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Practice Management

Preserving current client relationships during firm leadership transitions

Nothing in life or business is stagnant, and even the most-established law firms must plan for eventual changes in firm leadership. In many cases, it’s a partner’s hesitation to retire that presents the greatest challenge. To protect a firm, it’s critical to find ways to help a partner embrace change and overcome that hesitation.

As Natalie Runyon, Director & Head of Talent Platform, Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute, explains, “Overall, the law firm’s goal is to retain the business of clients. When dealing with the resistance of a retiring partner, the firm can become a partner in the success of the legacy and in the transition by linking the retiring partner’s legacy with that of the firm. Meaning that the firm’s legacy is secure when the clients are served well, and the retiring partner’s legacy is secured by the clients’ satisfaction.”

Where to begin, and who to involve?

When it comes to a smooth and successful succession process, it’s not as simple as introducing the new partner to the retiring partner’s clients. The retiring partner wants to feel good about the process and confident in the person who is taking over, while clients want to know that the new partner cares and will provide the same level of service and results. Building and communicating a comprehensive succession plan takes a lot of thought and requires the contributions of many different teams.

Runyon offers insight regarding the ideal succession planning transition team:

  • The retiring partner: Of course, everything starts with the retiring partner. He or she will be the primary source of information about current clients, key stakeholders, the nature of the work and other important details. Conversations with the retiring partner need to be handled with sensitivity to ensure the smoothest possible transition. As Runyon explains, “There is often system-wide resistance at the firm to discussing retirement, and it boils down to one word: fear. There is fear on the part of a senior partner looking at retirement, and there is fear among senior leaders at the firm trying to determine the best way to navigate the transition.”
  • The succession partner: “As a best practice, firms, at a minimum, should have an idea of who should replace their managing partner and the leaders of their most important practice groups,” explains Runyon. But, it’s not a decision that should be made without input from clients. Before an initial determination is made, ask clients how things are going and if there is anything they would like to see change with regard to process and service. Once a new partner is identified, he or she should meet with clients and begin to build rapport and develop trust. If the chemistry isn’t there, make the necessary changes immediately to avoid the risk of harming the relationship.
  • Firm management/administration: Managing the transition of a retiring partner is likely the most complex endeavor your firm will ever undertake. Firms need to be very thoughtful and strategic in their approach. “From the management/administration’s functional perspective, there is a need to provide governance by overseeing the transition and using planning methodology to ensure the transition of the retiring partner is translated into critical planning areas,” Runyon says.
  • Marketing: A firm’s marketing team is in the messaging business. In the context of succession planning, that means creating a transition conversation with the client to quiet concerns and make them more comfortable with the transition. “At a high level, marketing is involved to ensure client retention,” says Runyon. “For example, making sure the messaging to the client is consistent and that client feedback during the transition is being addressed.”
  • Talent: For attorneys at your firm, a change in leadership can be disorienting and unsettling. To prevent additional turmoil and churn, it’s important to make sure firm talent is kept informed of any and all developments and is part of your firm’s evolutionary process. “Talent is there during the process to ensure the firm remains proactive in forecasting the knowledge gaps, assessing candidates for the successor partner, and making sure their potential succession partners are getting the right training on marketing, client development skills, and business development techniques,” Runyon explains.
  • Clients: Last, but certainly not least, are the clients. After months of planning and preparation, the groundwork should be laid to engage with clients about the transition. As discussed above, such conversations should be collaborative and provide clients opportunities to be involved in the process.

Working together, these teams can create a seamless experience that meets the needs of the retiring partner and clients, while also setting a firm up for future success.

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