“While our attorney conveys knowledge and supervises other attorneys, we don’t see a successor. But we don’t see one in any law firm. There is no incentive to do it.”
Succession planning is one of those recurring issues that Wicker Park Group hears about regularly while conducting client feedback interviews. Whether due to a closely guarded relationship or a simple lack of planning, too many clients have no idea who could possibly succeed their current relationship partner once that lawyer retires. As one client said, “If our relationship lawyer were hit by a bus, I don’t know who the next in line is.”
The challenges are not limited to succession planning, either. Any transition within the law firm or the company can cause the same serious problems—even the loss of the entire client relationship. Having a proper plan in place to address potential transitions is critical to the long-term success and growth of any relationship. Follow these tips to strengthen the relationship and ensure a smooth succession:
- Develop your firm’s talent. Require senior lawyers (possibly through incentives if needed) to share their relationships with less experienced partners and associates. It’s an opportunity to identify rising stars at the firm and showcase the firm’s broader talent for the client.
- Start “zippering” early and often. The successful and long-lasting client relationships have relationships at every level. Partner individuals at the firm with others from the company who have the same level of experience up and down the ranks of the organizations.
- Involve the client. Work with your client contacts to identify who they see at the firm as the best potential successors. If appropriate, use client feedback interviews as a chance to ask the important questions. Also, find out who at the client will likely take over management of the outside counsel relationships, and incorporate that person’s preferences into the plans.
- Have a proactive plan. A succession plan will not run smoothly if the conversations only begin in the months or year leading up to a retirement or departure. Consider setting a specific age when lawyers must address succession in their more important relationships.
- Build discussions regarding transitions into annual reviews. Take the opportunity to step back every year and assess the relationship. Discuss what has worked and what may need adjusting. Discuss how potential future changes and transitions may impact support and what the client and firm can do to mitigate uncertainty and pain around the transition.
- Get multiple perspectives at the firm. While the key players might not openly discuss the planning across client teams, try to get the insights of more than just the managing partner and relationship partner. More insights lead to a greater understanding of the broader relationship and a greater sense of team unity.
- Share best practices and catalog them internally. One of our favorite clients recently interviewed their top 25 rainmakers to find out what practices and processes they use to grow and deepen their best relationships. Then they cataloged it and shared the ideas with everyone. While one size fits one, it is nice to have a document full of suggestions to consider.
- Praise and showcase those handling transitions well. If you have lawyers or teams who have handled succession planning or transitions particularly well, consider interviewing and videoing the team to learn about their process and sharing it with others. Send them on a firm roadshow to discuss their actions and let others hear about successful transitions.