Law.com’s Small Firm Business features an article today about succession planning for law firms. I’ve seen a lot of these articles lately, talking about the importance of transitioning clients from one generation of lawyers to the next, encouraging leadership development among younger lawyers, and motivating more senior practitioners to mentor the younger ones and share files and client contact. All sound advice, of course. But from the tone of some of these articles, you’d think this process was just a task force and a subcommittee away from easy implementation.
The fact is, succession planning in law firms is a monstrous challenge. And if you’re just now getting around to thinking about it, then there’s a pretty good chance you’re already too late. Shifting the bulk of client responsibilities from more senior to more junior lawyers isn’t something you roll out on short notice. If your firm culture doesn’t already endorse in some way multi-generational client responsibility, genuine mentoring efforts, and innovative compensation methods, be realistic that the odds are against a happy ending.
Why is succession planning so hard? Pick your poison:
1. Loss of power. Succession planning hits every lawyer, especially older ones, at an almost feral level. Change in law firms is always hard, but when you’re talking about fang-and-claw issues like money, power and control, lines will be drawn and obstinacy will rule the day. Those with power will cling to it all the more tightly when they feel it’s threatened.
2. Resistance to change. Lawyers don’t like change at the best of times, so don’t expect them to suddenly start liking changes to who gets to lead trials, drive deals and get client face time. As independent professionals, they will fiercely resist management’s attempts to dictate how “their” clients are handled.
3. Few future leaders. Senior lawyers will say that the juniors “aren’t ready” to take on more responsibility — and often, they’re right, because the seniors have systematically excluded the juniors from meaningful client contact and lead roles on key matters. You can thank firms’ compensation systems in part for that, rewarding lawyers for direct proximity to clients and encouraging hoarding.
4. Generational conflicts. I still can’t get over the resentment that Boomers and even some Xers feel towards the Millennials now moving up the ranks. Gen-Yers are not a passing fad — there are 25 years of Millennials lined up to enter firms, and they’re going to change a lot more than the furniture in the reception area. Too many firms waste too much energy in pointless conflicts between older and younger lawyers, and it can make real succession planning a very unpleasant chore.
So what can you do if your firm is in this situation — late to the succession-planning party and facing multiple challenges to success? Opinions differ, but mine is that you should focus your efforts on saving who and what you can. It’s unlikely that a firm-wide epiphany of carin’ ‘n’ sharin’ is going to sweep your firm and transform partners over the next year or two, and you’d probably exhaust yourself in the effort. Law firm culture is just too big and powerful to change all at once, and you can’t force change on lawyers.
So, identify pockets of potential success. Find individual lawyers who have successfully begun transitioning their juniors, or who have shown a willingness to try. See if there are particularly well-functioning practice groups that could constitute fertile ground for transitions. Figure out who your best mentors are. These should be considered and treated as the new stars of your firm — they’re the seeds you’re planting for a profitable crop in 2015 and beyond.
Make sure you also make the effort to hold up these people and groups as examples for others to follow. Chances are, most won’t follow. That’s not a great outcome, but that’s life. More law firms and practice groups will die off because of senior lawyers’ inability or unwillingness to properly transition their legacies to younger protégés than from any other cause. You owe it to those lawyers to strongly signal that this is what the firm wants from them. But if and when their resistance becomes clear, your obligation shifts to the firm’s long-term health, to developing a transition-friendly culture and attracting lawyers who fit there.
Of course, there’s one thing you’ll need to do in order to have any real chance of getting through your firm’s succession crisis: you need to create incentives to transition, most of them monetary. The sad fact is that law firms have trained lawyers to respond only to self-interested incentives, so don’t expect to get anywhere by appealing to their good nature or the long-term interests of the firm. Reward lawyers who facilitate successful transitions: big bonuses, supercharged billable hours, or fewer hourly requirements, along with new titles, higher prestige, a bigger office — whatever it takes to loosen their death grip on the power they’ve earned and to which they’ve become extremely accustomed.
The best solution, obviously, is a firm culture that innately rewards lawyers who share client contact, knowledge, experience, trial time, deal presence and more, especially with younger professionals. But firms like this are few and far between. If your firm’s culture isn’t like that, hesitate before trying to transform it into one overnight, and think instead about concentrating on your most promising sectors. Not everyone is going to make it through the crisis. Figure out who can, and start building there.