February 27, 2012 Articles

Selecting Tomorrow's Leaders—and Ensuring Women Are Among Them

A turbulent and uncertain marketplace requires leaders who are equipped to handle its challenges—and the urgency is even greater in light of the pending retirement of current firm leaders.

By Ida Abbott

Law firms need to get serious about finding new leaders. In Altman Weil’s 2011 Survey of Law Firms in Transition, 47 percent of firms identified retirement and succession of baby boomers as the top issue in preparing firms for the changes that lie ahead. Yet very few law firms have succession planning processes in place. A few years ago many firms started leadership development programs, but when the economy collapsed in 2008 other initiatives took priority. More than three years later, the legal marketplace remains shaky, and firms understandably remain preoccupied with maintaining profitability. But they can no longer delay taking steps to identify and prepare new leaders. A turbulent and uncertain marketplace requires leaders who are equipped to handle its challenges—and the urgency is even greater in light of the pending retirement of current firm leaders. Nearly 70 percent of law firm partners are baby boomers, lawyers in their fifties and sixties who will retire over the next few years. Many boomers are deferring retirement for financial reasons, but when they start to leave in significant numbers, law firms will be under severe pressure to replace them with new leaders and rainmakers.

Firms should treat this situation with some urgency because succession planning, if done correctly, takes time. When current baby boomer leaders and rainmakers start to retire, firms will need new leaders who are prepped and ready to take over their responsibilities. This cannot be done overnight. Without a systematic, well-thought-out method, firms restrict their ability to find the leaders they need. They assume the same qualities that have made lawyers successful leaders until now will also make them effective leaders in the new world. While some firms may be lucky and select good leaders this way, others will make terrible choices.

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