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August 05, 2015 Dialogue

Leadership Transitions in Legal Aid Programs: A Guide for Boards of Directors and Staff

By Patricia Pap

Editor’s Note:  This article is the first in a two-part series and has been reprinted by permission from the MIE Journal, Summer 2005. Although the article focuses specifically on executive director transition within legal aid organizations, it should provide helpful guidance to leadership transitions within IOLTA programs, as well.


When long-term staff members leave a legal aid program, by retiring or for other reasons, how do we replace their skill, talent and commitment, whether they are our senior advocates, senior managers or executive directors? Transitions are pivotal moments in which programs can significantly build or lose capacity. With the boomer generation retiring in increasing numbers during the next two to ten years, in the for-profit, nonprofit and governmental sectors of the economy, there is a growing body of research, best practices and tools aimed at developing organizational ability to manage transitions. In the legal aid community, we must continue to deepen the way we think about this kind of change.

This guide is intended to help legal aid programs chart a course through the tumultuous waters of leadership transition, with a particular focus on developing a sound and successful hiring process.

For the most part, this guide will speak in terms of the hiring of the executive director, perhaps the most challenging of transitions for a program. As a result, its suggestions are directed to the program’s board of directors. The board of directors is actively involved in the hiring of a new executive director. In fact, the hiring of an executive director may be the single most important responsibility of the board given the huge impact this selection has on the program’s development and effectiveness. This function may be shared with others who have a stake in the outcome, for example, staff, clients, funders and community members, but the final decision is the board’s. The legal aid program’s board of directors must step up to its challenges in an executive director hiring. The board must realize the importance of its hiring decision and be sure it has the resources and the time to do it right.

A senior staff member or perhaps the outgoing director of the program may be actively involved in helping the board prepare itself for this crucial function and so, too, the suggestions in this article are directed to them.

In another context, when a long-time advocate, manager or administrator leaves the program, these suggestions also are relevant, though they may be carried out by different members of the program. The search committee may be formed by staff members and others. The assessment of mission and goals and strategic direction may occur at the office or unit or work group level.


Key Stages in Leadership Transition

The three key stages in leadership transition are: getting ready; recruiting and hiring; and post-hiring. It is important not to skimp on any of them.

  • Getting Ready: The leader decides to leave the position, or the program decides to seek a change in leadership. The program analyzes the strategic challenges facing it. It then translates its strategic assessment into specific leadership needs and job qualifications.
  • Recruiting and Hiring: The program designs a search and selection process. It screens candidates and interviews finalists. It chooses the new leader.
  • Post-hiring: The new leader is oriented to the program. Program expectations of the leader are made clear. Professional development resources are made available. The leader is introduced to the community.


Getting Ready

Stress and worry are natural when a valued staff member leaves the program regardless of the circumstances of the departure. Face the pressure. Take a deep breath and take your time navigating the transition. Have you ever been involved in a hasty hiring decision because you worried about the short-term consequences of a position going unfilled? Did you tell yourself then you would never rush into a hiring again? The considerations which follow will help you seize the opportunity to build capacity, not lose capacity, in the program during the transition.

First consider, is this transition routine or non-routine?

Does the program need a turnaround after a crisis? Is the current person underperforming? Is the program’s founder departing? Reflect on your program’s health, needs, and resources.

Review and sharpen the mission and goals of the program.

How does the program currently articulate its mission and goals? Who are the program’s clients? What services does it offer? How is its financial condition? How is its support in the community? How is staff expertise and morale? What are the program’s challenges and opportunities? How has the program developed over the past several years and what are issues of present concern? Where would you like the program to go in the future? What qualities do you need in a leader to take you toward your desired future?

This assessment of the program could demand a substantial process depending on the current needs of the program. The board might seek to use the vacancy to change the strategic direction of the program. Or, in a routine transition when the program is stable, the assessment may be accomplished in a shorter time frame with fewer resources and participants.

Review a detailed job description of the current position holder.

The search committee should review a detailed job description of the current position holder. If the board has concluded that new directions will benefit the program, the committee should redraft the job description to articulate and emphasize those directions. The description should include the board’s expectations, how the position relates to the board, and what the specific duties are. The committee should seek suggestions from staff members, clients, community partners, funders and other stakeholders.

Identify the characteristics desired for the new leader and describe the position.

The search committee should establish a profile of qualities and experiences that the new leader must have in order to be successful, based on the needs of the program. In preparing a profile of the desired characteristics, the search committee may want to involve key stakeholders - staff, clients, community partners, funders and others. Prioritize your list into two categories: qualities and experiences the candidate must have, and qualities and experiences that would be advantageous for the candidate to have. These may be thought of in terms of primary and secondary characteristics. This prioritizing of desired characteristics of the leader will guide the hiring process.

From these primary and secondary characteristics, create a candidate rating sheet that identifies the qualifications of the new leader. You will use this rating sheet to prepare the job announcement, evaluate resumes, eliminate candidates who do not meet basic requirements, rank candidates for the selection process, identify candidates to be interviewed, develop questions to be used in applicant interviews and reference checking, rate the candidates after the interview, and make your final selection.

Assess what the compensation package needs to be to recruit the leader you want.

