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How to Manage a Law Firm Leadership Succession (Perspective)

Nov. 23, 2016, 4:51 PM

Editor’s Note: The author is the former chair of a large U.S. law firm and this is the first of a two-part series.

Most successful businesses are run by a strong, well-respected leader, and law firms are no exception. Eventually, however, even the best leaders must move on, whether that be iconic figures such as Jack Welch at GE and Steve Jobs at Apple or, more recently, Peter Kalis at K&L Gates. Fate can also sometimes play a role – in the seven years prior to the time I became Chairman at Hinshaw, two of my predecessors died of a heart attack while in office. We were not as ready for these events as we would have liked and the result was a significant amount of disruption. Preparing for the eventuality of leadership succession with a well thought-out strategy will help a law firm continue to thrive during and following the transition.

In this two-part series, I consider leadership succession best practices. Part One today focuses on the importance of identifying and nurturing those partners with the strongest leadership potential. Part Two, the feature of next month’s column, will then discuss the process of adopting a formal leadership succession protocol and also provide an overview of key succession protocol elements.

Preparing Potential Successors for the Leadership Role

You’ve probably heard of the old adage, “Leaders are born, not made.” While character is an extremely important leadership attribute, this statement represents a gross over-simplification. Put simply, leadership must also be forged in the fires of experience.

Today’s law firm leaders need to have a specific set of skills and knowledge resources to lead the firm to success. Among other skills, law leaders must be clear communicators, nimble problem solvers, exercisers of good judgment, and long-term strategists. Identification of qualified candidates with these attributes is critical. At Hinshaw there was sometimes a tendency to look to partners with large “books of business” (the 800 pound rainmaker gorillas) for leadership roles. This by itself is not a good criteria – all great law firm leaders are or could be good business developers, but not all great business developers make good law firm leaders. Focus on those who demonstrate the skillset mentioned above.

Candidates for the highest law firm leadership position also need experience-based knowledge. They must possess an in-depth understanding of the strengths, and shortcomings, of the firm’s attorneys and staff. They must comprehend the business realities confronting the firm’s clients along with a clear understanding of the brand and value proposition the firm offers to those clients. They must possess an excellent grasp of the firm’s finances, most notably including its balance sheet and profit and loss statements and the impact which various events have upon them. Finally, they must understand the firm’s back office operations, such as its time recording, billing and collecting systems and procedures. For the most part, these skills and knowledge bases are a function of experience.

As the first and most critical element of a Leadership Succession plan, the firm should provide multiple candidates with a means to hone the skills and knowledge resource necessary to succeed to the firm’s highest leadership position. Acting as a leader of one of the firm’s practice groups, especially one of those most critical to the firm’s vision, provides an excellent environment for this development. For multiple office firms, the position of managing partner of one of the offices also offers this opportunity. In larger firms, a second-in-command, such as firm vice chair or firm managing partner is yet another position where the necessary skills and knowledge bases can be learned. When naming a partner to one of these positions, the firm should be mindful that they provide a training ground for leadership development, and it should choose personalities who have demonstrated the requisite leadership potential.

Appointing a partner to one of these positions is naturally only the starting point for successful leadership succession. Partners in these positions must also be given the three mantles of leadership: authority, visibility and recognition. First and foremost, Partners in these roles must be given the authority to make significant business decisions. They must have extensive input into critical decisions such as compensation, promotion, client assignments, the method for charging for client services, etc. Moreover, they must have a high visibility both internally and externally. They should be given speaking roles at various firm functions such as partner and firm meetings, in order to give them visibility to the firm wide audience of partners, attorneys and staff. They should be prominent on the firm’s website and various marketing materials. When opportunities for participation in seminars or presentations on topics facing law firms arise, these should be offered to them. Finally, partners in these positions should be given recognition, commensurate with the authority and visibility which have been given to them.

Partners who perform well in the positions such as those discussed above are likely to be excellent candidates to ascend to the Chair or Managing Partner role. The next step is selection of the person most likely to succeed in that position, which we will consider in Part Two, the subject of next month’s column.