A Holistic View of Law Firm Succession Planning from Industry Experts

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Client Relations, Law Firms, Legal Executive Events, Succession, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters


In the Spring, we hosted a webinar series entitled Preparing Your Law Firm for the Future, which highlighted best practices for law firm succession planning. This post focuses on the insights that resonated the most with our audience. To learn more from our experts, check out the following webinar recordings on-demand:

Key Takeaways

The State of Preparedness on Succession Planning — According to a survey of leaders of midsize law firms, the majority did not feel that their firm is prepared to deal with the retirement and succession of partners, and 61% said they were concerned about their firm’s preparedness. Most firms relied on an informal process and handled issues as they arose, and only 37% had a formal process or were going through efforts to create one.

An Array of Concerns and Challenges — Survey data indicated that senior partners’ resistance to retirement was the most common challenge. Respondents also cited the awkwardness of having to bring up senior lawyers’ retirement plans, the loss of principal rainmakers, and gaps in the firm’s management and leadership ranks as other frequent concerns.

Check out this Succession Planning Infographic

How to Address Retiring Partner Concerns

Ida Abbott, a legal talent consultant with expertise mentoring retiring partners, walked through some of the most common concerns. She highlighted money being a major concern for some senior lawyers and underscored issues surrounding the loss of identity, status, influence, and community for seasoned partners considering retirement. These struggles often grow out of the attorneys’ identities being so closely aligned with their work, she explained. Often, clients and law firm colleagues frequently are some of the retiring partner’s closest friends and connections, and this adds to the concern. Abbott also noted the loss of purpose and the fear of the unknown about what partners do in retirement as strong concerns.

Providing individual support for a partner considering retirement is a must, Abbott says, highlighting the importance of having an outside professional help coach and mentor partners through the transition into retirement and provide a sounding board to help them work through their concerns. Firm alumni, peer groups, and a “library of resources” are additional options for individual support; and emeritus roles, such as ambassadors, pro bono advisers and mentors can be used as ways to address the partners’ feelings around loss of purpose, identity, status, and community, she explained.

Listen to more of Ida Abbott’s insights from the first webinar.

The Essential Roles Involved in Leadership Transitions at the Firm

Angie Hickey, CEO of Levenfeld Pearlstein LLC, and Ann Jenrette-Thomas, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Stinson, Leonard, Street LLP discussed the different roles and functions within a law firm that should be involved in transition discussions. Both Hickey and Jenrette-Thomas agreed that, in addition to the retiring partner, representation from the management, administration, marketing and talent & diversity functions should also be involved.

The management or administration representative would ideally take responsibility for outlining the transition process, as well as expectations for each key person within the firm and the documenting of milestones and timelines. This outline can be created from scratch or customized from a structured, templated plan for the partner in transition. In addition, the management or administration representative should be responsible for ensuring that everyone follows the succession plan throughout the process.

Marketing plays a critical role in monitoring the client experience during the transition. Feedback collected through client interviews and information gathered as part of day-to-day operations can be leveraged to help inform the succession planning team about how the client is viewing the process. Hickey noted that ongoing client check-ins are key. She strongly encouraged law firms to make these a priority throughout the process.

Having a representative from the firm’s talent & diversity team is key to the succession planning transition. This individual is responsible for assessing the knowledge gaps of potential candidates and ensure they are addressed proactively. By doing so, the firm has a leadership pipeline filled with the most qualified and best-prepared individuals to carry the firm into the next generation. Moreover, the emphasis on a diverse pipeline can help ensure the future success of a firm.

Some of the key knowledge, skills, and abilities the talent representative looks for in a succession partner candidate include:

  •        Collaboration skills;
  •        Ability to articulate the challenges faced by the firm over the short and long term;
  •        Knowledge of key areas of expertise that are important to the client; and
  •        History of demonstrated leadership and decision-making in the best interests of the firm and client.

According to Hickey and Jenrette-Thomas, once the succession partner has been identified, it is critical for that person to join ongoing meetings between the retiring partner and the client. The succession partner should also start working on client matters and take the lead on billing right away.

You can hear more insights from Angie Hickey and Ann Jenrette-Thomas from the second webinar.

The Voices of Clients During Partner Transitions

William Crosby, Associate General Counsel at Interpublic Group, and Sue Garcia, Associate General Counsel at Thomson Reuters, shared their preferences on how to work with law firms during lateral departures, career path changes, and other transitions. Both spoke about their preferences about how they would like to be involved based on the circumstances of the situation. Crosby shared that he expects as much notice as possible to ensure that he has enough time to explore all his options. In the case of a retiring partner, he said he “would look unfavorably on both the firm and the lawyer if the transition was not planned years in advance.”

More specifically, Crosby said that when the relationship with a partner is primarily based on expertise in a specialized area of law, the partner should give him a heads up and explore whether he may be willing to move the business to the new firm.

Learn more about how to make a Succession Plan from Scratch

Garcia added that in a situation where the partner is a specialist and has unique industry experience, there is an increased likelihood that her business would shift to the departing partner at a new firm. She also added that the transition could be awkward if a highly specialized attorney leaves and the firm does not have a good successor in place. In these situations, she noted that she usually has no choice but to start a new search for a firm that works in that specialized area.

From Garcia’s perspective, it was an absolute must for the firm to reach out to the general counsel and the key staff attorneys who handle those specialized matters on the client side. To illustrate, Crosby recounted a situation where he was supervising a matter and the lead partner went to the general counsel to assure him the matter would be in good hands with his new firm. However, Crosby had never heard from the lead partner about any transition to the new firm, and the mid-level partner at the current firm had Crosby’s complete confidence. Crosby went to his general counsel to advocate for the business to stay with the current firm and with the mid-level partner. Ultimately, the Chief Legal Officer supported Crosby and chose to keep the business with the mid-level partner at the current firm.

Listen to more insights from William Crosby and Sue Garcia from the third webinar.