This is a good time to review the salary and benefits you are offering. Particularly if one person has held the position for an extended time, the salary and benefits may no longer be competitive. It is important to have a competitive salary and benefits to attract and retain a candidate with qualities you desire. Compare what you have been paying your current executive director or staff member, or what you are considering offering your new hire, to what other legal aid programs may be paying. Pay particular attention to those programs which are similarly situated to yours in region, size, urban/rural and other demographics, experience of staff, and so on. MIE periodically conducts executive director salary surveys, available in the MIE e-library, and other organizations have conducted salary surveys of other staff members.

If your program’s salary and benefits have not kept pace, and if your organization does not have resources to increase the salary and benefits, consider enhancements to a modest salary such as: increasing holidays, increasing vacation, reducing total number of work days per month, offering a schedule with greater flexibility in working hours, providing matching retirement contributions, or providing funding for courses or conferences that relate to the work.

Develop a realistic time frame and budget for the hiring process.

This time frame should chart the process’ key phases including assessing the program; developing the job description, characteristics and announcement; advertising; screening resumes; interviewing and checking references; making your hiring decision; welcoming the new leader; and entering the post-hire period. The time frame also should identify each board member’s individual time commitment depending on whether he or she is part of the search committee.

The budget for the transition process might include expenses for advertising, a search firm or consultant, board or committee meetings, candidate interview expenses, or an interim executive director.

Designate a board committee to manage the search and recommend finalists to the full board.

Once the board has identified its direction and the experiences and qualities it seeks in a new executive director, it will want to form a search committee of its members. This committee will be empowered to manage the search process, solicit candidates, screen resumes, conduct initial interviews, and make recommendations of finalists to the board. The board should clearly communicate its mandate to the committee, giving it a timetable, budget, explanation of its authority, and suggestion of how many candidates to present to the board. A staff coordinator will be needed to assist the search committee by managing logistics, keeping files on candidates, and organizing committee meetings.

The search committee should be composed of three to seven members. It should be small enough to have an easier and faster decision-making process, but large enough to include all necessary expertise among its members. Committee members should be people who genuinely support the mission and vision of the program, and who have personnel skills, knowledge of the program, and experience with interviewing. Committee members must commit to the entire hiring process, including the post-hiring phase, providing supervision and support to the new executive director as he or she assumes responsibilities. At least some members of the search committee should be willing to sit on the board for at least the next year.

The board of directors needs to develop a plan to involve staff members, clients, funders and other community members in the hiring process in appropriate ways. The board has a responsibility to keep the staff up to date about the progress of the search for the executive director. Staff involvement in the search might include participating in an assessment of the issues facing the organization, providing input on the characteristics needed by the executive director to meet the identified challenges, helping to recruit applicants, reviewing resumes, participating in some interviews, meeting finalists and providing input to the board. On the other hand, the final decision-making belongs to the board. (Obviously staff will have the greater role hiring program leaders other than the executive director.)

Clients, funders and community partners and other stakeholders also may be involved productively in the search process. The board should communicate with them early and often. It may involve them in its assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the program and its leadership position in the community. The board may consult with them about the experiences and qualities of the new leader, and may involve them in recruiting candidates. Importantly, the board should reach out to donors and funders, both because they may worry, and also because they may have ideas.

The board may want to consider adding non-board members to the search committee in an advisory capacity. If the committee lacks, for example, a human resources professional, perhaps a senior staff member at another non-profit or law firm in the community may be invited to participate. Or the board may want to consider using a search firm or consultant (see below).

Designate a board transition committee to provide oversight to the administrative matters of the program during the transition.

Does a transition procedure already exist? If not, one might be developed now, which would address such matters as: establishing an interim staff structure; providing authorization for check signing and other financial matters; updating the administrative calendar, noting major dates, activities, deadlines and responsibilities; compiling a list of key stakeholders to be informed of or involved in the transition process; reviewing executive director departure preparations including organizing corporate records and client files; reviewing pay and other human resources matters; scheduling regular meetings with the executive director prior to departure to get up to speed on current activities in the program; and developing a schedule of board meetings and board and staff meetings.

Hiring an experienced interim executive director may be one way to maintain program administration, make some changes, and give the board time to plan and think.

The board should prepare for changes in its own makeup.

An executive director transition typically interrupts the natural turnover on a board, spurring some board members to stay on a little longer and others to depart sooner. These individual decisions have an effect on how each board member views the hiring process and their own decision-making. It might cause some members to want to hurry through the process, for example. It would be wise for the board to have a conversation about members’ intentions and bring them into the open. It is good to know who will remain on the board with the responsibility for supporting and supervising the new executive director.

Consider outside assistance as you get ready to recruit your new leader.

Your board may want to consider using a search firm or consultant. This may be helpful when you have a very large board or a small board, with few people who have time to screen candidates. Or your board may have many members who have rarely made management hiring decisions. Perhaps you want to conduct a very broad search, perhaps the hiring decision will be politically complex. Maybe the current stature of the program or its future aspirations demand a professional search.

A search firm or consultant, such as MIE, a legal aid consultant or a private firm, may help you in one or all of these ways: to assess your readiness to recruit; to clarify what you are looking for in a candidate; to do outreach and locate prospective candidates; to manage the logistics of screening and interviewing; to check references; and to assist with post-hiring issues. The consultant may even provide first year coaching to the new hire.

Patricia Pap

Executive Director, Management Information Exchange

Patricia Pap has been the Executive Director of Management Information Exchange since 1997 and was previously the Executive Director of Legal Services for Cape Cod and Islands. Additional information about MIE and executive director transition is available on the MIE website, or by calling MIE Executive Director Patricia Pap.