Sooner or later, partners or senior
attorneys will depart from a law office
or department either because its time to retire or because of another job
opportunity. Yet, most firms never plan for
this inevitability. In a recent survey, 53 percent of attorneys polled said their law firm
or legal department does not have a formal
succession plan in place for key positions.
The survey, developed by Robert Half
Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in attorneys, paralegals and other highly skilled legal professionals, polled 300
attorneys among the 1,000 largest law
firms and corporations in the United States
and Canada; all respondents had at least
three years of experience in the legal field.
“Most law firms or departments are
too busy taking care of clients and urgent
legal matters to find time to put together a
succession plan,” says Tiffany Lambert,
division director for Robert Half Legal in
Columbus, Ohio. “The problem with this is
that many wait until a leader leaves to
begin the process of finding a successor.”
Smart Business spoke with Lambert
about how law firms or companies can
groom high-potential employees for leadership roles and the importance of creating a
If losing a top leader in a law firm or department is so disruptive, why don’t more firms
establish a succession plan?
Succession planning is a back-burner
issue for most companies. People know it
is important, but somehow, there isn’t
enough time to sit down and create a succession plan. It takes years to identify and
groom successors. But without a plan,
chaos can erupt if a top leader decides to
leave or retire and there is no qualified
employee to take his or her place.
Who should be responsible for creating a
succession plan in a firm or company?
Top executives and the human resources
department should get together to create a
strategy. Top executives often have succession plan ideas human resources can be
very helpful to executives as they organize their thoughts and put a plan down on
What are the key steps in creating a good
Evaluate personnel. Look at the existing management team, practice heads
and managing partners in the firm.
Identify strengths and weaknesses of
leaders. What do they contribute in
regard to their people skills and practice
areas? What are they missing? A good
attorney does not necessarily translate
into a good manager.
Evaluate needs. Who will be leaving in
the next several years due to retirement?
Is there a chance that a top leader will
find another job at another firm? Once
you know the slots that might need to be
filled, zero in on the people who are best
suited or can be groomed to fill
those positions in the upcoming years.
Make sure you have more people in
mind than slots.
Start the mentoring process. Be very
open about your succession plan for
both those who are slated to leave due to
retirement, as well as those you plan to
groom. There does not need to be a formal announcement but bring those potential successors in for a conversation about their future opportunities. Let
them know that, while this is not a done
deal, they have been singled out for
grooming for a leadership role. Assign a
mentor for these future successors and
create opportunities for them to take on
leadership tasks and assignments.
What if those who you’ve selected don’t
You need to be flexible in the process.
You potentially can identify 12 people,
mentor them, but realize that 10 out of
12 won’t cut it. It takes years to develop
a succession plan and groom individuals
for leadership roles, but this is much better than a last-minute strategy hastily put
into place when a leader leaves.
Could you explain what usually happens
when there is no succession plan in place
in a law firm or law department within a
When a top executive leaves, the natural assumption is that the next in seniority is right for the job. But that is not
always the case. Losing a leader also
means losing an understanding of a
firm’s culture, which can affect morale
and disrupt the flow of business. It is difficult to scramble to try and find a
replacement for top talent when you are
trying to run a business.
TIFFANY LAMBERT is the division director for Robert Half
Legal in Columbus, Ohio, a legal staffing division of Robert Half
International. The company provides law firms and corporate
legal departments with highly skilled professionals including
attorneys, paralegals and legal support personnel, on a project
and full-time basis. Reach Lambert at (614) 221-9300 or