Law firm succession can be easy, and it can be hard. It tends to be easy for the law firms blessed with talented people, a deep and repeatable client base, and a stellar reputation. Transition from one generation to the next can be natural and seamless. Unfortunately, not all law firms enjoy such a profile.
Most law firms find law firm succession a greater challenge. These firms, grinding daily to succeed in the here and now, are susceptible to succession failure. Because everyone at the firm is busy pursuing the short-term rewards that drive their behavior, interest in succession barely makes it into the firm’s consciousness. So, while the firm may be enjoying a strong and steady performance today, starting an initiative to create a comprehensive succession plan can be difficult.
Developing a workable plan in firms not naturally gifted towards succession requires four steps:
Identify the Extent of Shared Aspirations in Favor of Succession and Act. Nothing is more important than shared aspirations. To see if they exist, the owners must meet and honestly discuss whether preserving the firm’s legacy is valued. If few owners care about succession, then playing out the string and preparing for the eventual firm wind-down is the logical approach. But if succession is a goal shared by all (or at least most), the shared aspiration must be converted into action. When resolve for succession exists, a plan can be created, debated and adopted. A firm’s high-minded determination for succession must result in action, or opportunity is lost.
Drill Down into the Details. Any resolve to create a succession plan requires, as a first step, identification of the kind of succession needed. Are your succession requirements related to leadership, client transfer, or both? A firm’s approach to preserving its legacy can depend greatly on accurately identifying the succession plan’s focus. Only when the challenge is clear can the plan hope to create the solution.
Create Milestones. Measuring success towards any objective is important and in succession it is no different. Yet because succession is a long-term project with rewards realized later, it is essential to create markers of success that can be celebrated and rewarded as the initiative proceeds. Unlike year-end bonuses or compensation setting that occur in the ordinary course of a law firm’s business, succession plan implementation doesn’t typically lend itself to immediate gratification. To stay on target, it is vital to fete and reward milestones met yearly-long before succession has been completed. Without milestones, succession will struggle.
Put Someone in Charge. A ship without a captain drifts with the current. To avoid a similar fate for your succession plan, appoint a succession plan leader or project manager with credibility and respect. Put the full weight of leadership behind him or her. But more must be done. To enhance credibility for the initiative, make that person accountable for meeting expectations and reward that person in tangible ways as progress is made. And since accountability also means addressing performances that fall short of expectations, deal with inadequate progress in a responsible, direct, and prompt way. Accountability with tangible responses from leadership will show the rest of the firm that succession is a high priority.
Succession commonly is outside the ordinary course of most firm’s operations and can become an afterthought. Focusing on these four steps now can prevent later regret that more was not done. Will your firm take those steps?