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Feb 14, 2024

Law Firm Succession – Transition of Senior Partners Leadership and Management Roles


I am one of three founding partners in a 17 lawyer insurance defense firm in Houston. We have a total of 18 lawyers in the firm – 3 founding equity partners, 4 other equity partners, 5 non-equity partners, and 6 associates. The three of us founding partners are in our 60s and approaching requirement and are concerned about succession planning and transition. We feel that we are in good shape concerning transition of clients but not so concerning management roles and responsibilities. The firm is managed by the three of us and we have kept tight reigns on the administrative/management side of the house. We would appreciate your thoughts.


A successful transition strategy involves three components.

  1. Legal Skills (lawyering skills)
  2. Client and Referral Source Relationships
  3. Firm Management and Leadership Roles

While it sounds like you are in good shape concerning legal skills of your other partners and client and referral source relationships, work needs to be done in the areas of firm management and leadership.

Law schools do not train or develop managing partners or lawyer managers, nor does doing excellent and complicated work for demanding clients. Highly competent attorneys do not necessarily make good managing partners or lawyer managers. Some of the best lawyers are the worst managers. The better lawyer managers have a second sense for people and management, in addition to being good lawyers and possibly outstanding rainmakers. Many firms develop successors to management by delegating to selected mid-level and junior partners short term management assignments and by rotating these partners through various management areas to develop their general management skills rather than developing particular lawyers as specialists in specific management areas. These firms begin to train mid-level and junior partners by assigning short term, low risk management activities before entrusting them with key management jobs.

Management Skills

The following are recommended areas in which the management skills of mid-level and junior partners can and should be developed:

  1. Client relations, including origination, development and retention;
  2. Acceptance of new clients and matters and the management of performance of legal work in substantive practice areas and sub-specialties;
  3. Associate recruitment, training and development of a personal and professional nature, promotion, evaluation and compensation and termination;
  4. Administrative staff organization, relationships and utilization;
  5. Budgeting for revenue, expenses, capital expenditures; billings and collections; financial and variance reporting and utilization of resultant financial data and management information;
  6. Technology including computers, software, other equipment and technical support from non-lawyer specialists;
  7. Leases, space utilization, negotiations and construction.

Techniques for Developing Skills

On-the-job-training is the most effective technique for developing and refining the management skills of mid-level and junior partners. Three of the most frequently used approaches for teaching management skills include being assigned to a committee, being elected or appointed to a management or leadership position and serving as a member of a special team.

  1. Committee Membership: Mid-level and junior partners may be appointed or elected to serve on the management or other committees. Depending upon the form of firm governance, partners may be appointed or elected to represent various age groups and/or regional offices in multi-office firms. They may be chosen to serve on other committees such as marketing, associates, recruiting, lateral hires, administrative staff, financial, ethics or the management committee, etc.
  2. Appointed positions: Partners may be appointed to manage functional areas of administrative or substantive firm activity. For example, a partner may be appointed to chair a practice area or one of its sub-specialties. Another one may chair the marketing committee. A third may serve as the firm’s ethics partners, etc.
  3. Special Team: A partner may lead a special team to address a specific issue or function. For example, a partner may be requested to recommend new or emerging practice areas. Another may explore the feasibility of establishing a new regional office. A third partner who has an interest or background in technology may direct the firm’s automation effort, etc.

The mid-level or junior partner selected for training should receive administrative assignments and his or her performance should be evaluated accordingly. Each lawyer manager should be requested to develop a plan for the year, including goals and proposed action plans for accomplishing their objectives. They should be required to review these plans with the head of the committee or the partner to whom they are accountable. Partners who are appointed or elected to specific positions should be accountable to a partner or committee responsible for their actions and be evaluated on their performance. Many law firms consider the success or failure of partners in planning and implementing administrative assignments when recommending or setting their compensation levels. This is done to encourage the firm’s “best and brightest” partners to accept administrative assignments and not feel uncomfortable because they may record fewer billable hours. Also, it would be wise for the managing partner or executive committee to identify and provide other non-monetary forms of recognition to successful lawyer managers.

Planning for the transition of law firm leadership and management calls for the ability of the current managing partner or members of the management committee to spot leadership and management potential among the partner complement. Once this potential has been identified the current management must nurture and develop this potential so as to provide the future leaders of the firm.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Posted at 08:48 AM in Leadership, Management, Succession/Exit Strategies, Uncategorized

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