and so this doesn’t rise to the top.

 

But if you’re looking forward and what you have to do if you’re expecting to have so many of your senior leaders and rainmakers retiring in the next few years, then you really have to have either a strategic plan or at least some clear and agreed-upon future direction that you can work toward.

 

So you start by understanding that, where do you want to be and understanding also that what got you here, what made you successful up until today, may not be the same as what you’re going to need to move ahead both in terms of the kind of practice you have, the kind of lawyers and leaders that you have, and the kind of clients that you have.

 

So you begin by taking a look at where the firm wants to be and hopes to be in the next few years, and then trying to understand what you’re going to need in terms of talent, in terms of leadership, in terms of clients, and the kind of work you want to do to get you there.

 

Once you know that, then you can take a look at who you have in the firm now, and that includes understanding what positions are held by partners and these are both formal and informal leadership roles, and key management roles. And taking or look at the demographics of the firm, not just those people but all of your lawyers. You need to have an age breakdown and some understanding of what you’re dealing with in terms of potential future retirement.

 

(00:05:09)

 

And we talk about this in terms of retirement but given the number of lateral partners, the amount of movement among partners, then it’s something that ought to be on a firm’s collective mind whether you’re looking at a lot of future retirements that are imminent or not.

 

So understanding what is the age breakdown of the lawyers in the firm and I know a small firm looks small, about 90 lawyers who did this for the first time and discovered that more than half of their lawyers were over 55, and a very small number, were in that group between around 35 to 55. So that can be a real wake-up call and another firm, a smaller firm than that, that had to renew their lease and had to figure out how many lawyers they were going to have and also had came to this discovery that many of their lawyers were potentially going to retire or at least reach retirement age that doesn’t mean they necessarily want to retire. But you need to have some understanding of the demographics in what you’re facing if people and lawyers retire later anyway most of them.

 

So let’s say 65 and 70, even that age and up and many lawyers practice into their 80s and 90s, so where do they fall along in age spectrum, and which of them hold key leadership positions as I said formal or informal, which of them are rainmakers, how much and which clients do the rainmakers control.

 

We know that according to recent studies, in about two-thirds of firms what they find is that more than half of their revenue is controlled by partners who are 60 years old and older. If that’s the case, what are you going to do to make sure that client relationships remain with the firm after those rainmakers leave? And then, once you know who you’re going to have to replace, and where you want the firm to be, and you want to position the firm to get there, what skills and abilities, what competencies, connections do those positions require and who in the firm do you have who meet those requirements now and how are you going to make sure that you have people ready to move into those roles when the senior partners do leave the firm or reduce their commitment in some way.

 

And rather than worry about particulars my advice is always you want to prepare every lawyer in the firm have to take over when more senior lawyers leave, because you want to have a long pipeline.

 

Charles Volkert: I think that is outstanding. I was taking notes, really you’re outlining a checklist of questions and answers that must be delivered within a law firm, really to begin that thought process if you don’t have a plan and mapping out that strategy. You mentioned a couple of times Ida, size of law firms. Obviously a lot of large law firms, but the majority of law firms actually fall into that small and midsized categories, so any additional points for a lot of those smaller law firms, I’m thinking of 10 lawyers, 15 lawyers that you would offer for their succession planning versus maybe the Am Law 100 firms that would obviously operate slightly differently?

 

Ida Abbott: Sure. I mean small firms have greater challenges in many ways. They don’t have people around who can cover for them if they suddenly depart or if they depart without any preparation of people to succeed them. What I figure, I saw was that 70% of first generation firms and a lot of the very small firms are first generation firms, many midsize firms are too, that about 70% of them don’t survive their founding partners.

 

And so one question that a small firm needs to consider is, do we care? And frankly, there are I’ve met some lawyers who don’t, this is my firm, this is our firm, and we want to make sure our clients are protected, but they can go anywhere and it’s not our concern about the lawyers behind us.

 

That’s not a healthy attitude. If you’re going to — if you’re hiring people and certainly not a good situation for the lawyers and the staff that in the firm.

 

(00:09:58)

 

So it requires and it’s a very — it’s such a personal thing when it’s a small firm, because a lot of those depending on the kind of practice, of course, a lot of the client relationships are much closer than in a large corporate firm.

