Changing of the Guard: How to make leadership transition nice and smooth

Rhiby Rhiannon Cambrook-Woods

In our post-recession society, law firms – like many sectors – are often too focused on short-term planning, leaving succession preparation on the backburner. In a time where the legal industry continues along upward trajectory, we cannot afford to be slacking when it comes to leadership.


Yet, we are slacking – as Simon Bladen, Specialist Partner at Hawsons affirmed, ‘succession is a very real problem in the UK’. Is this overdramatic?


Not really, given that this is a sector that has sometimes been accused of not taking too well to change. Having practised Law for two decades before moving into recruiting for the legal sector, I know this to be the case at first hand.


Of course that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But there is no escaping the fact that having a leadership succession plan is not only good business sense, it is critical to protecting the long term sustainability of law firms in this country.


Consider for one moment the influence that having a ‘name’ in your firm has, both in terms of attracting new clients (and staff) and the impact it has on a law firm’s brand.


Indeed, when a senior partner – who will invariably be a recognisable figure within your community – leaves and is succeeded by someone that very few people inside or outside the organisation tipped as an obvious successor, a backlash often ensues.


Long standing clients and staff may both question why they were unaware of who the future leaders of the business were likely to be and for some, the appointment of a new leader could be viewed either as a knee-jerk reaction or a lack of foresight among the senior management team.


The issue is: If we’ve left these future leaders who already exist within the firm on the backburner there’s no way they’ll be ready.


So how do we make a leadership transition go as smoothly as it possibly can? Here are the two key areas to keep in mind when there is a change in power:



Work with your most trusted colleagues, and even close clients, to find out what they want from their new leader. Encourage them to be as honest as possible – what are the current leader’s drawbacks? How would they improve upon the boss’ ideas?


Succession planning should be carried out with meticulous detail and scrutiny: you need to know when recruitment should begin following the handing in of notice, which questions would be asked in an interview, how many interview stages there will be…no stone should be left unturned.


When you have scanned the plan over and over, get advice on whether you’ve left out anything obvious, if you’ve focused enough on certain subjects. It sounds extreme perhaps, but you are essentially putting your company into someone else’s hands, so why wouldn’t you plan properly for that?


Work hard to ensure that your employees are happy when a change of leadership takes place – they matter as much as your customer base. You of course want to guarantee client retention, but don’t let that issue steal away all of your focus: keep sustaining a comfortable work environment at the forefront of your mind.


You need your colleagues to be happy with who’s in charge, otherwise you risk a lack of respect for the person at the top, lack of motivation among your staff and an increase in workplace anxiety which generally results in depleted productivity levels. The last thing you want is to find a CEO or MD who keeps the business coming in, but no one is there to take care of that business!


Be specific:

Exactly what do you want? If there are suitable successors right under your nose, take a step back and evaluate their skills. Don’t be discriminate, but try and think of everything: have you age profiled your employees? Who has worked well with upper management in the past?


Maybe you’re missing a certain viewpoint you think would be great to bring to your firm and you’d like your new leader to have that quality. There is no harm in being pedantic over this: as we’ve mentioned, this is an incredibly important decision. It may be hard to gather so much detail, but if you know exactly what you want, the decision will be easier to make in the long run.


There is also the added advantage here of being able to scout potential even before notice has been handed in – flag up workers you think deserve a chance at a bigger or more important project and see where they go with it. Test out employees’ skills and value whether they’re on the right path to becoming the leader you’ll need one day in the future. Even if they don’t match those specifications, you might find a spot for those high-potential workers.


If you keep these key areas a priority and ensure your plan is always at the forefront of your mind, succession will be a lot easier. Will it still be risky, stressful, a point of contention? Yes of course it will, but you are now prepared for those things – you’ve thought of what your clients and employees would want, you have an idea of the specific qualities you’d like in a leader and you know the minute details of how you’ll recruit them.


Don’t let a transition in leadership worry you…you’ve got it all under control.