A critical component of a law firm’s succession plan is to figure out how to retain the firm’s best clients when senior lawyers retire. Most law firms quickly jump to determine who in the firm is either ready to step up or ready to undertake proper mentoring and training to step up in the future. Before making this determination, however, it is important to ask several questions.

First Question: Is This Practice Area Still a Good Fit?

Before seeking out a successor attorney, firms should first take a step back and ask whether it should even continue to offer services in that practice area. Depending upon the profitability and synergies the practice area provides to the firm, it may make more sense to refer out such work and eliminate that practice area entirely. Sure, the firm’s total revenue will take a hit, but if the profits or synergies aren’t there, what’s the point?

Next Question: Can the Successor Lawyer Competently Work in This Area?

Assuming the firm wants to remain practicing in the area, the next step is to make sure the successor lawyer can do the work competently. Rarely will there be “that perfect someone” who can immediately step into the shoes of a partner. Even if there is an obvious successor, the firm must comprehensively assess whether the individual has the requisite knowledge and skill set to step in when the senior partner retires.

How to Fill the Skill Gap

To be in a position to assume control of a client’s business successfully, the successor lawyer may need to:

  • Acquire subject matter knowledge
  • Develop or enhance practice skills
  • Gain more practical experience
  • Any combination of these

Additionally, the firm will need to put developmental support in place. That support can come in several forms, including:

  • Mentoring by the partner whose practice is transitioning
  • Training in areas such as time management, project management and supervisory skills
  • One-on-one coaching in areas such as business development and client management

With potentially multiple moving parts, it is best to create a specific action plan to fill the skill gap. Your plan should include quarterly goals, action steps, support mechanisms and informal evaluations. The plan will help all stakeholders assess how the successor lawyer is progressing and what additional interventions are necessary to ensure the best possible transition. Under most circumstances, the firm should assume that successful completion of a plan will take a few years—not a few weeks or months.

Final Question: Is It Better to Hire a Lateral?

If all of this support sounds too much effort or will take more time than the firm has, there remains one more option. Hire a lateral.

This option comes with its own share of possible problems:

  • Candidates: Are there any good candidates available?
  • Cost: Can the firm afford to hire a good candidate?
  • Culture: If the firm finds a good, affordable candidate, will he or she fit in?

It behooves your firm to carefully consider this option when you do not have a clear, in-house successor already in place.

Mind the Gap, Before It’s Too Late

Most firms underestimate the unique skills and knowledge that will be lost when senior lawyers retire. Then the firms scramble when it is usually too late to do much to correct the situation.

Avoid the scramble and protect client relationships by identifying potential skill gaps now, before your senior lawyers retire. The effort this will take will probably not be easy, but the efforts will be well worth it when it comes to retaining clients.