The topic of law firm succession is a hot one-discussed daily by commentators and law firm leaders alike. Of course, succession comes in two primary forms; client relationship succession and leadership succession. For many firm leaders, client relationship succession seems to have a heightened priority. But given the changing nature of the legal industry, a good argument exists that greater focus should be directed to leadership succession.
Patrick McKenna’s Why Law Firm Chairs Shouldn’t Pick Their Successor (Perspective) contends that the stakes are so high that a safe and comfortable pick in the mold of existing leadership is the wrong answer. McKenna’s point is that the challenges law firms face today require a new kind of leader-one that is prepared to deal with a rapidly evolving legal marketplace rather than implement yesterday’s playbook. It is for that reason that McKenna argues that a current firm leader should not have any input in naming his or her successor. McKenna’s provocative take on finding a law firm’s next leader is a worthwhile read.
One of McKenna’s points is that traditional managing partner skills may not be as valuable as once perceived and that a firm seeking a leader for the future should identify, among other things, “the specific skills and competencies that the best candidate for leadership will need to possess.” Implicit in his admonition is that traditional skills will have far less applicability in the future than in years past.
If McKenna is right, his thesis begs for a job description for the typical law firm’s next leader. Put another way, what skillsets should the future leader or visionary have? Given the industry change experienced and anticipated, a new leader must have the skills that allow him or her to:
Focus on Client Value in New Ways. More than ever, consumers of legal services are looking for value. The search for it has caused the steady growth of alternative service providers and in-house legal departments. For the most part, law firms have been reactive to this market share challenge. The next law firm leader should make it his or her priority to creatively and constantly seek an improved value proposition for the client. Thinking inside the box won’t work.
Focus on Faster Delivery of Legal Services. In about every way consumers of non-legal services seek immediate satisfaction. While the law is different and can’t always be rushed, pressure will mount for speedier delivery results. A leader that thinks about processes and procedures incorporating artificial intelligence as a path to greater speed has a skill that will be needed as the future unfolds. Regardless of approach, the next leader must recognize the need for speed.
Focus on Greater Collaboration with the Client. There is ample evidence that clients want to be more involved in their legal matters. The popularity of in-house legal departments is grounded on more than budgetary desires-it collaboratively aligns legal services with a company’s prioritized business strategies. That is not all. Today’s Millennial workforce is noted for its desire “to be involved” and understand the process. As that workforce graduates to executive ranks, collaboration between legal and business interests will become an imperative. Collaboration enhances client control-a goal clients are increasingly demanding.
Be Entrepreneurial. A leader for tomorrow must have the capacity to use a law firm platform, its people, and its relationships as the springboard to creating business strategies whose objective is to serve clients better. Merely managing a law firm platform so timekeepers can be more productive, alternative-billing ideas can be implemented, or more business generated (all good initiatives to be sure) won’t be enough. An entrepreneurial leader will direct the law firm to greater client satisfaction and, in turn, law firm success.
Be Flexible. Saying that the “future is unknown” is guaranteed to generate a pithy retort from Captain Obvious. But its obviousness demands that the next leader of a law firm be flexible. Well thought-out initiatives may lose steam or the market may turn away. A flexible leader will adjust instead of doubling down. A law firm lead by an adaptable person will pilot a firm through its rough spots and seize upon opportunity when it arises.
The five job description components are not an exclusive list of skills that the next law firm leader must have. No doubt there are other skills that would be helpful. What ones do you want in your next law firm leader?