There was a time when a standard approach to succession planning in a law firm was the casual ‘tap on the shoulder’ of an up-and-coming partner as someone was about to retire.
For the most part, this ad hoc approach has itself been ‘retired’ – today, firms are putting in place far more structured succession plans with clear paths to partnership and firm leadership.
At intellectual property specialists FB Rice, succession planning is based around continual training and transparent promotion processes to ensure there is always a qualified person ready to step into a retiree’s shoes.
This approach has multiple benefits for the firm, from greater staff engagement to a more diverse leadership team, including an executive board made up of four partners, four partners who act as practice group leaders, and administrational leadership that includes a COO and practice manager.
“We have an application process for each of our levels (associate, partner), particularly for our attorneys,” says Tenille Saffin, Head of People, Training and Culture at FB Rice. “There are set metrics and progression paths.”
These metrics include financial measures like billing, but also others like people skills and the ability to confidently deal with clients. There is a formal application process for partnership, including an application document and a presentation to the whole partnership.
Saffin agrees it’s essential to have a plan, whatever the size of your firm.
“Start that thought process early, rather than leaving it until someone is six months out from retiring,” she advises.
Transparency increases engagement
According to this survey, 94 per cent of employers find a clear succession plan improves staff engagement. And another survey by Ceridien shows 37 per cent would leave their current role for career advancement opportunities, while a further 27 per cent would leave to learn and develop new skills.
This is a crucial point for FB Rice. As a specialised firm, they spend around two years training attorneys on intellectual property when they join from other law disciplines, and mostly promote attorneys internally. Therefore, transparency around career path starts from day one in order to ensure retention.
“Two years of training is a big commitment from our perspective, so we do make [recruits] aware of those levels to reach partnership from the beginning,” Saffin says. “We also demonstrate that we have mentorships and training.”
In addition, FB Rice makes sure attorneys are put in front of clients from very junior levels, so when they do step into a retiring partner’s shoes, they are already a familiar face.
This transparency works in reverse, with the firm being clear and open with partners about their retirement plans.
Avoiding 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”, Saffin explains.
Having ‘cookie cutter’ management can weaken a business, so another benefit of a more formal promotion and succession structure is that it encourages a more varied way of thinking among leadership.
“We make sure people from all different backgrounds with real potential are given opportunities,” Saffin says. “Not having the right leadership mix is actually a business risk.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been of benefit here too, as it has brought a wider range of people into the spotlight, Saffin adds.
“As a result of the pandemic we seamlessly interact with our colleagues across the country. That’s inherently changed how succession planning is done, because people have more visibility over who’s who. We now have virtual whole-firm meetings where associates and junior associates get the chance to present. It’s been an opportunity for everyone to shine.”
Building a rich skill set
Another key to successful planning is supporting people in learning managerial and ‘soft’ skills.
“Traditionally, people have been promoted for their technical excellence,” Saffin says. “Then they get to the next level and find themselves in a difficult place because they are not confident managing people.
“A big part of our succession planning is building up that full set of skills from day one, so when they get to the senior ranks they can actually lead.”
Putting in place the kind of structures FB Rice uses to build this leadership can be a double win for your law firm – you’ll be encouraging the type of culture that encourages junior staff to stay around for their own rise up the ladder while ensuring they’re ready for the challenge when they do.
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