Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time with law firm clients helping them with Succession Planning. To put it bluntly, it appears that succession planning for law firms is an “issue” for the industry. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone since the youngest of the Baby Boomers will be passing the age of 50 in 2015 (and the oldest will turn 69). The pressures of succession planning at a law firm can be felt on the shoulders of senior management and they are trying to find solutions – fast.
But are they looking for solutions in all the rights places? I’ve been included in a lot of discussions about factors that need to be considered when considering succession planning for law firms such as timing, compensation, gaps in lawyer ranks and desire to work past retirement while addressing succession plans. Unfortunately, some firms seem to be forgetting about one key element, an element that I would argue is the most important one in the equation. The client.
A situation I experienced perfectly illustrates this point. As part of a Client Feedback Program I had recently implemented, I was with the Managing Partner (MP) of a large regional firm meeting the CEO of a client. The current relationship partner was a couple of years away from 65 (that firm’s mandatory retirement age) and the firm had been grooming a junior partner to take over the relationship. The individual had worked on the relationship since he was an associate and was well known by the client.
Now this was a very key client of the firm and to cut a long story short, I brought up the issue of succession planning. The MP was visibly taken aback when the client said that he had been wondering about the issue and asked who was going to take the lead on the relationship. The MP responded indicating that Junior Partner would be the successor at which point the CEO balked. He said that although he liked Junior Partner very much, and he thought he was a fine lawyer, he was not what they were looking for in a relationship lead. They were moving into a major growth phase and needed a lawyer who was aggressive and would aggressive for them. That is, not the Junior Partner, who the firm had been grooming to take over the relationship for a couple of years without ever speaking to the client about what they wanted in a Successor. See the error of their ways?
It seems so simple and yet most firms don’t speak to their clients early enough in the succession planning process (or at all – “Hi I’m your New Relationship Lawyer!”.)
So here’s my advice when thinking about succession planning for law firms, no matter what the individual circumstances may be.
If you consider these factors into your succession planning process, you’ll have the opportunity to make choices that work for your client as well as your firm. If you don’t, well maybe your client will simply take those choices out of your hands entirely.
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Lynn is a legal marketing and professional services consultant focused on growing revenue and brand awareness for her clients. She holds a dual concentration MBA in Finance & Communications and is as comfortable discussing profitability as she is client satisfaction.
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