 

So there’s a lot more personal investment, emotional investment, ego investment by the partners who have built the firm and they care about some things, but they don’t necessarily care about the firm’s continuance when they’re gone and they need to if they want.

 

This is a conversation that that the firms should have and the smaller the firm, the more open that conversation should be, otherwise, it’s not really a fair thing to do to the people who work for you.

 

Charles Volkert: Great points. In particular, not only are you talking about the succession planning and the need to be thinking about that, but if you don’t have a plan that will greatly impact your ability to recruit and retain talent in this very, very competitive market.

 

So maybe if we’re thinking about that component of succession planning that you referenced earlier, as you’re talking or in talking with senior lawyers, is there an area they seem to struggle with the most? Is it relating to client relationships? What can legal teams or exiting lawyers do to help facilitate a smooth and successful transition both internally as well as maybe externally with clients?

 

Ida Abbott: Well I think the clients serve as a key to the whole thing in part because there’s a source of income along and that’s always a concern for lawyer as they get older. They want to make sure that they’re going to be financially secured for as long as they practice and then as long as they live. So that’s always a concern.

 

But I think the one constant that I’ve seen with senior lawyers is they really do care about their clients, but they don’t necessarily translate that into making sure that when they’re gone, someone else is going to be able to represent the client. Many of them can’t imagine anybody else representing the client.

 

These are my clients depend on me, I’m their lawyer and so they have so much of themselves wrapped up in the relationship that it’s hard to let go, and part of that is that lawyers when you ask them about retirement, most of them never, really a plan not to retire and many lawyers can continue to work as long as they’re competent and able to serve their clients, and their clients want them to keep representing them.

 

And I’ve seen clients who have stuck by lawyers who were sick and having terminal illnesses, but they’re the clients who are making arrangements to have someone else take over but the lawyer was really not part of that conversation. It’s much better for everybody concerned and if you do care about your clients to make sure that the clients have the kind of representation that you want you think would be best for them.

 

Charles Volkert: Are there some other things, I would imagine almost be mentally prepared to retire, are you financially ready to retire, all of those type of questions, is there a short list that you could share with our listeners about other things to consider?

 

Ida Abbott: Sure. Financially, most people feel they’re never financially protected enough to retire, secure enough to retire and that’s just, I think that’s more human nature than does anything else. So people worry about that. But I think the other thing is that you need to be thinking about what you’re retiring to as opposed to what you’re leaving behind.

 

And for some people that’s actually pretty easy. They have a lot of interests, a lot of things they would love to do and they haven’t had a chance to do because of their schedules and the demands on them. And now, they’re finally able to and for them, it’s exciting, it’s a new chapter and they’re ready. They want to move ahead.

 

The issue for them is more time management, how do I juggle all of these things so it’s not overwhelming. But they’re not the majority, the majority of lawyers and I say this I don’t know that it’s science, that’s scientific I say this more anecdotally and some of the things that I’ve read, certainly the lawyers I’ve worked with, most of them don’t know what else they can do.

 

Their identity is so tied up in being a lawyer especially if they’re a partner or if they built a firm or they’re in some significant role in the legal community. It’s very hard because they don’t — they see themselves as lawyers.

 

(00:15:02)

 

And what happens the day after? There’s actually a term for this that I’ve seen colloquially, tip and that’s a previously important person, or formerly important person, what happens at a cocktail party when someone asks you what do you do and you say oh I’m retired or I used to be, their eyes glaze over suddenly you don’t have the same status as you had the day before.

 

And so coming up with a new sense of self, a new identity, new activities, something that you’re really looking forward to that you feel will help you achieve the kind of values that you’ve always taken pride-in in your career, those are the kinds of things that make it easier to move forward and to leave the firm.

 

Another important element is giving it up cold turkey. I mean some people are ready to walk away and that’s fine, but many people would like to just cut back and one of the areas that I think young lawyers often overlook is that they have natural allies in senior lawyers, who would also like flexibility in their scheduling and in the level of work that they do and the kind of work that they do.

 

There are many roles and many — that older lawyers can play, there are many ways that people can work and if there’s a way to let people ease out or to somehow narrow the expectations for them, so that there’s a period of transition that doesn’t require them to be top of their game on Friday and formerly important person on Monday.

