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In Law Firm Succession Planning, Messaging Matters

March 19, 2021, 8:00 AM

Following the Great Recession of 2008, new litigation shops sprouted wildly. From September through October 2009, 114 partners left the Am Law 200 to launch their own firms or join smaller ones.

More than a decade later, many of those firms have elbowed their way into enviable market positions. They’ve grabbed high-profile work and attracted some of the best and brightest lawyers in the country. But while models for successfully launching a firm abound, examples of firms surviving their founders to become successful institutions are harder to find.

This lack of success over generations should not be surprising. Law firm leadership succession has always been fraught, but it is especially thorny when it involves a founder—particularly one of renown. Pride and ego can be formidable barriers.

To be fair, these are not easy transitions for founders. After all, many of them staked their reputation and capital on their firms and toiled tirelessly to achieve success. Relinquishing control and stepping back from the limelight naturally won’t come easy.

But these transitions don’t have to sting for founders. A well-executed succession plan can burnish a founder’s legacy and put the firm’s future on solid footing. On the flip side, a poorly executed plan—or the absence of a plan—can lead to missed opportunities, market confusion, and financial instability. It can also squander the reputation built by a founder over a lifetime.

Start Planning Early

Having counseled numerous law firms about their succession plans, we find the elements of success are clear. They include careful planning and communication that are transparent and empathetic, not only to founders but also to the individuals moving up the ranks who may feel powerless and disenfranchised without support.

A thoughtful approach toward internal communications will also help serve as a foundation for the messaging that will reach external audiences, including clients, prospective hires, and the media.

Succession planning cannot be hurried. The process must provide enough time to identify and vet candidates, select one (or a team, in some instances), prepare that person for the new role and keep all the key constituencies informed along the way. This is a journey that can take months, if not years.

Smart firms understand this. Paul Geller, a name partner of the plaintiffs’ law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, notes that even though his firm’s leadership is relatively young, “succession is a constant topic of discussion.” He adds: “We’ve witnessed enough law firm transitions—some seamless and some disastrous—to realize the importance of proper planning and execution.”

Invest in the Marketing of a Younger Generation

And that means investing in the marketing of a younger generation. A roster of rising stars should be identified and integrated into a PR program. By the time a succession is imminent, firms should have a stable of next-generation leaders who are serious candidates to lead the firm and have name recognition.

Often founders cannot be counted on to initiate the process. Younger lawyers need to take ownership of their future and press the issue if the leadership has not addressed it.

These conversations can be awkward, but they are necessary. And they are best positioned as steps required to ensure the firm thrives as an institution. Succession does not have to mean enacting a power play; it’s about preserving a culture and legacy and securing a future for the firm and the next generation of leaders.

Too many firms don’t give themselves enough time, or they let external circumstances—an illness of a founding partner or a scandal—dictate the timing of their succession plans. By being proactive, firms can better control the message and story lines, which will shape how clients, employees, recruits, and other key stakeholders view the transition.

Write It Down

Ideally, a succession plan should be in writing. A written plan with goals, time lines, and dates can lend credibility and legitimacy to the process while also providing transparency. It holds the founders accountable should they backtrack on their plans to hand over the reins. The plan should address questions like:

  • When do we want to start the search?
  • Where will we look to find the best candidates?
  • Who will be part of the selection committee?
  • What criteria will we use for selection?
  • When do we want to have a selection made?

Media training for the new leader should also be built into the plan. Many lawyers have never been the leader of an organization, so they should be given the right kind of preparation. There should be a clear delineation of roles when the new leader becomes the firm’s chief spokesperson.

That doesn’t mean that the founder has no public-facing role. But their role likely needs to be more circumscribed than it had been before the transition. A detailed plan can eliminate any ambiguity about roles.

Communicate With Intention and Transparency

After firms choose a successor, the next step is determining the key messages for the announcement and how they will be delivered. Again, this should not be rushed.

A no-drama transition means plotting a well-choreographed roll out of the announcement that prioritizes who receives the information first. First in line should be the firm’s lawyers and employees. Sharing as much information as possible about the timeline and the process is important.

Clients come next. They should not learn about a succession announcement through the media or second-hand sources. Communicating your plans with them is a chance to cement the relationship by creating a shared future.

That said, as more internal and external stakeholders learn of the transition, the likelihood the announcement will reach the media grows. And so, it is important for firms to have a media plan ready in advance and to control the narrative by notifying journalists as soon as the message has gone out to clients. These kinds of opportunities to tell a firm’s story don’t come around all the time. They should not go to waste.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Jamie Diaferia, CEO of the communications firm Infinite Global, counsels leading professional services firms on their media, litigation, and crisis communications strategies.

Andrew Longstreth is head writer at Infinite Global.