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Planning for Succession: Part Two

In Part One I explained why proper succession planning is so important. I also touched on why senior partners might be reluctant to retire, and offered advice on how to overcome this hesitancy. In that post I also provided a broader view on the definition of succession, suggesting it be considered more of an evolutionary process than an act in a point of time.

I suggested that strong business management is managing through constant change, and that this change should be actively managed in a law firm at three levels: the Partnership (and eventual transfer of ownership); practice groups, and individual lawyer careers. My last post covered succession within a Partnership. In this post, I’ll focus on succession planning for practice groups and individual lawyers. I’ll also explore why firms don’t do this planning, to help you prepare for the argument against it.

Succession Planning for Practice Groups

When I talk about succession planning by practice group, most lawyers and administrators think I’m referring only the leadership of the group. That’s certainly part of it, but great teams are comprised of individuals with various specific skills, who together form an entity far more powerful than the capabilities of the individual. We need a leader to be ultimately responsible for the group within the Partnership, to oversee the creation and following of a business plan, and to ensure the group’s administrative tasks are done. We need recognized lawyers in the area of law to help establish a collective credibility for the practice group. We need a good mix of years of call to ensure we can move the work down to the appropriate level. We need mentorship within the group to ensure that our juniors are learning as quickly and effectively as they can. We need some good marketers in the group, to help us continually build new businesses. We need good client relationship people to help us optimize our client services and limit client attrition. We need innovators who can help us to test our boundaries, take full advantage of new technologies, process or marketplaces, and ensure we remain relevant to the client of the future.

I often equate strong teams with the image of a starfish: everyone has an important role to play and our ability to survive and thrive is dependent on everyone contributing.

Do your practice groups have individuals with strengths in each of these various areas? Do you rely on a single person to be an expert in all of them? Have you identified members of your team who could/should be building experience and expertise in one or more of these areas?

We Follow the Leader

At the same time, there’s no doubt that the leader is a critical member of a practice group. When I was in-house I was responsible for launching a number of national team-based initiatives (i.e. client teams) and did some research to determine what made for a strong team vs. a weak team. It was the same thing: leadership. A good leader can make an adequate team accomplish extraordinary things. A poor leader will eventually destroy the motivation of even the most determined individuals.

Focus on picking the right leader. Many firms make the mistakes of placing individuals in leadership who are experiencing a slump in their career. Bad idea. Lawyers will only follow someone they respect for both business and legal skills, and whom they see as someone the marketplace also respects. Good leaders should also be egoless, because genius or not, no one will follow them if they obviously care only about themselves and nothing for their team members.

Too often, firms try to build a group around a single practitioner with a good name in that area of the law. It’s a decent starting point, but must be accompanied by a plan for building out the other positions referenced above. I’ve also seen many firms make this practitioner the practice group leader. That’s not necessarily a good idea. If their ego is to big to be a great leader, they might actually work against the building of a strong team. If they aren’t a good administrator, they might serve the group better as the chief rainmaker and face of the group instead.

If your choices are limited because of the size of your practice group, or if there’s no one else who would make a suitable leader, another option is to provide the leader with training/coaching.

ID and Train the Next in Line

Just as it takes years to learn how to be a great lawyer in a particular legal discipline, it takes years to learn how to be a great leader, or administrator, or business developer, or visionary. Start to identify practice group members that might have some of those skill sets and help to develop them by giving them opportunities to practice. Have them oversee a project – maybe development of the group’s precedents; coordination of a major client event, etc. Have them report to the group so they get used to ownership and accountability of projects. Have them assist with administrative tasks, like budget development and monitoring, helping to create the marketing plan for the group, preparing meeting agendas and minutes.

Do Predictive Modelling

It’s highly likely that over time you’ll need to add members to your team. I’ve worked with lots of practice groups that knew they needed a team member but didn’t really understand how that team member would be fitting in. This usually results in a default hire of a very junior person, with no game plan for how they should develop their practice to truly fill the gaps identified.

