Law firm succession planning is a lot different today than it was in years past, even just a few years ago. In addition to the issues covered previously on Succession Planning, difficulty arises from the fact that the interests of the people that make up a firm have never been less aligned. The lack of a single view about the firm, its future, and one’s role in the firm’s future, makes preparing for the next generation a formidable task.
Today, the perspectives at a firm are varied. The partners with longevity and/or getting ready to retire likely are among the most loyal people at the firm. They recall good times and bad times and reflect back on the firm they helped build. Preservation of the firm, and their benefits, is paramount. Younger partners have grown up knowing a legal market where lateral movement, and reduced loyalty, has been a way of life. Staying for an entire career at a firm may not be an overriding desire, especially if a firm’s stability is not certain in this age of new normal. The associates are even less attached to the firm-many are not even sure they have a long-term future in the law let alone the firm. For associates, loyalty to the firm is not a major consideration. Even long-time clients are less loyal as they readily change firms or seek out alternative resources.
Senior management planning for succession must manage among these divergent interests. While no easy task, some suggestions include:
Create a Sense of Trust. Sandra Bekhor’s A Firm Handshake for Unsure Times takes a look at how to manage these divergent interests and distills it to one word: trust. Without repeating her article in depth, she identifies that trust is a universal value that persons holding divergent views can appreciate. As she notes, trust is earned, it is reciprocated and it is enhanced. She cites to best practices that help create a culture of trust, such as inviting honesty and openness, considering the best interests of others, being consistent, dealing with problems or issues promptly and learning to trust in others.
Take a Long-Term View. The different interests may constantly demand attention. Repeatedly satisfying those demands amounts to managing for the short-run and undermines the firm’s succession planning. Instead, management should strive to not react to a constant barrage of demands and take a long-term view about the interests of the firm, not any one particular group. Once your people understand that you are managing for the long-term interests of the firm, the short-term demands should lessen. Being consistent helps a lot.
Make Decisions With Culture in Mind. A firm with a strong culture tends to address transitional issues, like succession, with its culture in mind. Rather than succumb to the interests of any particular group, the firm should base it decisions on preserving and enhancing the positives in its culture. While focusing on the firm’s culture may not be exactly what any particular group wants, the firm’s culture is the common denominator understood by the greatest number of people from all interest groups. A succession plan that seeks to preserve and enhance a firm’s culture will surprise few and be accepted by many.
Avoid Favoritism. No management team can go very long without having to make a decision that will be liked by some and disliked by others. Repeatedly resolving issues reactively, especially in favor of a particular group of interests, should be avoided. As succession approaches, having a record of continually favoring a particular set of interests is counterproductive if not risky. It gives incentive to the disaffected to attempt to use succession as a time for redress. Nothing could be less healthy for firm or more destabilizing.
By its very nature, a good succession plan is an exercise in long-term planning. Conflicting interests can force management into unwanted short-term fixes that make effective succession planning more difficult. Understanding the different interests, and developing a strategy that channels them toward the long-term interests of the firm, is critical. What other steps should be taken to manage the divergent loyalties that can challenge law firm succession?