Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on succession planning in law firms.

After spelling out the benefits of productive succession management, internal challenges to overcome, and the importance of introducing succession planning early on in lawyers’ career in Part 1 of this series, we’re back with 10 easy-to-digest steps to help firms analyze and uncover current gaps and opportunities in their succession management. Let’s dig in.

How to Get Started

  1. Analyze and map client relationships. Analyze your top 50 clients to see which partners, practices and offices have engaged with them. Develop a relationship map for each client with key members of the legal department (not just lawyers) matched to the firm’s partners and associates. Include everyone’s ages to uncover gaps in coverage and succession risks.
  2. Investigate partner attributes. Conduct a three-year analysis of your partner demographics, their productivity contributions and their client billings. Next to each partner, also attribute other key assets, including management roles and skills, institutional knowledge, specific practice expertise, mentoring skills, external/community roles and visibility.
  3. Use client insights to identify opportunities. Develop a central repository for clients served by partners who may transition in three to five years. Include this kind of information: financial data for history of client to assess trends and services utilized; a relationship matrix that identifies and matches firm lawyers’ relationships with different members of client organization; client’s organizational chart; client’s panel of law firms and procurement policies; client’s annual plan, 10Ks, 10Qs; competitive intelligence report, litigation and deals; and market research on client industry and competitors. The relationship partner, other team members and the business development team should meet to review the information, discuss any concerns or obstacles, and identify specific issues to raise with the client. After a successor is identified and mutually agreed on with the client (see below), this information should be converted into a client succession plan including timelines. If a firm doesn’t have the right talent within the firm, a successor may need to be hired laterally.
  4. Identify client successor(s)—optimizing external and internal goals. With each top client, and with each senior rainmaker, develop a client relationship, transition and opportunity plan, as well as a workload transition plan. Make sure you’re not overloading the “usual suspects”—great client handlers who have a stellar reputation but are already overcommitted. The risk in client succession is that homogeneity bias plays a massive role in selecting successors. It’s not necessarily intentional—”my client loves me, so they’ll love someone just like me,” goes the traditional thinking. But step up: A client transition is an ideal chance to enhance your diversity and inclusion goals, which may result in  exactly who the client really wants.
  5. Seek client input. Clients should be given the opportunity to provide input on the decision. As one general counsel complained, “Nothing is more irritating than having some bloke show up and say, ‘Hi, I’m your new relationship partner,’ as if I’ll automatically warm up to him and trust him with my biggest issues. Normally the new lead partner has already been serving on the team, but as the client I ought to have a say in which of them is best suited. More than one firm has lost business by surprising me in that way.”
  6. Align your succession plan with your overall strategic plan, mission and values. Once approved, share the essential elements of the plan with all partners and even with associates. This will demonstrate that the firm’s succession plan is there to ensure to the long-term health and sustainability of the firm, and that is it part of the professional life cycle, not an end-of-life occurrence.
  7. Gauge and enhance successor’s progress. The current relationship partner and the successor should implement a previously devised plan for gradual transition of the relationship. The successor should begin scheduling and leading meetings, sending the bills and soliciting feedback on the firm’s servicing of the client. The managing partner should also meet with the client several times during the two- or three-year transition period to gauge the success of the transition and address any issues or concerns, a critical phase of the transition as the client may be assessing whether or not to switch firms. If the client is satisfied with the successor and progress, the successor should accelerate efforts to deepen the relationship, loyalty and value enhancement. Schedule one-on-one coaching for successors with the previous relationship partner, a partner with expertise in client development and/or the business development professional in the firm.
  8. Monitor transition of client responsibility. Once a formal succession process has been put in place, firm management, consisting of the managing partner or department/practice group leader and the firm’s chief financial officer, should beginning to assess actual transition metrics. This can be accomplished by: meeting with the successor to gauge actual transition; and reviewing metrics including working hours on client files by successor, transfer of origination or billing/matter credit.
  9. Evaluate and develop your pipeline. Assess the skills and roles that senior leaders and rainmakers currently have that will create gaps, and develop a pipeline of future leaders and rainmakers who receive training and mentoring. If you truly do not have internal talent to fill these key skills and roles, you may have to hire laterally. This gives you even more reason to start this early so that high-potential talent can be grown organically, which promotes engagement and retention of up-and-comers, and has much greater likelihood of long-term success.
  10. Fix broken compensation and reward systems. Take a close look at how you measure, recognize and reward partners for expanding, institutionalizing and transitioning clients, matters and relationships—use phased compensation and other rewards to incentivize partners to do what will be in the best long-term interests of the firm and the firm’s clients. For example, one firm systematically measures all new work that is generated outside of a billing partner’s own practice group to monitor how well partners are institutionalizing clients beyond their own practices. Another firm added a column to their online individual partner reports dedicated to transition metrics to indicate the hours/billings a senior partner has transitioned to a successor. In this scenario, the compensation system rewarded both the transitioning partner and the successor. Since succession planning can be challenging for partners and firms alike, any successes in specific succession transitions should be widely communicated, recognized and rewarded.

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