Finding new legal minds Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

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 succession plan.

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 paper.

What are the key steps in creating a good succession plan?

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 work out?

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 company?

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 tiffany.lambert@roberthalflegal.com.