As the calendar year comes to a close, there is a lot to do at most law firms. Activities like collecting bills, distributing profits and casting next year’s budget can occupy many a leadership team. The tasks at hand can be time consuming and all engrossing. Given the importance of these short-term issues, thinking about a firm’s long-term strategy often gets reserved for the next year.
The importance of thinking long-term and planning for the future, however, cannot be over-emphasized. It is especially true when it comes to succession planning. Too little attention to succession planning can prove fatal, as may have happened at the firms of Trope & Trope LLP and Shannon, Gracey, Ratliff & Miller, LLP. Both recently announced the intention to close and in both instances the age and/or retirement of senior attorneys appears to have contributed to the decision to close.
Unless closing is part of a well thought out plan, no firm wants to face a closing crisis. But if firms are not attentive to the topic of succession planning, an unplanned closing, especially as year-ends approach, is a distinct possibility. It is at year-end that a firm’s lawyers think about their future, the stability of their firm and the suitability of the platform that supports their practice. The answers to those questions tend to be disquieting if succession planning has been poor. For a firm that fails to prepare, the end of calendar year attrition can sap a firm of its future generations and can put it on a path to eventual closure.
To avoid that outcome, firm leadership should:
Address the Topic of Succession Planning Early. Law firm succession planning is the essence of long-term planning. Planning involves more than identifying potential leadership and client relationship successors. It also involves planning and executing on a process of making succession a part of the firm’s culture. It takes years of continual attention to do it well.
Involve Your Lawyers in Succession Planning. Succession planning requires “buy-in.” While existing leadership can assure the planning process gets the attention it deserves, full-fledged engagement from a firm’s lawyers enhances the possibility of success.
Review your Plan and Update it Often. Succession plans, like most long-term planning efforts, are living documents. Every firm committed to creating an effective succession plan should frequently update it in the wake of new developments or even just with the passage of time. The elements of any succession plan aren’t static but always are evolving.
Enlist Clients in the Process. It is presumptuous to think that client relationship succession is a unilateral process controlled by the law firm. Clients have the ultimate say over whom they will use as counsel. Frequent communication with clients is essential to developing a strong succession plan. The firm will be informed better about how client succession can be effective and will avoid adverse surprises.
Build Confidence in the Future. A succession plan should not be a secret to keep. It should be used to instill confidence in a firm’s future. Share it with the firm’s next generation of leaders and solicit their input in the process. If the future looks good at a firm, it is less likely to suffer attrition from the next generations. The future will look brighter and the fate that befalls firms that “age-out” becomes less likely.
As 2016 comes to a close, is your law firm well positioned with a clear and effective succession plan? If not, it is time to get started if an unplanned closure is to be avoided.