 

Charles Volkert: Great points, Ida. I think back as well. Even if you’re not ready for retirement, but part of that succession planning is you’re stepping out of a managing partner type of a position or an executive position within the firm, a lot of these same emotions and questions and answers need to be asked and prepared for because you go from managing a large firm to not managing a large firm, same sort of an impact even to some extent as retirement.

 

So I think you’ve provided a very comprehensive initial approach of our discussion. We will rejoin after a brief commercial break.

 

[Music]

 

Advertiser: To find, hire, and retain the best legal professionals, it’s critical to have a sound hiring strategy in place. Robert Half Legal works with law firms and corporate legal departments to create effective staffing plans that can adapt to changing workload levels, realize significant cost savings, and improve the overall management of human resources.

 

We offer a wide range of resources to assist hiring managers and job candidates, including our Annual Salary Guide, industry-leading workplace research and valuable interactive tools. For more information, call us at 1-800-870-8367 or visit roberthalflegal.com.

 

[Music]

 

Charles Volkert: Welcome back to the Robert Half Legal Report. I am Chad Volkert and with me today is Ida Abbott, a lawyer and legal consultant with a specialized focus on career development, mentoring relationships and strategic planning for retirement.

 

Ida and I have been talking today about succession planning and strategies that can position legal organizations, their clients and exiting leaders for future success.

 

Ida, before the break, you offered some key insights to help lawyers plan ahead for succession as well as retirement, so they are well prepared and can look forward to the next stage of their lives. What guidance do you offer lawyers who asked specifically about when and how they should retire?

 

For example, if they should phase out, work gradually or consider future involvement within the law firm or organization as a consultant, mentor or in some other capacity?

 

Ida Abbott: Well, first of all, there is never a right time and sometimes there is, I shouldn’t say never, sometimes there absolutely is a right time and you know it and you know it in your bones and you’re ready to go. Sometimes, it’s unplanned. There are a lot of lawyers being de-equitized, there are a lot of lawyers being asked to leave, many of them, 50, 55, 60 older.

 

(00:19:55)

 

So for some lawyers, it’s really — it’s being fired, it’s just like being fired and there’s added to that the feeling of being thrown out after all of the contributions you’ve made to the people who have now turned on you, sense of betrayal. So that’s a very, very tough situation and is a lot different than thinking about when it’s time to leave and what you want to do.

 

I mean there are a number of questions that people should be asking themselves. Do you still enjoy what you’re doing? Do my clients still value me? Am I still having fun? Is this still something that is fun for me and do I feel like my clients are still loyal to me and I am glad that I’m representing them. Am I being productive, am I still sharp, am I current in my knowledge.

 

Sometimes, those are things we don’t see and one of the reasons that some lawyers are asked to leave is because they’re not as sharp as they ought to be. There are issues around cognitive decline. You don’t have to be very old to have that start to happen. So those are some of the questions.

 

There’s also taking a look around at the firm and saying, am I pleased with the firm in its direction, is the firm going where I want to go. Are they treating me well? A lot of people put up with an awful lot of misery because they don’t think they can do anything else. They’re stuck and very often, it’s kind of a lack of imagination because there are many other options that people have.

 

They don’t always see it, especially lawyers who tend to be pretty cerebral in their own heads, they don’t seek help, they don’t seek support, they don’t talk to people about the things that are bothering them. Even if they’re married, they might or might not talk to a spouse or partner about it. So it can be very tough. But sitting down, pulling — kind of taking a weekend away or just forcing yourself to think about these things is important because it may show you that you’re not really in a good place and it is time for you to move on.

 

Certainly other factors are the state of your health, both mental as I mentioned earlier, but also physical. Law is a very tough business and it’s very demanding physically and so do you have the stamina to keep going, is just wearing you down and is there something that you need to do about it and it may not be you, it may be someone in the family that you’re caring for, who needs you more than you’ve been able to provide in terms of time and presence and being there, and being supportive.

 

And then there’s always the family situation. I mean is your spouse still working? What are there — what is his or her plan in terms of how long they want to keep working? Do they want you to keep working? This is an area where there’s a lot of conflict. The whole issue at home and I bet some people probably don’t want to retire because they don’t want to face that.

 

I’ve had clients where the spouse wants them to retire because they now want to be able to take off and travel and I’ve had clients where the spouse says, no, you can’t retire because I’m worried about our financial security or I don’t want you hanging around the house. So, all of those are factors to throw into the mix too.

