Your Succession Plan Needs a Comms Strategy

For more than a year, law firm leaders have been working under short-term, emergent conditions: providing all-hands-on-deck client service and forecasting how the industries they serve will be impacted by current economic conditions and constraints. In other words, they have been focused on survival, with no bandwidth left to think about the longer term.

In some ways, this intensive focus on shoring up client relationships has paid off. Clients have been willing to pay more to work directly with partners, rather than associates, and they report their satisfaction that firms have stepped up their game, especially in key areas like health care and labor and employment. But as the acute conditions of the pandemic shift into something more permanent, clients are beginning to think about not just the relationship partner serving them today but who will take over when that person retires. And firms that don’t have a solid succession plan in place are making clients nervous.

Succession plans serve two functions: an internal strategic plan about the structure of the business and an external plan — visible to your current and prospective clients — that communicates who you see as the future of the firm. It’s that second one that causes agita for clients, especially for forward-thinking GCs who want assurance of continuity and are demanding to see greater diversity in your firm’s leadership. If they don’t see evidence of that planning well before the current relationship partner approaches the exit, they may take their business to a different firm.

Assuming your firm has done some work to iron out a succession plan internally, how can you make sure clients and prospects know about it? Your succession plan needs a communications strategy. Here are the first steps marketing directors and CMOs can take:

Audit your list of “superstars.” Who are you putting forward as the face of the practice group for PR opportunities? Who is publishing thought leadership that showcases their practice area expertise? Who speaks to reporters about the practice? While it’s not necessary to sideline the old guard, it may be a good idea to start creating opportunities for the intended successor to share a byline, or help the younger partner carve out a niche within the practice area that they can “own” in the media conversation. Look for hyper-targeted publications, podcasts and webinar opportunities, or help that next-gen leader create a targeted newsletter to get in front of current and future buyers of legal services.

Be strategic with award nominations. Award nominations can be fraught with internal politics, but they are also a public statement about who the firm views as key leaders going forward. Think strategically about who the firm chooses to put forward. Seek out opportunities to showcase the work of up-and-coming partners, both through awards explicitly intended for younger partners (Next-Gen Leaders, Forty Under 40) and practice-specific awards that may have gone to more senior partners in the past.  

Consider a direct communication to key clients. Law firms are always cautious about disclosing internal business plans, but if that reticence leaves the client out of the loop on information that directly impacts them, it could backfire. Contemplate how you could reassure your most important clients that the teams serving them are planning for the future, and introduce them to the partners they will come to rely on in the coming years.