The issue of succession planning at law firms has received the attention of commentators and I have written about it as well. Demographically, the need among law firms to address succession is mounting as the boomer generation ages. Because the number of firms facing succession issues increase with each passing year, planning at firms is now more important than ever.
Succession planning among firms is a mixed bag. Some firms are well prepared for succession. Those firms recognized the issue some time ago and have prepared for the eventual need to turn the reigns over to the next generation. Other firms have not had the requisite foresight or discipline. Sometimes lulled into a false sense of security by the continued vibrancy of their partner ranks, many firms have continued to focus on the day to day blocking and tackling instead of giving succession planning the attention it deserves. While the level of preparation at firms varies, at least five common mistakes are made in succession planning that every firm should seek to avoid, including:
Waiting Too Long. The press of business and attention to more immediate matters can distract a firm away from planning for succession. Waiting to a later date to plan is not a good idea. Succession issues can be complex, the personalities affected can be many and the time it requires to get it right can be great. Like waiting to the night before your spouse’s birthday to buy a present, leaving succession to the last minute can have lasting negative effect.
Failing to Prepare Leadership. A by-product of waiting too long is failing to develop leaders that can be integral to your firm’s future. Scouting future leadership is one thing, but developing your future leaders is as important as prospect identification. Inattention to development is bad for two reasons. One, your future leaders may have inadequate time to mature into readiness. Second, despite high hopes for the future “leader,” the development process may reveal that he or she is not up to the task. In instances in which your future “leader” is uninspiring, your firm will benefit if it still has time to think of alternatives, including looking for leadership laterally or by merger.
Failing to Make Succession Part of a Larger Strategic Plan. A succession plan should not stand alone-it should be part of an overall strategic plan. Simply changing out leadership without knowing where the firm is going long-term will be inadequate. Installing new leadership due to the existence of a succession plan is helpful, but if he or she does not have a strategic plan to follow your firm may end up resembling a game of Pong-back and forth, back and forth.
Overlooking the Impact on Morale. A well-planned and transparent succession will be far more comforting to firm personnel than a succession cobbled together when a succession crisis arises. Discussing the upcoming succession and the future of the firm will instill confidence in the firm and its management. Forgetting about how the rank and file feels can undermine morale and make an otherwise smart transition plan problematic. Good communication is critical in any succession plan.
Failing to Prepare Clients. At the end of the day, law firms don’t exist if they don’t have clients. A smart succession plan realizes that clients can be concerned about the stability of its law firm and deals with that concern by keeping the client informed about succession. A personal visit to key clients is not only important for the purpose of keeping the client informed, but making the pilgrimage shows the client that it is valued and important. There are worse things to do.
When your firm handled its succession, did it face obstacles or issues that it wishes it had handled differently?