 

Charles Volkert: Sure, a lot of moving parts and a lot of things for lawyers to consider. I know that our recruiters work with a lot of lawyers as they are thinking about retirement or alternative legal avenues, maybe to stay sharp but they don’t want to necessarily put in the full time that they have historically done. Maybe shifting gears a little bit Ida, certainly a lot of great points as far as personally what a lawyer needs to consider from succession planning or retirement.

 

Well what actions can firm leaders take to facilitate the retirement of lawyers while ensuring the organization’s best interests are served. Really as they look at their landscape and have to make a determination as certain lawyers approach retirement age. What they need to do to keep the wheels going and making sure that they’re serving their clients in the best interests.

 

Ida Abbott: Sure. The first thing I would suggest is some kind of a uniform approach and that doesn’t have to be — I mean a lot of firms do have retirement policies or plans of some sort that they expect lawyers to take or to follow but very often, those are just kind of — even those people say it’s a policy, it’s not, it’s just sort of ad hoc.

 

(00:24:54)

 

But the first thing is to have a uniform policy about opening the topic to discussion so that every lawyer who reaches a certain age has a conversation with their practice group leader, the managing partner, somebody in leadership who is involved in strategic planning for the firm that there’s some conversation about what are you thinking about? What are your plans?

 

It could be in the context of business planning. You could ask every lawyer to provide a business plan for the following year and to ask just questions, it doesn’t have to ask them when are you going to retire but it should ask about what their plans are in terms of workload, in terms of the different kinds of productivity measures that lawyers are assessed on, so that first of all, the conversation is something that applies to everybody. So if the managing partner comes to you and says, hey Chad, what are your plans, if you are thinking about retiring, it doesn’t come out of the blue. So have that conversation with everybody at a certain age and every year, every year or two afterwards.

 

The other is to have some sort of a framework in place that applies to everybody and that’s something that might be negotiable but it would spell out a number of points including the financial arrangements during a period and it should be by the way a transitional framework, so that you might have something that says, if you retire most partnership agreements will say we need six months or three months or six weeks warning or something like that.

 

But have this for a period of time, make it two or three years so that all the transitions that are needed especially client transitions can be managed. Also what are the personal commitments of the partner during this period, those commitments to the lawyers in the firm, to their ongoing clients, to new clients, clients they’re giving up that kind of thing? But also what are the obligations, what is the firm going to do for the partner during the transition maybe even afterwards and by that, that’s things like insurance, tech support at home. How long will the firm continue to support the computer you have at home and how long will you be part of our system?

 

What are the expectations in terms of what you’re going to do to transfer your knowledge, and contacts, and support to the next generation and what in return what are we going to do to help you during this transition. An important thing you can do is give them individual support, some kind of support it can be through a group mentoring program.

 

Bring in your retired partners and have them talk to not just the senior partners all the partners, anybody who’s interested in what life is like after you retire and what the options are, hire coaches for them who can work with them individually as I said, lawyers aren’t real imaginative about the options that are out there for them.

 

Sometimes, it’s about work, but sometimes it’s about volunteering and by work I mean paid work. Sometimes, it’s a about volunteer work or encore careers, sometimes it’s — I mean entrepreneurial lawyers are coming to the forefront of new kinds of law practice, new kinds of businesses. People — seniors are one of the fastest-growing demographics in the world of startups and entrepreneurial projects.

 

So there’s all kinds of possibilities out there, all kinds of exciting things going on but you need to help lawyers understand first of all that those exist and help them, identify the ones that sound like, they’d be interesting or they’d like to pursue them.

 

Charles Volkert: Absolutely.

 

Ida Abbott: And so giving them that sign, that kind of support is something you can do with a formal program or ad hoc or any number of ways.

 

Charles Volkert: Well, that’s great. And you think about Ida the support mechanisms for those lawyers going into retirement. I guess my last question would be as you think about those lawyers leaving the firm, are there any suggestions for our listeners as far as making sure that that key knowledge, the key skill sets, the contacts are really transferred over to the lawyers that are, for lack of a better word, left behind running the firm, right taking over those clients.

 

Any suggestions as far as how those lawyers can leave that transfer of knowledge for their lawyers taking over their client relationships?

