How PR Supports Succession Planning

February 27, 2023

Succession planning has long been a sensitive issue in the legal industry, probably because it forces law firms to deal with topics they tend to avoid, such as “change” and “the future.” And because the building blocks of firm business are highly personal relationships, acknowledging that those relationships will one day need to transition and evolve can even feel threatening for the partners that currently hold them.

And yet when current leaders fail to plan for a future that does not include them, they may jeopardize the very client relationships they are trying to protect — and risk having clients picked off by a firm that promises greater stability. Kristin Stark, a principal at law firm consulting firm Fairfax Associates, described in an American Lawyer article last year how senior lawyers often realize too late that they did not make a plan for succession:

“It is a particular challenge among smaller firms that are more dependent on a small number of individuals to provide direction and cohesion in leadership….As those strong partners are aging out, these small firms are susceptible to instability, because successors are not always well-positioned to take over leadership in a way that provides direction that the partnership has grown accustomed to,” she said.

Most importantly, Stark said that current leaders find themselves looking for a “45-year-old who is ready” to take on the relationship and struggle to find one who has the “management acumen required.” But just as crucial as actual skills is the perception of competence and expertise. How can firms help rising relationship partners develop the kind of external credentials and bona fides that will give the client confidence that top-tier support will continue?

Start early. Waiting until the lead partner is already planning his retirement is a mistake. Envisioning how a relationship transition will occur, and beginning to build visibility, credibility and connection with the client, needs to begin far earlier. Ideally, firms should create an official process that facilitates this necessary work, taking it out of the realm of the personal and into the nuts and bolts of a strategic plan with buy-in across the leadership.

Understand how “visibility” works in 2023. It goes without saying that the junior attorney needs an increasing level of literal face time with the client to be taken seriously. But in a remote world, being included in key conversations should come alongside the strategic use of the firm’s website and social channels like LinkedIn to demonstrate the junior attorney’s growing role. Content such as practice description, group photos, LinkedIn job titles and descriptions all work together to tell the story of who is positioned to take the client relationship into the future.

Harness PR to secure external validation. Who is your firm putting forward for award nominations this year? Who is publishing in key industry journals that matter most to the clients you may be transitioning to the next generation of lawyers in the coming years? Make sure the attorneys who need to build credibility with clients are the same ones whose names are attached to these opportunities. And make sure your clients hear — through press releases, LinkedIn posts and firm newsletters — about attorneys who win awards and publish articles featuring their skills and experience.