A Step-By-Step Process for Introducing A Successor

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Transitioning out of a small legal practice is, above all, an issue of planning. If the practice is not sold or closed, the best alternative for the partner who owns the firm is to groom a successor to whom client responsibilities can be gradually transitioned.

Such a transition period allows for ongoing conversations with key clients about the upcoming transition, forging new ties between the successor and both current and new contacts at the client, and ensuring that the new lawyer is completely up to speed on what the client needs and expects.

Making the process a reality begins with hiring the right person the first time for the right succession planning. It is essential to provide education for that person to improve his skills and then involve him in the financial and organizational life of the firm so that he understands and appreciates his role and looks forward to the future.

The earlier the process begins, the smoother it will go. It will not be successful unless carried out according to a well-considered and thoroughly researched strategy. The following list includes key steps the retiring partner should take to allay any client fears about quality and continuity of legal service:

  • Document a complete portrait of each client that includes not only hard facts (revenue, number of employees, products/services) but also the client's culture and business practices.

  • Create a client map by identifying each individual you've worked with (even if it's only one person, such as the owner), how long the relationship has existed, and any personal information about hobbies, family or charitable interests.

  • Create a matter map that identifies the specific recurring matters that arise with the client, along with a separate listing of significant one-off matters that have been resolved.

  • Structure a relationship tree that shows mutual contacts involving the client and others in the wider community who are shared acquaintances — bankers, accountants and charitable board members, for example.

  • Document every specific of client "care and feeding" — budget and invoice format, credit terms, frequency and focus of client visits

  • Ensure that the successor develops complete mastery of all the information before scheduling initial introductory contacts with the client.

  • Develop an accountability plan and a written timeline for all the discrete elements of the client transfer, working backward from when you actually will be retiring. This is a plan that partner and successor should agree on before meeting with the client, so it can be presented as a transition framework to which the client can have full input for modification.

  • Implement the ongoing communication process of integrating client and successor, with the goal of seeking open input from both sides to make sure there are no mismatches in personalities or perceptions.

  • Make clients aware that this is just the start of a mutual effort to continue meeting their needs — one in which all sides will continue to evaluate how well the transition plan is working and to make adjustments as needed.

  • Be very alert to unspoken client signals about how well the process is going. Don't be caught in a situation in which a client who is dissatisfied about the transition says nothing about it until he transfers his business to another firm.

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