Picking right people resized
Picking and grooming the right successor in the context of the firm’s future strategic needs is arguably one of the most important duties every partner should have and carry out. Few do.

Arguably one of the most important things a partner should and can do for his or her firm before he/she retires is choose and groom a suitable successor. Given the ageing in the profession worldwide in recent decades succession is a subject that is getting more and more attention, and rightly so.

More and more clients are wanting advice on how to address succession within their firms. A common theme one comes across however is that it is assumed there is some sort of single system or process one can put in place which will address the matter and that will be that. It is also sometimes assumed the issue can be addressed ex post facto, sort of ‘in arrears’, and all will be well. Unfortunately it is not so easy, nor should it be. It is far too complex a subject for that to be the case. These are some of the many reasons why succession is not properly addressed by professional service firms.

For instance, for the right person to succeed a partner it would normally take years or even decades of preparation by both the partner retiring and the successor in relation to his or her personal brand, , technical skills, practice area, industry sector, staff and most importantly, clients. There are many things that need to be taken into account and put in place over time.

It is relatively easy to do a quick test on how your firm is travelling in the area of succession. Think of the last half dozen partners who retired or left the firm. How many developed suitable successors who covered the items mentioned above? Go further, ask how many left anything of lasting benefit in the firm? You may be surprised and saddened at the outcome.


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Like horse’s hooves, partnerships have to deal with different conditions throughout a year. There is a well-known equestrian saying: ‘no foot, no horse‘ which means keep the hooves in order or you don’t have a fit, usable mount.

No foot, no horse – like horses’ hooves, partnerships need maintenance and the fundamental building blocks for success need to be carefully thought through and put in place. One of these is clear performance and contribution criteria.

Similarly, successful law firm partnerships need to get the basics in order and thereafter ensure that they are functioning well. It still surprises me how many firms adopt a fairly laissez faire approach to these things and don’t address some of the basics around key partnership functions. In some cases I suspect it is simply that leadership do not wish to ruffle partner feathers and so allow some of them to slip into the ‘too hard for now’ basket. In other cases the firm is doing well so some of these essentials fall off the radar.

One of these is setting partnership performance criteria. When asked to advise firms on performance and growth one of the first things I ask to see is the criteria or key performance indicators (‘KPIs’) that the partnership uses to guide, encourage and measure partner behaviour, thinking, contributions and performance.

Frequently there isn’t one or it is a hotch-potch of half finished lists which have never been fully debated, agreed and not implemented or communicated in any meaningful way. In other cases, there is a list, but that is all there is. Partners do not react to lists of things to do – it takes a lot more. Sometimes new partners come into a partnership blissfully unaware of their existence. As a result performance and contributions can be variable and overall, not delivering what the firm is after.

What then are some considerations to bear in mind when putting together performance criteria or KPIs?

  • ideally these criteria should not be determined in isolation, but in the context of the firm’s core purpose (vision, values, cultural attributes), strategy and guiding principles. This stands to reason as the criteria should be one of the key ways in which the vision and strategy is achieved;
  • you need to get all partners involved in the debate. Communicate and explain. Ask them for input. Encourage their involvement and thinking. Make a genuine effort to do this. Get to the bottom of what truly makes the partnership tick. Done well, you will find a number of the criteria and other strategic key objectives for the partnership drop out of this process. It will also be owned by the partners which will make implementation that much more effective;
  • you are going to come across some opposition, some of it very subtle, but if you don’t anticipate it and are not prepared it can undo all your good efforts;
  • you usually only get one good shot at this – make it count by getting it right first time – if necessary get experienced external counsel, especially to deal with any ‘curved ball’ queries you may encounter in meetings;
  • be patient. Introducing such processes means a lot of change for a lot of partners and thus can cause fear and demotivation;
  • don’t however be patient at the price of inaction or unnecessary vacillation and delay. It is important to commence the process and maintain momentum. Partners need to know leadership is determined to see this through to a successful conclusion for the long term benefit of the partnership. This is everything;
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Thought Leadership is an important part of developing one’s personal brand, of contributing to the marketing and business development activities and successes of a firm, and to contributing to building the capital fabric of a firm. As professionals, it is ideally something all of us would aspire to do and be, a thought leader in our chosen area of practice or industry sector. Few of us achieve this.

Grant Butler has recently published his book Think Write Grow (Wiley 2012) which provides an excellent overview and many practical tips on developing and marketing written thought leadership material.  He principally focuses on written material, but the principles outlined apply equally to other ways of developing and supporting thought leadership. This short book will not only prove helpful to produce thought leadership material but is full of ideas and tips about writing any material or piece.

The author agreed to answer some questions which I hope will be helpful to you as law firm leaders and managers when contemplating how to develop your own firm’s thought leadership assets.  As it is quite a long piece and I would like you to get the benefit of all his responses, I will spread it over three posts – Part One, Two & Three. This is the first.

There are some very valuable explanations, ideas and practical steps set out in this readable work on thought leadership. It should be in every professional service firm library and be read by all those wanting to grow their firm's thought leadership assets.

SL: Congratulations on the publication of Think Write Grow (TWG) – I know it is in your book but for the benefit of my readers how would you define thought leadership and what does it comprise?

GB: Thought leadership is certainly described in lots of different ways. In the book, I try to keep it simple by saying that it’s about how experts share their knowledge and come up with new ideas to help people solve problems or uncover opportunities. It’s also important to pull the two words apart  – ‘thought’ and ‘leader’. The first part involves quality thinking, research and innovation about a topic. The second part involves actively sharing that knowledge with others through things like newsletter articles, blogs, books and speeches. That’s the point at which an expert moves from knowing their stuff to being a thought leader.
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