How to Reboot Your Succession Planning Amid the Great Resignation

By Jamy J. Sullivan, J.D.,
Robert Half 


Have you identified the next generation of leaders in your law firm or legal department? If not, it’s time to prioritize — or re-prioritize — your succession planning.

Businesses have always needed a constant supply of new talent coming up through the ranks, ready to step up as the old guard steps down. But in the wake of the pandemic and the so-called Great Resignation, in which professionals are quitting their jobs at historically high rates, this process is more urgent than ever. The trend also includes lawyers, who tend to retire later than people in other fields, considering early retirement. 

If you have talent gaps, your top priority should be to help your best employees move up and fill them. But how can you identify these rising stars and prepare them to succeed?

Planning for what needs to be passed on

Good law practice management requires blueprinting for the retirement of the top brass, and that means identifying key leadership skills among your mid-level employees. Remember: You’re looking for potential, not the finished article. Leadership skills like executive presence and the ability to mentor take time to develop, but people with the following skills and qualities are most likely to develop them:

  • Direction — Senior partners and corporate legal department leaders make critical business decisions daily, often under pressure and with imperfect information. Future leaders must have the strength of character to act decisively in challenging circumstances and motivate staff during tough times, just as they did during the pandemic. Did you notice any employees in particular who rose to the occasion? Those could be good succession candidates. 
  • Flexible strategy — Good leaders have not only the vision to see where their organization should be headed but also the flexibility and cool-headedness to change direction if they suddenly face unexpected headwinds that threaten their strategy.
  • Client management — This ability is indispensable in developing relationships with key clients, which often takes decades to cultivate. Can you recognize among your up-and-coming ranks the interpersonal skills necessary for nurturing valuable business connections and translating them into success for the organization? 
  • Sensitivity to human needs — More than ever, employees are looking for companies that align with their values and provide them with a sense of belonging. To attract top talent, you’ll need leaders who understand the principles and practical applications of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
Cultivating the next generation of leaders

No law firm or legal department wants to lose key leaders but with a robust succession plan, you can mitigate the damage. Here’s how:

  1. Deepen your talent pool — Rather than relying on a single leader, develop a pool of talented lawyers and managers who could one day step into leadership roles. Even if they don’t all make it to the top, a group with leadership and law practice management skills will always be valuable. 
  2. Make progress easier — 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. Facilitate their growth by removing obstacles that might impede their development. Adjust their regular schedule where appropriate and allow them to work pro bono for a worthy nonprofit or take the lead on a project within the firm. The added challenge and departure from routine may increase job satisfaction and whet their appetite for more advanced roles. Update them often about their progress and advance them on the in-house ladder as quickly as possible. If these employees invest their time in training but go nowhere, they may become frustrated and take a legal job elsewhere.
  3. Offer mentoring and professional development — Continuing legal education 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. Cultivate loyalty with continuing flexible work arrangements — Over the past couple of years, many legal professionals, along with their counterparts in other fields, have demonstrated that they can succeed when working from home. If you demand their return to the office full time, you risk losing promising talent to more flexible competitors. Talk to your people and try to strike a balance between their scheduling preferences and the needs of the firm or business.

The pandemic has functioned as a proving ground for a new generation of leaders who have shown they can succeed — and inspire others to succeed — in the most challenging of circumstances. These are the people you want to entrust your organization’s future to, and a solid succession plan will enable you to do just that.

Jamy J. Sullivan is executive director of the legal practice at Robert Half, the world’s first and largest specialized talent solutions firm. Robert Half offers contract, temporary and permanent placement solutions, and is the parent company of Protiviti®, a global consulting firm. Visit