Law firm succession planning represents an important component to law firm longevity. The two forms of succession most often discussed-leadership and client relationship transfer-should be top of mind to any firm thinking about being an enduring institution. While leadership succession can be a significant challenge, creating an effective client relationship transfer strategy is among the most complicated things to achieve.
In client relationship transfer, it takes four different parties to make it work. First and foremost is the client without whom there can be no client relationship transfer. Surprisingly, too often the client’s thoughts and perspectives on relationship succession are not prioritized, at least to the degree desired by the client. If the client’s interests are neglected, there is little hope for a successful plan.
The other three parties critical to client relationship transfer are — the senior attorney controlling the client relationship, the prospective junior lawyer most capable of succeeding to the senior lawyer’s relationship, and the firm leader seeking to foster a client transfer succession arrangement. All three of these firm related parties are integral to developing a client transfer plan that works. And in developing the plan, all three must be prepared to “meet in the middle,” or stated differently, make concessions.
Senior Attorney Currently Controlling the Client Relationships. Even if the senior attorney controlling client relationships does not think that she or her career will live forever, she may not have a sense of urgency about a client relationship transfer plan. Indeed, the current state of affairs may be comfortable, non-threatening, and financially lucrative. Getting the senior attorney to change the status quorequires persuasion from leadership and concessions. In any plan the senior attorney will be asked, over time, to cede client control, upset a settled routine, and forego some level of financial rewards. Those concessions typically do not come easily. Any client relationship transfer plan requires salutary elements that wreak concessions from the senior attorney.
Junior Attorney That May Succeed to the Senior Attorney’s Client Relationships. Despite the thought that client relationship transfer is all upside for the junior attorney, it can present the junior attorney with considerable risks. A junior attorney may already be on a path towards professional success when presented with the client relationship transfer opportunity. Diverting towards client relationship transfer requires the junior attorney to have great faith in the senior attorney’s (and firm’s) commitment to the initiative. It also requires client acceptance. None of those things are assured. To move forward on client relationship transfer, a junior attorney must be willing to avert in favor of succession an otherwise untethered path towards building a fresh book of business. A concession to do so might not come easily and may need to be induced.
Firm Leader Seeking to Implement a Successful Client Relationship Transfer. Firm leaders like to encourage the players in the client transfer drama to work together and be “firm minded.” In cajoling the senior and junior attorneys to vary their behaviors in furtherance of client relationship transfer, leaders are asking each for concessions. Whether economically based or not, something of value from the firm will be needed. For example, while many firm leaders are hesitant to do so, sometimes client relationship transfer requires the firm to pay the senior and junior attorneys collectively more compensation for client results than if only one of them was responsible for the client work. The firm’s concession, or overpayment to make the client relationship transfer work, is an investment in the initiative and its way of being “firm minded.” Without the firm being as willing to extend concessions as is being asked of the senior and junior attorneys, the client relationship transfer plan will have a hard time being successful.
Client relationship transfer can happen only if key players are willing participants. Obviously, getting the client on board is essential. But beyond the client, firm related parties must work together in a give and take way toward a common goal. Does your client relationship transfer plan extract from each key participant, including the firm, a reasonable amount of “give?”