Editor’s Note: The author is the former chair of a large U.S. law firm and this is part two of a two-part article on law firm leadership succession best practices. Part One, “How to Manage a Law Firm Leadership Succession,” addressed the importance of identifying and nurturing partners with the strongest leadership potential.
As much as any group of people, we lawyers understand the need to memorialize agreements, practices and the like in writing. We also appreciate the dueling needs of certainty versus flexibility in such documents. However, while attorneys use these principles to effectively counsel our clients, far too many of us ignore them when it comes to leadership succession planning at our own law firms. We do so at our own peril.
In offering advice and recommendations in this two-part series, I draw on my own experience as a firm chairman who experienced a series of unforeseeable crises, after assuming the role in 1989. I learned firsthand that thoughtful advance preparation for a law firm leadership succession can help ensure a smooth transition and mitigate the adverse effects of unforeseen events, which for some firms can even mean eventual dissolution.
Process and Timing
Whatever the ultimate plan, a firm should adopt a written protocol that sets forth the leadership selection process. Doing so will institutionalize, and allow for transparency, in the protocol. The current firm leader should draft the protocol, with assistance from those inside and/or outside the firm with experience in executive selection methodologies. The leader should vet the initial draft with members of the firm’s committee(s) involved in firm governance and with any highly interested partners. The leader should then adopt suggested changes to the draft protocol that he/she finds are likely to enhance the process. The protocol, as revised, should then be published to all of the firm’s partners.
This exercise should be undertaken early in the tenure of the firm’s current leader, even where selection of a successor is considered an event that will not occur until far into the future. Establishing the protocol early on will increase the likelihood that partners will accept it as an objective mechanism without reference to any particular future candidate. Should the protocol only be enacted at a time when a leadership change is imminent, partners may be skeptical about the fairness of the process. Requiring the protocol to be drafted by the current leader at the inception of his/her term is also will emphasize the fact that the partnership should consider leadership succession a critical component part of securing the firm’s long term future.
Firm circumstances and best practices concerning approaches to succession change inevitably shift over time. So the firm should periodically review the protocol and consider altering it as those changing events dictate. An annual or biannual review is recommended.
Key Elements of the Protocol
As the protocol sets forth the process that will be followed for the selection of the firm’s leader, it should explicitly address certain key issues, such as:
- Whether or not there will be named candidates for the position;
- If there will be named candidates, how those candidates will be chosen;
- Whether outside consultants should be retained to help assess: (a) the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses or, (b) if there are no specifically identified candidates, those partners who appear to be exceptionally qualified for the leadership position;
- Whether or not candidates are named, which of the firm’s constituents (all or some of the firm’s partners, associates and/or staff members) should be asked to provide input as to their choice for the next firm leader;
- Who should gather and summarize the input of the of the firm’s constituents providing it;
- Who, if anyone, should recommend a candidate to the group making the actual appointment;
- Who will make the appointment, assuming this is not covered in the firm’s partners’ agreement or other governing document.
The firm’s culture and history will provide the framework and parameters for resolving each of these issues. Clearly, what works for one firm will not work for all. When drafting the initial version of the protocol, the firm leader must focus intently on including elements in the protocol designed to create a high degree of trust in the process and resultant high degree of credibility in the leader selected.
Leadership succession is a critical issue faced by law firms, particularly today, given the tsunami of generational change that confronts firms as my baby boomer generation ages out. Firms need to enact a strategy to deal with this eventuality. The strategy should include a conscious and deliberate effort to prepare others for the top position. That strategy will also be supported by drafting and adopting a formal protocol which details the process to be followed for the selection of the new leader.