I’m excited to bring you a guest post today from Wendy Merrill, who classifies herself as the Chief Rainmaker, Dot-Connector, and Growth Engineer at StrategyHorse Consulting Group. Wendy reached out to me a couple of months ago on LinkedIn, and when we talked on the phone, we connected right away, so I’m sure you will all find her to be as smart and forward-thinking as I do. In her post, she’s jumping into a sensitive topic that many of us tiptoe around in legal, but should be tackling head-on, that of succession planning.

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Succession planning is a frequent subject in partner meetings, as well as a bit of a hot potato.

As seasoned leaders begin to consider their ride into the sunset, they are naturally curious about how the ride will be funded. Traditionally, the succession plan for most firms dictated that most associates would be groomed for partnership, thus creating a natural “bench” of aspiring leaders. This system worked rather well for many years, but today things are changing. Many agree that the practice of law is on the cusp of being revolutionized. Traditional methods of generating business through intimidation (speaking “Legalese” to prospective clients and billing at premium rates) are quickly waning.

Younger consumers of legal services demand value. They want to genuinely understand what their lawyer is doing for them. They seek transactional transparency and relatable professionals with whom they can easily establish trust. The theme of transparency does not just apply to marketing to external prospects, it’s also germane to the succession planning conversation as well.

Every day in my practice I encounter attorneys that are perceived to be “rising stars” within their firms. I am usually charged with helping them develop the necessary business development skills required to obtain an equity partnership position. I am often retained to help guide the folks that seem to be on track to eventually take hold of the reins of the firm. About 80% of the time, however, the professionals that I work with reveal that they are not as firmly on the leadership path as their employer thinks they are.

Why are they considering straying from the path on which so many traveled before them?

Three reasons:

  • They are ill-equipped to “take the torch” being passed to them.
    They do not understand what is expected of them as equity partners. As attorneys, they are unaccustomed to seeing themselves as entrepreneurs or business owners. Senior leadership often overlooks the importance of stating their expectations of those that might be seated next to them at the table. 
  • They are not interested in the torch.
    They love their “worker bee” status. These attorneys are very productive and enjoy a frenetic pace, however, the thought of making rain leaves them all wet. These professionals are more interested in doing great work supporting firm “superstars” as opposed to reaching legendary origination status themselves. 
  • They are afraid of being burned by the torch.
    If there is instability within the leadership ranks of a firm and associates/non-equity partners are concerned about the direction in which the firm is going, any attempts at facilitating a smooth succession are destined to fail. Too often younger lawyers harbor serious concerns about the collective ability of their bosses to embrace change and create a sustainable future.

If current leadership is unaware of the concerns that are likely present among those they are trying to groom, succession plans are destined to fail.

How should firms address these situations? It begins with improving awareness.

Here are three suggestions:

  1. Instead of assuming a firm’s best and brightest will automatically fall into the leadership queue, the organization must find a way to understand each lawyer’s individual motivation. Concerted efforts must be made to connect with colleagues to understand, without any threat to job security, what their personal career aspirations are. After all, as much as firms need rainmakers to grow, they also need steady and reliable “worker bees” to execute on their colleagues’ promises.
  2. Before inviting new partners to the table, an assessment of current strengths and gaps among leadership must be done. A successful partnership is one that is made up of those with complementary skill sets and abilities. Far too often partnership groups are developed organically and without a sound strategy to bolster leadership.
  3. When we go to sell a house, a car or a business, we are sure to thoughtfully present what we are selling in such a way that the value is clear. We understand that we must ensure that all features merit the price we are asking. We never assume that these things will sell themselves. Why, then, do so many senior partners assume that their junior professional staff will automatically want to buy in, and further, that they would be willing to pay top dollar absent an understanding of the value they may or may not receive? Senior leadership must be willing to quantify the value of firm ownership if they wish to attract buyers.

Firms that acknowledge and embrace these realities will cement their path to a sustainable future. Those that choose to remain unaware of potential challenges to the seemingly best laid plans for succession do so at their peril.