There was a time when a standard approach to succession planning in a law firm was to tap a promising partner on the shoulder when someone was about to retire.
Essentially, this ad hoc approach has itself been ‘retired’ – today companies are putting in place much more structured succession plans with clear paths to partnership and corporate leadership.
At FB Rice Intellectual Property Specialists, succession planning is based on ongoing training and transparent promotion processes to ensure that there is always a qualified person ready to step into a retiree’s place.
This approach has multiple benefits for the firm, ranging from greater staff engagement to a more diverse leadership team, including an executive board of four partners, four partners who act as practice group leaders and administrative leadership that includes a Chief Operating Officer and a Practice Manager.
“We have an application process for each of our levels (partner, partner), especially for our attorneys,” says Tenille Saffin, head of human resources, training and culture at FB Rice. “There are defined metrics and progression paths.”
These metrics include financial metrics like billing, but also others like interpersonal skills and the ability to deal confidently with customers. There is a formal application process for the partnership, including an application document and presentation to the full partnership.
Of course, passing the business on to someone else isn’t the only option for succession planning – others include closing or a sale. However, whatever your route, the main thing is that it is well thought out: NAB research shows only one in four small and medium business owners have a day one exit plan and, at the same time, 61 percent encountered problems on exit, such as finding someone to take over the business or a suitable buyer.
Saffin agrees that having a plan is essential, no matter the size of your business.
“Start this thought process early, rather than leaving it until someone is six months away from retirement,” she advises.
Transparency increases engagement
According this survey, 94% of employers find that a clear succession plan improves employee engagement. And another survey by Ceridian shows that 37 percent would leave their current position for career advancement opportunities, while an additional 27 percent would leave to learn and develop new skills.
This is a crucial point for FB Rice. As a specialist firm, they spend about two years training lawyers on IP when they come from other legal disciplines, and mainly promote in-house lawyers. Therefore, transparency around the career path starts from day one to ensure retention.
“Two years of training is a big commitment from our point of view, so we are doing [recruits] aware of these levels to establish a partnership from the beginning,” says Saffin. “We are also demonstrating that we have mentorships and training.”
Additionally, FB Rice makes sure the attorneys are placed in front of very low-level clients, so that when they step into the shoes of a retiring partner, they’re already a familiar face.
This transparency works in reverse, with the company being clear and open with its associates about their retirement plans.
Avoid unconscious bias
Unconscious bias is another big challenge in succession planning, because “we naturally lean towards promoting people who are a bit more like us,” says Saffin.
Having cookie-cutter management can weaken a company, so another benefit of a more formal promotion and succession structure is that it encourages a more varied way of thinking among leaders.
“We ensure that people from all walks of life with real potential are offered opportunities,” says Saffin. “Not having the right leadership mix is actually a business risk.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also been beneficial here, as it has brought a wider range of people into the spotlight, adds Saffin.
“Due to the pandemic, we are interacting seamlessly with our colleagues across the country. This has inherently changed the way succession planning is done because people have more visibility into who is who. We now have virtual firm-wide meetings where partners and junior partners have the chance to present. It was an opportunity for everyone to shine.
Build a rich skill set
Another key to successful planning is helping people learn managerial and “soft” skills.
“Traditionally, people have been promoted for their technical excellence,” Saffin says. “Then they go to the next level and find themselves in a difficult situation because they are not sure how to manage people.
“A big part of our succession planning is developing that full set of skills from day one, so that when they reach the top ranks, they can actually lead.”
Putting in place the kind of structures that FB Rice uses to develop this leadership can be a double win for your law firm – you’ll foster the kind of culture that encourages junior staff to stay for their own rise while ensuring that ‘they’re ready for the challenge when they do.