The issue of succession planning at law firms is a topic of great importance.  The need to address succession won’t always wait until a convenient time and makes planning as important than ever.

Succession planning among firms, whether leadership succession or client relationship transition, is a mixed bag. Some firms have thought about it deeply and are well prepared for succession. Typically, 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, they have continued to focus on the day to day blocking and tackling instead of giving succession planning the attention it deserves.

At some point, however, most firms wake up and start addressing succession.  While the level of preparation at firms varies, there are at least five common succession planning mistakes 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 a spouse’s birthday to buy a present, leaving succession to the last minute can have lasting negative effect.

Failing to Prepare Future Leaders or Relationship Managers. A by-product of waiting too long is failing to develop leaders or relationship managers that can be integral to a firm’s future. Scouting for future talent is one thing, but developing that talent is as important as prospect identification. Inattention to development is bad for two reasons. One, future leaders or managers may have inadequate time to mature into readiness. Second, despite initial high hopes, the development process may reveal that he or she is not up to the task. In instances in which a future leader or manager turns out to be uninspiring, a firm will benefit if it still has time to think of alternatives, including looking laterally or for a 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 or managers without knowing where the firm is going long-term is short-sighted. Installing new leaders or managers through the use of a succession plan is helpful, but if their skills are not in concert with an overall strategic plan the firm seeks to follow, success may be fleeting.

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, its management, and its future. Forgetting about how the rank and file feels can undermine morale and make an otherwise smart succession plan problematic. Good communication is critical in any succession plan, and especially so when trying to build widespread support.

Failing to Prepare Clients. At the end of the day, law firms don’t exist if they don’t have clients. Even when addressing leadership succession, a sound plan recognizes that clients can be skittish about the stability of their law firm. A smart firm deals with that concern by keeping the client informed about leadership succession. Getting a client involved is even more important when addressing the transition of relationship managers.  A client not involved in the selection of the next relationship manager for its matters will not be a client for long.  Whether addressing leadership succession or client relationship transition, preparing clients for succession is critical.

No doubt your law firm has thought about succession.  But as it has begun to prepare for its future, has it approached the task in a way that avoids these five common mistakes?