I recently passed the 100-day mile marker in my new venture, and I want to share the most remarkable observation I’ve made so far.
The Covid-19 virus was a slingshot that propelled people’s views and attitudes in many different directions, but there is one reaction that stands out. Most people now have a better—and many will argue a healthier—perspective on what they believe is truly important to them, including the people and things in their lives (i.e., personal health, family relationships, where and how they live and work, and professional ambitions). And they are ready to make changes if they believe doing so will improve their lives.
By comparison, my deep dive into the business of construction and law over the past several months might seem rather academic. But it has opened my eyes to the types of sudden, unforeseeable risks that business owners and leaders must be able to survive and overcome when their goal is to provide employees and their families with the opportunity to prosper, even during unprecedented economic and public health circumstances like the panic that was started by the coronavirus.
While the economic differences between the construction and legal industries are readily apparent, the people who work in them face many of the same day-to-day challenges. Please consider, for example, the delicate subject of business ownership and leadership transition. Don’t rock the boat, right? This dilemma was highlighted in a February 2021 newsletter from Adam Smith, Esq., entitled, “Principles & Drivers of Succession Planning.” The authors are well-known for their practical inquiries into law firm economics, and this insightful article examines several uncomfortable business transition issues from that perspective with a bias towards action. However, by doing so, they have brought into focus the need for sustainable succession planning practices across all industries, including privately held and family-owned construction businesses and the law firms they depend on.
For no good reason, the proactive use of succession planning to facilitate the transition of client relationships, business ownership, and leadership responsibilities has taken a backseat to other law firm management priorities. This is in stark contrast to the prevailing attitude of corporate America where succession planning has been a cornerstone of sound management strategies for decades.
It is unfortunate that ownership and leadership transitions have proven to be particularly challenging for law firms and their clients—even paralyzing in some instances—when the circumstances involve a renowned founder or senior leader of similar stature. The firm, its clients, and the individuals involved oftentimes have at stake a lifetime of commitment and loyalty to one another, not to mention the vital personal and professional relationships the participants have fostered with other influential business and civic leaders. Deciding to graciously relinquish compensation and control, and to voluntarily step out of the limelight near the end of an illustrious career, does not come naturally for most people. Ego and pride can be major roadblocks unless they are resolved properly.
The rapid pace of Baby Boomer retirement since the recession in 2008-2009 has finally caught everyone’s attention, and the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted many senior business executives and law firm partners to consider adjusting their path out of the workforce. The reluctance of law firms to address sensitive business transition issues now seems to be fading away, largely because there simply is no other viable alternative. Law firm owners and leaders recognize that they must implement productive long-range succession planning strategies or suffer the harsh consequences of ineffective firm leadership and withering client relationships.
Awkward conversations and difficult firm-first decisions are integral steps in every succession planning process. But there is no reason why such necessary business transitions should be painful for anyone who participates willingly. Rather, successful law firm transitions should be all about celebrating the sense of accomplishment that comes with finding an amicable way to preserve both the firm’s rich culture and the participants’ honorable legacies, while at the same time securing future rewarding business and career opportunities for the next generation of clients, employees, owners, and leaders.
While the keys to business transition success might appear to be simple and clear, they are far from that in actual practice. The real trick is to find a fair way to overcome the participants’ economic and emotional barriers in a timely, mutually acceptable manner. This requires a flexible planning and negotiation process that features a transparent communication strategy to address not only the needs and concerns of the firm’s founders and senior leadership but also those of the next generation of participants who are moving up within their own ranks. If the next generation is not reasonably satisfied that their voices have been heard and respected and that they will continue to be treated fairly, then they will be left feeling disenfranchised, powerless, and devalued by the process and they can’t be expected to buy-in wholeheartedly.
As someone who has lived and worked through several—sometimes painful—law firm transitions, I have learned that a successful succession planning process cannot be rushed. Even a smooth transition may require three to five years to work through all the routine ups and downs. Obviously, the process will need to move more deliberately when serious difficulties arise along the way. And then, before long, it’s time to get started all over again with the next round of planning.
So, I strongly encourage all business owners and leaders to accept the notion that a transparent, empathetic, and sustainable succession planning strategy should be embedded within the institutional culture and legacy of the organization if your goal is to pass along to the next generation and enjoy with them the mutual and lasting opportunities you have helped create.