Instead, beak your practice group down by sub-specialty, and by year of call. By sub-specialty, ensure you are building redundancies. Only one lawyer knows how to do probate? Start training another. Three lawyers doing employment contracts but no one knows anything about pensions? Figure out who will fill that gap – either through learning or by finding a lateral. Plot out your service offerings, and ensure you have a team member expert and a team member in training for each.

Next, plot out your team members by year of call. The gaps will pop. Perhaps you have no one between the 3-6 year of call range. Perhaps you have no real juniors to delegate the work to. Do this over a five-year period, year by year to see where and how the gaps might affect your practice over time.

Succession planning for individual lawyers

As we move from the macro to the micro we come to the career of an individual lawyer. Here, too, we should have a succession strategy. I’ve already broadened the definition of succession to mean evolution. In the case of an individual lawyer, this refers to their evolution as a lawyer, by increasing years of call.

There’s a reason that when we want to know how experienced a lawyer is, we ask for how many years they’ve been called. It is assumed that each year evolves the lawyer; brings them new knowledge, new experience, and greater value. This is at least part of the reason for annual billable hour rate increases; the assumption of increased value. So ideally, each year of a lawyer’s life – at least until they have 15 or more years under their belt – each year should be very different than the previous one. Each year should really be quite a different stage of their legal career.

We know this to be true because we’ve all met lawyers who are stuck at a certain year of call. At fourth year, they’re still doing things that they did at second year. At eight year, their practice is more like that of a fourth year, etc. They haven’t evolved.

Some firms try to deal with this by having a chart of expectations in terms of legal knowledge and experience, and admin capabilities drafted out by year of call. By your fourth year you should be able to do the following or have done the following. But not all firms have that.

I know many instances where law firms have let associates go because they haven’t been able to measure up to expectations of a certain year of call. They were fine in year one, or three, or six. But suddenly in year seven, they aren’t meeting certain standards. It’s rare that those firms ever clearly identified what those expectations were, on an annual basis. And it’s rare that these firm were actively engaged throughout the process in monitoring the evolution of these young lawyers other than trying to ensure they had sufficient work to meet their hourly requirements, and mentoring them on a file or two.

I’m not meaning to be harsh on the firms in these cases. This is the new reality. Law firms are not guilds. They cannot manage the skills development, marketing growth and legal evolution of individual lawyers. That needs to be up to the individual lawyers. What firms can do is to identify the markers: here’s what we need in a three-year call in this practice area. Here’s what we need in a five-year call, etc. And then practice groups can pick up some of the slack by helping their team members to get access to work and experience that will help them hit those markers.

It’s up to Each Lawyer

But law firms really aren’t managing younger lawyer careers anymore. In today’s reality, it’s really up to individual lawyers to plan out their own succession strategy to successfully move up a year. What targets do I need to hit this year? What new experiences do I need to take on? What type or work do I need to start delegating or doing less of? What level of client should I be dealing with at this stage in my career? What practice management, marketing or administrative goals do I need to reach in order to move to the next level? And incidentally, as I move into the next plateau of experience, where am I delegating the work I should no longer be doing?

This is, understandably, a lot to place on an individual lawyer – especially if their belief has been that it’s up to their firm to manage their careers. The two steps to overcoming this challenge are:

  1. Be honest and tell them this is how it is from now on – that you’ll touch base and help them if and when you can, but you need them to take the reigns of their own career and the firm will take more of a support position and
  2. Get them in a good mentoring situation or at least get them a bit of coaching, so you can give them a fighting chance to learn how to do this for themselves.

Three Stages of Succession

By now, over the course of parts one and two of this topic, I hope you’ve seen the logical correlation between the three levels of succession planning I’ve been talking about, because in strong firms, they all work together. As a reminder:

  • Law firm succession is about successfully transferring ownership and legal reputation to the next generation.
  • Practice group and firm succession planning is about ensuring the development and eventual succession of the expertise, reputation and administrative skills of its members.
  • Lawyer succession planning is about the mindful evolution of a career to ensure that individuals are constantly moving forward and upward.

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