 

(00:30:01)

 

Ida Abbott: Sure. First thing is to talk to them, talk to each other. It’s through those conversations as daily conversations, through the working together, working together on a client, on a project, on a community project, mentoring, a lot of information gets transferred not by sitting down and saying okay, now I’m going to tell you everything I know about X. It happens as we talk to each other and that’s something that used to happen regularly, it doesn’t happen as much anymore because people talk through their fingers on a keyboard. They don’t necessarily go out with each other as often as they did.

 

But giving them opportunities to actually sit down and talk — I mean there are systems in place, there are companies that will come in and help you write these things down and keep track of them, but it’s so much more effective because people learn through the experience by actually seeing it, watching it, experiencing it, doing it, doing it with somebody supporting them, have partners make introductions, have them introduce them not just to clients, but to their contacts in the community.

 

Use senior partners as ambassadors for the firm, have them talk after they leave the firm, have them talk to clients and brand, get some feedback and bring that back to the lawyers.

 

There are ways you can use the people who have not only the historical knowledge of the firm but also what has worked in this firm, how has things changed, what’s better, what should you watch out for these — they understand the personalities of their colleagues. They understand loyalties, and what’s needed in order to lead other people.

 

You can write that down, you can put people through courses and everything else, but that isn’t going to tell you how to benefit from a retiring partner’s reputation or from their — the role they have played in the greater community that’s been a magnet for clients. You need to see that in action and you need to be, it’s like riding a bike. You can read all the instructions you want but it’s not the same until you actually get on.

 

And so give these younger people the opportunity to actually do it and give them that opportunity and you’re there to back them up. That’s really powerful.

 

So it’s — you need to treat this and recognize it as a transition period that takes a long time, and the longer you give it and the more attention you give it, the more opportunities you create for it, the more effective that transition is going to be in terms of passing along that institutional knowledge and benefiting from it.

 

Charles Volkert: That’s great, Ida. You know I think it really sums up the theme of your overall comments, which is as a lawyer, as a firm, you need to be asking questions early and often, you need to be mapping out a strategy, whether it’s on the beginning stages of succession planning, as you’re going through that succession planning, as key leaders are retiring, whether individually or as a collective group, really spending time on this very, very critical part of the practice of law and running a great law firm or a legal organization.

 

So I think your comments have been very, very comprehensive and helpful to our listeners. Unfortunately, we’ve reached the end of the program, but I want to say a big thank you Ida for joining us today and sharing such valuable information and insights.

 

And before we close, I’d like to let the audience know how they can contact you with additional questions or where they can obtain more information from you, Ida?

 

Ida Abbott: Well Chad, it’s been a pleasure for me and I appreciate your inviting me and I hope that my comments were helpful to the audience.

 

People can reach me through my website idaabbott.com, that’s idaabbott.com, and my email is [email protected]. Most of the books and materials that I’ve written can be found on the website, so there are a lot of resources there. I do have another workbook being published, I hope in the next six to eight months that will be the resource to help people plan their retirements. But they can reach me if they’d like about that book workbook, if they’d like to learn about that or about anything else through my website.

 

Charles Volkert: That’s great Ida and having visited your website it is full of great, great material that really continues to expand on your expertise that you shared with our listeners today.

 

(00:35:00)

 

So I would definitely recommend for our listeners to reach out to you and visit your website.

 

Our listeners can also reach me at [email protected]. And you can visit the Robert Half Legal website for additional information on legal career and management resources including our latest Salary Guide for legal professionals at roberthalflegal.com.

 

Thanks again Ida and to our entire listening audience, join us next time on the Robert Half Legal Report as we discuss important trends impacting the legal field and legal careers.

 

[Music]

 

Outro: The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by Robert Half Legal, Legal Talk Network, or their respective officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders, or subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.

 

[Music]

 

Thanks for listening to this podcast. Robert Half Legal connects highly-skilled candidates with the best positions in the legal profession. If you liked what you heard today, please remember to rate us in Apple Podcasts. Also, follow Robert Half Legal and Legal Talk Network on Twitter or Facebook.

 

Join us again for the latest information in the next edition of the Robert Half Legal Report, here on the Legal Talk Network.

 

Robert Half is an equal opportunity employer, including minorities, females, people with disabilities and veterans.

 

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Episode Details
Published: July 26, 2019
Podcast: Robert Half Legal Report
Category: Best Legal Practices
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Robert Half Legal Report
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The Robert Half Legal Report covers the latest trends affecting the legal profession.

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