For many law firms, Succession planning can often be a backburner activity. Finding the time and resources to create and implement a succession plan can be a challenge for any organization and for most law firms, client needs tend to come first. However, in today’s competitive economy, succession planning should be considered a key management strategy and a best-practice tool that can ensure a law firm’s continued growth and success.
Most firms can anticipate partners’ retirements or the departure of a senior attorney and will have succession plans in place. However, too many firms fail to extend such planning to other critical positions within the firm, such as executive-level information technology and marketing roles as well as senior-level administrative positions.
In fact, 39 percent of attorneys polled by Robert Half Legal said that their firms has no succession plan in place for its key leadership roles and close to half (49 percent), said there are no intentions to develop one. These numbers show that leadership transition planning is an issue that many law firms often delay until a managing partner or practice group leader retires or resigns. Still, the best time to create a succession plan is when one isn’t needed.
Developing a Plan
Succession planning initiatives do not have to be highly formalized to be effective. One good way to get started is to meet with the firm’s managing partners to consider various “what if” scenarios. For each scenario, the group should try to identify possible replacements for key roles, including certain support positions or formulate other contingency plans.
It’s also useful to look at the current composition of staff and make projections for the future. What will the firm look like in three to five years? Given likely levels of attrition, expansion, contraction or promotion, will the future team be capable of supporting the firm’s vision for growth?
Determining a Replacement
To determine the best candidate to replace current staff, it helps to specify and prioritize the personal and professional qualities that are essential for success in a particular role. For example, in identifying a paralegal to assume a management role, which is the most critical: having strong organizational skills, overseeing project workflow or managing relationships? What are some other requirements?
The next step is to select high-potential individuals who are most capable of assuming greater responsibility. This does not mean choosing a single “heir apparent” for each senior position, but rather trying to define a pipeline of future talent for critical roles. Firms can then better target developmental opportunities for promising professionals.
If you are choosing candidates to succeed you in your position, look for individuals who possess some of the same traits that have made you successful as an administrator. A strong grounding in business principles, experience in law office management, the ability to supervise and lead others and a knack for multitasking are likely mandatory qualities. Familiarity with how to staff specific practice areas or proficiency with specific legal technologies (case management and billing software, for example) might also be important requirements.
Training and Transitioning
A smooth transition depends on more than just identifying potential candidates. Along with the management team, determine precisely how the firm will develop and train key staff members for future roles. Should the firm fortify its investment in professional development? Is outside training necessary to supplement what the firm offers? You and the firm’s leadership must decide over what time period training will take place (e.g., a fixed timeframe versus open-ended and ongoing) and how progress will be measured (e.g., periodic written evaluations, performance reviews, successful completion of training).
The succession plan should also have a means for determining whether individuals are developing their abilities to the fullest, and provisions that specify what the firm will do if people are not meeting expectations. Even the most thorough screening process will not tell you how a potential succession candidate will perform in a leadership role. It’s important to take the time to periodically evaluate possible future leaders. Also, consider offering financial incentives, perks and other smaller promotions to reward achievements and keep the person motivated.
To be effective and meaningful, succession planning must be seen as an integral part of personnel management, as critical as recruiting, hiring, retention and professional development. Only through planning can firms be assured of the transfer of professional and institutional knowledge to a new generation of leaders. By investing time in selecting the right candidates for key positions and developing a clear strategy for training, your firm will ensure a pipeline of skilled talent capable of assuming higher-level responsibilities, either on an as-needed basis or in a permanent role in the future.
About the Author: SunMi Kim is regional vice president of Robert Half Legal in San Diego. Robert Half Legal is a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of lawyers, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. For more information, contact her at SunMi.Kim@rhi.com or (213) 624-8335.