Law Firm Management: 5 Keys to Effective Succession Planning

Who will replace your firm’s leaders when they retire, resign or decide to leave the firm for other reasons? Creating a smooth leadership transition is an essential part of effective law firm management. While it’s tempting to put off succession planning until senior partners announce their departure, it’s smart to start the process much earlier -- before there’s a need.

Here are five tips for effective succession planning for your firm’s critical legal professionals:

1. Know what you need. Update job descriptions for all key positions at your firm. Skills and expertise needed for top law firm management positions can change over time, so make these updates an annual exercise. When you have a clear idea of what abilities your firm needs from its leadership today, and probably in the future, you can start identifying potential candidates within the organization.

2. Invest in professional development. Once you’ve identified promising candidates for various future roles, begin the leadership training process -- if you haven’t already. Include them in important client meetings and high-level strategizing sessions and enroll them in professional development courses. Pair them up with wise and patient senior partners within the firm. The transfer of legal expertise from mentors to mentees is key to preventing unrecoverable knowledge loss when partners leave. Give your associates regular feedback as they progress up the law firm management ladder. The potential results will be not only a strong cohort of future leaders, but also a more motivated and engaged legal team today.

There’s another reason besides succession planning to create leadership development programs: these opportunities are one of the top incentives for recruiting and retaining legal talent, according to a recent Robert Half Legal survey. So, if there isn’t a mentoring or training program for junior and midlevel associates at your firm already, consider starting one soon.

3. Identify more than one successor. Rather than “anointing” one lawyer for a role, consider multiple candidates. Develop and promote less specifically for succession and place several candidates into a designated group of employees who are being groomed for leadership.

4. Form a flexible understanding with candidates. You may decide to tell employees you’d like to tap them for future leadership roles, or not. If you do decide to reveal this, make sure you establish an understanding that there are no guarantees, and the situation can change due to circumstances encountered by either the firm or the candidates themselves.

5. Don’t rule out external candidates. Recruiting talent is a process that shouldn’t be rushed (or take place during a management crisis), but timing often makes a difference when it comes to grooming internal candidates or conducting an external search. With a considerable amount of time, you may be able to develop an existing employee’s skills. But if your need is more pronounced, you may need to look for talent outside of the firm. Consider using a specialized legal placement agency to help you locate highly skilled and experienced legal professionals.

Practice good law firm management by making succession planning an ongoing priority. Taking the time to identify and develop future leaders today can help create a more seamless transition tomorrow.