chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

Problem Solving for the Future of Legal Work Through Design Thinking

Laura Ashley Hartnett


  • Law firm succession plans are often stagnant, inadequate to adapt to changes and fail to consider evolving lawyer and client preferences.
  • Instead of a fixed plan, a legal design thinking process is more flexible and effective in meeting unforeseeable challenges and client and lawyer needs.
Problem Solving for the Future of Legal Work Through Design Thinking

Jump to:

I submit for your consideration: The Worst Succession Plan Ever. In the late 1960s, Spain’s dictator General Francisco Franco brought the exiled King Juan Carlos II back to Spain and set Juan Carlos up to take over after the dictator’s death. It seemed that Juan Carlos submitted to this plan, living in Franco’s shadow, and he was expected to continue the dictatorship. Lo and behold, Franco dies, and Juan Carlos performs an about-face and declares Spain a democracy.

Law firm succession plans aren’t nearly this extreme. Yet too many get reduced to the same basics: a prescriptive approach stating Person X will take over Role Y, currently held by Attorney Z. There is a general expectation that the designated junior partners will run the law firm in the same manner as the previous leadership team upon senior partners’ retirements. Why wouldn’t they? The plan gets put in a drawer and rarely revisited.

This is where succession planning fails. There are (at least) two things wrong with this approach to succession planning.

First, it doesn't consider the needs of the next generation of lawyers.

We’re presuming the succession planning process asked junior partners or senior associates whether they want to join the firm’s leadership team in the future. And yet, asking doesn’t always lead to success.

Bring junior partners or senior associates into a meeting and ask them if they want to run the law firm. These are hardworking attorneys who have either just joined the ranks or are eager to nearly join partnership. I bet they will say yes.

We would have said yes before we were lawyers. As law students, we were conditioned to think about linear career growth. You know the pattern. It looks like this: join a “good” firm after law school, work your way up and make partner. Running the firm puts you at the pinnacle of that trajectory. Too few attorneys see alternative career paths in the law or spend time asking themselves how they want to practice law. So, when asked and presented with a golden opportunity, they are likely going to say yes. And with a typical up-or-out system, there is a felt silence that if they do not say yes, there is no place for them in the future.

Yet agreeing to the role is different than succeeding within the role or wanting the role. I’ve seen too many attorneys reach the rise of leadership and be miserable. They hate administrative meetings, making personnel decisions or setting budgets. They miss being in court, negotiating contracts or drafting complex trust agreements. They are too far removed from the practice of law for their tastes. They leave the firm, and the succession plan fails.

If succession planning doesn’t ask attorneys regularly what excites them about their practice of law, it fails to include key information that will unlock a successful plan. If they love mentoring young associates and a specific leadership role would take them away from their passion, both they and the firm lose access to their gift of mentoring. They want to see a leadership role that meets their needs. After all, if people don’t see a place for themselves in the organization, they leave.

And the key term is asking “regularly.” Ask them once and they may truly see themselves running the IP section of the firm. It’s a dream come true! But with all of us, as our lives change, as the world changes, attorneys find they have different needs and new plans to match it. The pandemic, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one––global or local events will change how suited attorneys are for future roles. That IP attorney who truly wanted to run the practice just two years ago? Now they want to be closer to the AI revolution working for a start-up, and the succession plan fails.

Even better, does the law firm approach junior attorneys with honesty and curiosity about how they would run the law firm differently? It’s a very difficult process setting aside ego to think there are different, perhaps better, ways of running a law firm. More junior attorneys may be eager to join leadership and have a different view of just what that leadership looks like and how they manage. Bringing these ideas in early promotes smooth transition and less revolution.

Second, it doesn't consider the needs of the next generation of clients.

Clients drive our work. We truly could not do what we do without clients. If we're planning for the future of legal work, we're talking about clients. And with that is another reality: the types and demands of clients are ever-changing. Therefore, we must consider the client of the future and how the law firm might interact with them. Give your clients what they want.

With a little inquiry, you’ll find that some clients are moving to firms with flat rates, some are seeing increased litigation out of a specific part of the country, while some are looking for done-for-you solutions. Who are your clients becoming and what do they need in the future?

