How to succeed at succession.
Legal aid practices need to find ways to pass the baton of leadership, risk and reward to the next generation. Most look first to the talent that is already in the firm before considering external recruitment. In the past, potential future partners1I’m using ‘partner’ in this article as this is the commonly used term for law firm owners, although the ownership may be by members of an LLP or directors of a limited company.
were ‘tipped the wink’ or ‘tapped on the shoulder’, but this tended to result in new partners who looked like, and were very similar in outlook to, the existing ones. In a diverse and changing environment, some practices are deciding that they need to do things differently.
It’s important to start spotting potential partners early, as they need time to develop the skills, knowledge and experience that are needed. Not everyone who starts out thinking they’d like to become a partner will complete the process of development, for all sorts of reasons: some may decide it’s not for them; others may choose to broaden their experience in another practice; or there may not be an opening for another equity partner when an individual is ready.
A good starting point is having a career structure where lawyers, and possibly other professionals (such as those working in finance, compliance or human resources), can gradually take on more responsibility and demonstrate commitment. Increasing experience and seniority can be reflected in job titles, such as associate and senior associate through to partner (some of whom may be salaried and a smaller number have a share of equity in the business).
Finding out what potential partners think
One firm decided to survey solicitors who might aspire to partnership and find out what they thought about career progression. Most respondents felt that people needed to have between seven and 10 years’ experience in practice before becoming a partner. Some said that they didn’t really understand what partners do. However, examples of partners’ management responsibilities that were identified included legal aid supervision, IT, HR, supporting trainees, marketing, recruitment, and compliance.
The following were mentioned as things people should be able to demonstrate before becoming a partner:
•ability to meet billing targets;
•commitment to the firm;
•excellent rapport with colleagues;
•experience and expertise in their area of law;
•good communication skills;
•involvement in the business outside fee-earning;
•respected by peers;
•respected in the legal community;
•track record of reliability; and
•understanding of and commitment to the firm’s ethos.
What could a selection process look like?
Survey respondents did not want an onerous or formal selection process. They felt that the existing partners must know them and could use this information. However, they also wanted transparency. They wanted the process to be flexible and take account of changing circumstances. They also wanted it to encourage people with the right skills, experience and personal qualities who might not put themselves forward.
A transparent, fair and flexible selection process could be achieved by adopting a person specification for partners, including criteria such as those above, and publicising them within the firm so that potential partners are aware of what they need to be able to demonstrate.
Including discussion of potential partnership in appraisals for associates onwards could demystify the process and enable both partners and associates to provide feedback on where they are. However, it’s important to manage expectations and be clear that although everyone is potentially eligible for consideration, not everyone will be selected.
Firms can put additional support and development opportunities in place (eg, shadowing existing partners or mentoring schemes) to give people a taste of partners’ responsibilities before any commitments are made on either side. Some firms create in-house training programmes or use external courses such as Legal Aid Practitioners Group’s Management Skills for Private Practice course
to develop skills. Alongside that, firms need to give aspiring partners opportunities to demonstrate that they meet the criteria through their existing role as it develops.
The result can be positive for all concerned. Aspiring partners develop the skills they will need and firms gain colleagues with better management skills along the way.