I recently attended a CLE with approximately 25 other people. Two individuals introduced themselves as managing partners of their small law firms. Both were in their 60s and both indicated their firms had not yet identified logical successor candidates to lead when they retire. The situation these partners find themselves in is not unusual.

A recent New York Times article reported nearly half of the managing partners in law firms are in their 60s. But according to another recent survey, only one quarter of law firm leaders believe their firms are doing a good job planning for leadership succession.

The Fatal Flaws That Keep Firms From Proper Succession Planning

What prevents law firms from creating succession plans to replace their leaders? Often, it stems from one of these usual suspects:

  • Simple inertia: There is no crisis, so time is better spent on billable work.
  • Discomfort: Depending upon firm’s political culture, speaking out on this issue may not be wise.
  • Status quo: Leaders like the status quo—why fix something that isn’t broken?
  • Paralysis: Some leaders may see the need for succession planning, but they feel paralyzed due to lack of vision or ability to identify an easy solution.

The Hazards of Waiting Until a Partner Leaves

Firms that don’t plan for leadership succession face one of two choices:

  • Operate the firm on automatic pilot without a leader, or
  • Force the position on someone who lacks the desire or skills to lead.

For law firm leaders who want their firms to survive, advanced succession planning is the obvious choice.

Potential Succession Plans to Consider for Your Firm

If your firm does not currently have a plan in place, now is the time to create one. A few options to consider include:

  • Identifying potential successors now, which allows for ample time to train them.
  • Hiring a lateral partner with the interest in and talent for taking on more responsibility.
  • Merging with another firm where leadership succession is already well planned out.

I recognize that, for many firms, these options may raise some concerns. But all of them are more likely less problematic than not having anything in place when the present managing partner inevitably leaves or retires.

Succession Planning Isn’t Easy—It’s Necessary

While an easy solution may not exist, avoiding basic leadership succession planning puts a law firm’s future in serious jeopardy. It is best to have a solution in place, even if that solution is not ideal. With enough time, most solutions can become acceptable or be changed to better fit the firm’s needs.