When it comes to law firm leadership succession planning, I suppose I could just say to look at how the U.S. political system does it and do the opposite. This topic, and the current political climate, reminded me of a chapter in a book I picked up during one of my trips to Italy: The Italians by Luigi Barzini. If you ever desire to truly understand Italy and why it is the way it is, this book is a must-read. It describes the historical development of life, power and politics in Italy. Barzini describes the qualities of leadership advancement in Italy in a most sordid manner:
“... a young man must not only join a large and powerful group, but also, once in, worm his way to the top ... in order to use the whole group to serve your own purposes.”
It is my belief that our present national election process seldom promotes the most qualified, but instead the richest, slickest of tongue or most narcissistic. Law firm ownership structures tend to be very top down, with the “top” being a group of voting partners using a form of popular election. Use of popular election, even among a small group of law firm partners, has the same risk of elevating bad leaders as it does nationally. Law firms should consider alternative means of selection. Even if election is employed by a firm, preparation for selection—or “succession planning”—should be integrated into regular strategic planning and elective processes. I have written about succession planning in past columns, including the availability of leadership training and active encouragement of innovative thought (in areas other than substantive practice—such as firm operations and business development). This column will focus on how to evaluate the appropriateness of individuals who might be considered candidates for serving in firm leadership positions, such as managing partner. It is my belief that there are key qualities that every law firm leadership group should look for, and questions to be asked, when deciding who should be nurtured and developed as a future leader.