Plan to meet the needs of clients and you have a succession plan setting up the next generation for success. Once you adopt this mindset, it might be that Role Y at the law firm may not exist in the future, or not with the same skill sets that are needed to support current clients. Maybe the next head of your litigation department shouldn’t be based in Boston, when your best client is seeing more litigation in Phoenix. Or you may need an innovation officer as someone on your leadership team to think through how to meet evolving client needs. Or a full-fledged technology officer to make sure your firm is at the forefront of legal technology.

In short, if you settle on a fixed plan, you are fixing to have problems. In contrast, take a growth approach. Accept that in 20 years, the firm will look more different than we can imagine. There’s no sense trying to expect your crystal ball to show what the firm will look like 20 years into the future. Impossible! We’re talking about the future––a place to dream, be inventive, get creative. This isn’t time for a set-in-stone plan.

So, what do you do instead? Adopt the mindset that your succession plan isn't a plan at all––it is a process. Build a process within your firm to continually adjust to the needs of your two most important constituencies: attorneys and clients. It isn't driven by a plan committed to paper written in an isolated room of firm leadership; rather it is driven by questions with attorneys in the halls, chats on Teams or Slack and over coffee with clients.

We call this legal design thinking. It’s a methodology to redesign how we practice law starting from the needs of lawyers and clients. Leading law schools, from Harvard to Vanderbilt to Stanford, are training emerging lawyers in this methodology. While legal design thinking can bring tremendous value to a law firm that is stuck with a current practice problem (associate attrition, failed technology adoption, losing clients), it is uniquely suited to think through future practice problems––in other words, developing a succession process. It is becoming a game changer because legal design thinking starts with creative thinking, asking “what if . . . ?” and “how might we . . . ?” It helpfully switches our lawyer brains from typical patterns of "we must have all the answers right now!" and into a problem-solving approach that continues to ask even better questions and knows how to apply the answers.

  • It starts with empathy and curiosity toward the needs of lawyers and clients to imagine (and regularly re-imagine) the law firm of the future. In practice, it looks like asking attorneys some defining questions. For example: What would make you excited to run this law firm?
  • What is stopping us from growing?
  • Why do you see people leaving?
  • Then, following up by asking clients questions such as: Where do you see the need for future attorney work?
  • What does your business/succession planning look like?

It comes back to that key word “regularly”––whether that means you have scheduled check-ins with your key team members or you ask these questions at the coffee station. And as you meet with clients, you ask what they need and then you listen attentively to their answers.

You are making succession planning a process, not a plan.

Along the way, you’ll gather the valuable information you’ve gleaned from your attorneys and clients. The key in this step is making sure no single voice dominates the conversation. Avoid the scenario where a senior partner pushes through a firm-wide change solely based on data from his favorite client. Ask your administrators, new associates, IT experts and marketing team for their perspective. You’d be amazed at how all the legal professionals in your orbit contribute to a full knowledge of the law firm, its clients and its opportunities for the future.

Use this information to match up, not people, but roles of the future with the needs. Building, maintaining and growing a team is less about filling specific roles but more about functions that meet the previously identified attorney and client needs of the future. Building a team may mean having someone who enjoys the profit/loss aspects, someone who is forward thinking, someone who is good with clients and someone who coaches junior associates. Identifying each of these roles or functions is critical to designing the leadership team. This is how you avoid the trap of replacing an existing attorney with a mini-me.

What’s exciting about this process is that you are doing more than succession planning, you are evolving your business naturally. You are listening to the pulse of what clients want while growing a dynamic workforce.

The questions you ask today, and the wealth of answers you receive, mean you will be better capable of pivoting. Because no one knows the future––especially when we attempt to project three or five or 10 years into the future. We can’t predict a shift in Supreme Court precedent, brand new emergent technology or the untimely death of a key leader.

No prescriptive succession plan is going to work without a hitch 10 or 20 years from now. Instead of planning in the dark, teach your team how to solve the problem by thinking about their needs and the clients' needs. Then start practicing how to get creative meeting those needs. Building curiosity and problem solving into the culture of your law firm ensures that it will be ready and flexible to handle future issues and rise to meet them.