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Feature Article

October 2015 Issue

Who Will Follow the Leaders?

by Charles Volkert, Esq.

In the world of law practice management, where so many firms and companies rely on the institutional know-how of their founding partners and general counsel, succession planning takes on an extra urgency as baby boomer retirements continue to rise.

Businesses thrive when they have a constant supply of new talent coming up through the ranks, ready to step in as the old guard steps down. So as wave after wave of the boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) is expected to retire in coming years, it begs the question: Who will fill the shoes of these leaders once they’re gone?

Still working hard, but envisioning retirement

Baby boomers made their mark on the legal field, founding a vast number of practices in the 1970s and ’80s. Among U.S. law firms with 50 or more partners today, lawyers age 60 and older control 30 percent of the revenue, according to data in a recent American Lawyer article. Although the American Bar Association opposes mandatory retirement ages and many boomer lawyers have no desire to stop working at 65, good law practice management requires planning for the day they do leave the firm.

When law practice leaders retire, they take with them institutional knowledge and well-honed job skills. Others include:

  • Direction. Senior partners and corporate legal department leaders make critical business decisions daily, often under pressure and in imperfect situations. Future leaders must have the strength of character to act decisively in challenging circumstances and motivate staff during difficult times.
  • Strategy. Effective leaders are aware of the course their organization is headed and how to navigate the complex terrain to their advantage. This is because they have a deep knowledge of the firm or company and can make necessary course corrections to achieve long-term goals.
  • Client management. This ability is especially important in practices where relationships with key clients may have taken decades to cultivate. Senior practice leaders have highly developed interpersonal skills necessary for nurturing valuable business connections and translating them into success for the organization.

How to cultivate the next generation of leaders

No law firm or legal department wants to lose key leaders, but it will happen, like it or not. Effective law practice management, including a well-reasoned succession plan, will mitigate the damage. Here’s how:

  1. Deepen your talent pool. Rather than relying on one accession candidate, groom a cohort of talented lawyers and managers who could one day step into leadership roles. Even if they don’t all move into management, the effort will not be wasted. It is beneficial to have among your team a group with leadership and law practice management skills. The competition for senior legal jobs may also challenge your staff to continually be at their best and set examples for others.
  2. Offer a chance to demonstrate leadership mettle. Serious succession candidates will prove themselves by their effort. Facilitate their growth by removing obstacles that might impede them from demonstrating their leadership skills. Adjust their regular schedule if appropriate. Allow them to work pro bono for a worthy nonprofit or take the lead on a project. The added challenge and departure from the routine may also increase their job satisfaction.
  3. Offer mentoring and professional development. When developing leaders, offer the requisite resources. Continuing legal education, tuition remission for a degree and defraying costs for legal conferences are valuable, but nothing beats the guidance of a master mentor. When veteran leaders take the time and effort to impart their accumulated knowledge to the next generation, the firm moves one step closer to a seamless transition.
  4. Make the process transparent and timely. The top candidates for tomorrow’s leadership roles are eager for advancement. Time is of the essence with these high achievers, who will likely move on if they don’t see a clear career development plan. Update them often about their progress and advance them on the in-house ladder as quickly as possible. If they invest their time in training but go nowhere, they may become frustrated and take a legal job elsewhere.

A law practice management imperative is to anticipate and prepare for attrition. The good news is that it’s not an insurmountable challenge. When you have a solid succession plan in place, you can rest assured that your organization is in capable hands today and tomorrow.

Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal®, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. The company also offers a full suite of legal staffing and consulting services. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major North American and global markets.

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Question & Answer


I’ve been in my position for a few years and would like to advance in my paralegal career. Any advice for getting a promotion at my current firm or should I look for a new opportunity elsewhere?


As the business conditions continue to improve, the options for moving “up” or “out” are expanding. While you can attend networking events and keep your ears open for an attractive opportunity outside of your organization, you may want to remain in current situation for the time being and explore career steppingstones within the firm.

Here are five suggestions for moving forward professionally:

  1. Find a niche and fill it. Make it your goal to find an unfulfilled need within your firm, ideally something that complements your interests and abilities. This could be something such as enhancing the firm’s social media presence or spearheading the adoption of new legal software. Not only will this provide you with a fresh challenge, it will also allow you to expand your resume in new ways.
  2. Pursue continuing professional education. Your career may have hit a speed bump, but this doesn’t mean your professional learning also has to slow down. Plentiful opportunities exist to enhance your skills and abilities, whether you want to take advantage of training through a professional association such as the Association of Legal Administrators, enroll in a course at the local university or polish your soft skills through an organization such as Toastmasters International.
  3. Go the extra mile. Fight against career complacency and stagnation by seeking smarter and better ways to carry out your responsibilities and exceed others’ expectations. Adopting this mindset will allow you to raise the perceived value of your job, even without a promotion. In addition, you’ll position yourself for positive recognition — and possibly an advancement opportunity or generous raise in the future.
  4. Participate in professional groups. Joining a professional association or similar organization allows you to nurture your enthusiasm for your career, expand your circle of contacts and stay on top of legal trends. Whether you’re hoping to advance at your current firm or change employers, being active in professional groups can help you lay the foundation for the next step in your career.
  5. Upgrade your title. If you’ve gradually taken on additional responsibilities, consider asking your boss for an enhanced title that more accurately reflects the nature of your current position. For instance, it might be appropriate to change your title from office manager to chief legal administrator. Although the upgraded title may not be associated with a new position, it signals career advancement, allowing you to bolster your professional clout and your resume.

Focusing on expanding your skills and abilities and enhancing your current role will allow you to continue to grow professionally, even during a period of slower professional advancement. You’ll be well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that emerge in the future.

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Submit a career-related question to Charles A. Volkert, Esq., executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Charles will answer one question each month!

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