At many law firms that recognize the need for succession planning, preparation for leadership succession receives too little attention. Succession planning can languish for various reasons. In some instances, the press of regular law firm business distracts existing leadership from the issue. In other cases, the topic is an uncomfortable one so discussions are avoided. Even if these circumstances aren’t present, a firm can be so overwhelmed by the challenge that it can’t get out of the starting blocks. A form of paralysis can set in.
Another subset of firms simply doesn’t recognize the need to plan for succession. Not realizing the need, they miss the signs that should tell them that their state cries out for immediate attention.
For firms unsure where they stand on leadership succession, there are four clear markers that suggest and even show that a firm is unprepared. Not all four of these indicators need be present, but if more than one exists there is substantial reason for concern. Four indicia that a firm is unready for leadership succession are:
Demographics at the Firm are Unfavorable. A firm that faces a noticeable age gap between senior leadership and the rest of the firm’s attorneys is likely to struggle with leadership succession. If senior attorneys that have been running the firm are leading a firm of junior attorneys, the younger attorneys likely are not ready to step into any kind of a leadership role. A missing layer of lawyers between the ages of the young and senior attorneys is usually a problem. By taking a look at a firm’s demographics, a firm may see signs that it is not ready for leadership succession.
Control by Existing Leadership is Squeezed Tight. Far too often senior leadership grips control too tightly over most firm decisions. A firm lacking in shared decision making, even if major decisions are still reserved for senior leadership, is failing to provide needed experience to its future leaders. Sharing a role in decision-making is crucial to preparing for succession. If decisions are not shared now, a dearth of experience will make leadership succession harder in the future.
Training and Mentoring is Weak. A close corollary to sharing decision-making is having leadership mentoring and training programs that can aid in the preparation of the next leaders. Leaders are not always born-they often must be developed. If your firm has not created a way to mentor and train persons that will need to follow existing leadership, the firm is setting itself up for disappointment when the leadership torch needs to be passed.
There is a Shallow Pool of Leadership Successors. It goes without saying that leadership won’t be passed on to the next generation effectively if successors can’t be identified. Having an adequate pool of potential successors is often the fruit of recruiting wisely so a deep roster of talent exists. If the pool of talent is there, leadership decisions can be shared with up and coming attorneys, their leadership skills can be refined further with mentoring and training, and the next leaders likely will emerge. On the other hand, if the firm’s pool of potential successors is not very deep, the firm may not be adequately prepared for succession.
If any of the four circumstances noted above are present at your firm, there is room for improvement as the firm prepares for future leadership succession. If more than one of the indicia exists, much more work needs to be done before the firm can feel comfortable in its leadership succession preparations. Are there other signs to consider?