In the world of law practice management, where so many firms and companies rely on the institutional know-how of their founding partners and general counsel, succession planning takes on an extra urgency as baby boomer retirements continue to rise.
Businesses thrive when they have a constant supply of new talent coming up through the ranks, ready to step in as the old guard steps down. So as wave after wave of the boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) is expected to retire in coming years, it begs the question: Who will fill the shoes of these leaders once they’re gone?
Still working hard, but envisioning retirement
Baby boomers made their mark on the legal field, founding a vast number of practices in the 1970s and ’80s. Among U.S. law firms with 50 or more partners today, lawyers age 60 and older control 30 percent of the revenue, according to data in a recent American Lawyer article. Although the American Bar Association opposes mandatory retirement ages and many boomer lawyers have no desire to stop working at 65, good law practice management requires planning for the day they do leave the firm.
When law practice leaders retire, they take with them institutional knowledge and well-honed job skills. Others include:
- Direction. Senior partners and corporate legal department leaders make critical business decisions daily, often under pressure and in imperfect situations. Future leaders must have the strength of character to act decisively in challenging circumstances and motivate staff during difficult times.
- Strategy. Effective leaders are aware of the course their organization is headed and how to navigate the complex terrain to their advantage. This is because they have a deep knowledge of the firm or company and can make necessary course corrections to achieve long-term goals.
- Client management. This ability is especially important in practices where relationships with key clients may have taken decades to cultivate. Senior practice leaders have highly developed interpersonal skills necessary for nurturing valuable business connections and translating them into success for the organization.
How to cultivate the next generation of leaders
No law firm or legal department wants to lose key leaders, but it will happen, like it or not. Effective law practice management, including a well-reasoned succession plan, will mitigate the damage. Here’s how:
- Deepen your talent pool.Rather than relying on one accession candidate, groom a cohort of talented lawyers and managers who could one day step into leadership roles. Even if they don’t all move into management, the effort will not be wasted. It is beneficial to have among your team a group with leadership and law practice management skills. The competition for senior legal jobs may also challenge your staff to continually be at their best and set examples for others.
- Offer a chance to demonstrate leadership mettle.Serious succession candidates will prove themselves by their effort. Facilitate their growth by removing obstacles that might impede them from demonstrating their leadership skills. Adjust their regular schedule if appropriate. Allow them to work pro bono for a worthy nonprofit or take the lead on a project. The added challenge and departure from the routine may also increase their job satisfaction.
- Offer mentoring and professional development.When developing leaders, offer the requisite resources. Continuing legal education, tuition remission for a degree and defraying costs for legal conferences are valuable, but nothing beats the guidance of a master mentor. When veteran leaders take the time and effort to impart their accumulated knowledge to the next generation, the firm moves one step closer to a seamless transition.
- Make the process transparent and timely.The top candidates for tomorrow’s leadership roles are eager for advancement. Time is of the essence with these high achievers, who will likely move on if they don’t see a clear career development plan. Update them often about their progress and advance them on the in-house ladder as quickly as possible. If they invest their time in training but go nowhere, they may become frustrated and take a legal job elsewhere.
A law practice management imperative is to anticipate and prepare for attrition. The good news is that it’s not an insurmountable challenge. When you have a solid succession plan in place, you can rest assured that your organization is in capable hands today and tomorrow.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.