Lawyers, even founding partners, cannot remain at their law firms forever. Legal careers can wind up at retirement, appointment to government office and for other reasons. Many African law firms will one day find themselves having to answer the worrying question of what happens after the principal attorney leaves the firm. In this article, we will discuss the four main ways of ensuring a law firm’s continuity following such departure.
1. The Establishment of “Core Values” and Proper Law Firm Branding: Both the establishment of core values and branding relate to determining and advocating who a firm is and how it wants to represent itself both internally and externally.
- Core values: Core values are a firm’s sustainable and long-term shared principles, beliefs and philosophies that guide how the firm will operate and be managed. These core values should be clearly documented and articulated and inform all management decisions and firm strategies.
- Branding: Branding is the process of determining what a firm represents and how it will communicate that to the world through words, actions and visual presentation. A firm’s brand should also be well documented and articulated and be taken into consideration in all firm decisions and strategies.
- Key to Succession Planning: The firm’s core values and brand should be laid out to and internalized by all members of staff, both legal and non-legal, such that all individual contributors to the firm are aware of and may promote these principals internally and externally. Both core values and brand are important to succession planning in that they relate the firm’s identity to the firm as an institution rather than to any individual therein. If a brand is effectively established and the core values are ingrained into the fabric of the firm, the absence of the principal will not be as detrimental.
2. Recruitment and Hiring Policies: Firms must recruit and hire in a manner that ensures that the firm is attracting talent that not only suits its current needs, but also both enhances the firm’s professional standing and is consistent with future firm leaders’ requirements. In other words, firms must guarantee that the attorneys that start at the firm can move up the firm’s ranks and eventually be successful, profitable and well-respected firm owners.
- Policies and Procedures: To safeguard ongoing effective and strategic recruitment in the absence of a founding principal, firms must set up policies and procedures to support recruitment and hiring that clearly outline the academic, experiential and personal qualifications an attorney must have to join the firm and the precise procedures one must follow to intake new attorneys. These policies and procedures are most effectively recorded in the form of a hiring manual.
- Key to Succession Planning: Policies and procedures ensure that when the principal has departed, there remains a pool of talented and qualified individuals who will preserve the continuity of the firm, including the firm’s core values and brand. Such policies and procedures also make it more likely that this pool will continue to grow and develop over time even in the absence of the principal.
3. Training: Training is one aspect of firm management that is often overlooked by law firms and senior attorneys. Once the firm has hired talent that has the potential to lead and grow the firm, it must provide these potential leaders with proper training to turn them into effective leaders.
- Policies and Procedures: Every firm should put into place a structure and policy for training its attorneys. This training should include both practical, on-the-job training, as well as technical skills based training in practice areas and non-practice areas such as business development, sales and professional development.
- Key to Succession Planning: In the context of succession planning, training is not only important to developing leadership skills for future firm leaders. It is also important for retaining the best talent. The firm’s attorneys will value receiving good training, and assisting them to attain such training will not only create better lawyers who will enhance the firm’s brand and product, but also produce lawyers who are more likely to be loyal to the firm.
4. Attorney Incentive Structure and Policy: Incentives typically relate to bonuses, raises and promotions, including promotion to partner.
- Policies and Procedures: Having clear policies and procedures relating to incentives, including under what circumstances they will be granted, is vital in terms of talent retention. In a law firm where fairness and the perception of fairness have been established and where individuals see a clear path to advancement, such individuals are less likely to depart. Compensation and clear and uniform rules regarding promotion, raises and bonuses are essential to retaining the talent the firm has acquired and developed in accordance with points 2 and 3 above.
- Key to Succession Planning: Like training, an appropriate incentive structure, and policies and procedures to support it, are crucial components to attracting and retaining the best talent who will eventually manage and own the firm.
Fundamental to each of these categories is the concept of decentralization. In other words, it is important to avoid concentrating a firm’s expertise, reputation, etc. in a single founding partner such that when that partner departs, the firm collapses.
The principal (or you as principal) might not be considering a departure/retirement for many years. However, it is imperative that the firm be proactive and have values and systems in place such that when the principal does move on, the firm can successfully continue. Further, the sooner these systems are put into place and the longer they are established and operating, the more central they will become to the law firm’s business and thus the more likely they will be able to stand on their own. The occasion of a principal’s departure is not the time for succession planning. Planning needs to be done on a long-term sustained basis starting now so that a culture of continuity is established for the firm.
The aforementioned are typical succession/legacy planning related concerns. However, it will be necessary for each firm to independently identify its specific succession issues and plan for them.
Nicole Kearse Stewart, JD, MA, MA is Director of Learning & Strategic Development at ILFA and Senior Consultant and Co-Founder of Krescent Consulting LLP.