Value in a proactive approach
By Mary McEwan
Succession planning is a topic of great interest and concern to lawyers in small firms. There is much to consider, even assuming that lawyers exit because of retirement and not disability or untimely death.
Lawyers approaching retirement seek assurance that their clients will continue to receive quality service from the firm after the lawyer’s retirement. Junior lawyers need to feel secure that the firm will continue as a vibrant entity after the retirement of key senior lawyers.
Lawyers seem to hesitate to discuss retirement succession for various reasons. Most lawyers prioritize client matters and the daily management of the lawyers’ practice over succession planning. Senior lawyers may be uncomfortable discussing their own retirement; junior lawyers may feel that it is impolite to discuss the retirement of a senior lawyer.
However awkward or uncomfortable, succession planning is critical in small firms. Without it, senior lawyers may be unable to retire for lack of a successor (whether the successor is another lawyer or the firm at large). Junior lawyers may find that they do not have the skills necessary to replace senior lawyers.
One approach to succession planning in small firms is to include all lawyers in planned discussions about succession, and then to gather individual plans from those involved. The firm can frame the discussion in terms of meeting the needs of clients, the firm, and individual lawyers. This approach gives lawyers freedom to discuss succession, and should eliminate some of the discomfort that lawyers might otherwise feel in raising the topic. Senior lawyers can take comfort in knowing that their partners and associates are aware of their intentions. Junior lawyers will be engaged in the firm’s future, which may increase loyalty to the firm.
From a management perspective, this approach gathers critical information about target retirement dates and the roles that individual lawyers hope to undertake in the firm’s succession plan. This information positions management to assess needs, set timelines, and develop strategies, all to help ensure that the firm remains vibrant through the retirement of key senior lawyers and that transitions are made smoothly.
Apart from developing a succession plan, this proactive approach provides value to the firm in other ways. Good communication fosters quality relationships. The simple act of speaking frankly with one another about a sensitive topic can enhance relationships among lawyers in the firm. The firm must structure and manage discussions well to achieve this benefit. Depending on a firm’s dynamics, it may wish to hire an external consultant to assist with part or all of the process.
Every firm can tailor this approach to meet its needs. For example, a firm may include non-lawyer employees in discussions and in its succession planning, in recognition of the critical role that key non-lawyer employees play in servicing clients.
The strategies that result from discussions surrounding succession may succeed or they may fail, but there will be a plan. Those responsible for implementing the plan may modify it as circumstances change, and it is possible (and perhaps likely) that succession will not go as planned. However, the value of this proactive approach extends beyond the resulting plan: management will have valuable information to aid in further planning and decision making; members of the firm will enhance their relationships; and lawyers will be more open to frank discussions about succession and retirement. Any plan can fail and is likely to change, and so the additional value delivered by this proactive approach to succession planning makes it particularly attractive.
Mary McEwan is an associate at McEwan & Co. Law Corporation.
This article was published in the November 2011 issue of BarTalk. © 2011 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.