Part II: Development of succession talent

Sterling Miller

The following is Part II of a three-part series on in-house legal department succession management. The series is designed to give the in-house practitioner a practical set of tools to evaluate, develop, and plan for succession within the in-house legal department.

Part II: Development of succession talent

Succession planning can be broken down into three parts: 1) evaluation of succession needs; 2) development of succession talent; and 3) putting a succession plan into place. In the first article of this series, I discussed how to evaluate succession needs. Once you know what you need and when you need it, your next task is to figure out how best to develop that talent so it’s available to the company at the right time.

I view the development of talent in four components: 1) creating a talent/skills chart for each attorney; 2) periodic formal evaluations of each attorney; 3) creation of a development plan for each attorney; and 4) developing sources of talent outside of the legal department.

Creating a talent/skills chart for each attorney

For each attorney in the department, you can create a document/chart that identifies that person’s legal skill set (e.g., litigation, commercial agreements, IP law, etc.) along with other skills you deem important for all attorneys in the department to have, especially if they want to move up the department ladder, along with the future needs you have determined for the legal department. You then assign a numerical scale (e.g., 1-10) to rate the person on each particular skill. What you get is a simple tool that allows you to track legal skills (including new skills you add as part of an overall development plan) along with the nonlegal skills needed to rise in the department. Download the full white paper to view the chart/tool this creates.

An important aspect to look at is Engagement. Employees that are engaged are far more valuable than those that are not engaged and especially versus those that are actively disengaged. In short: these people, if they have the right skills, are keepers and ones you want to develop and promote.

Formal evaluations

Formal evaluations and feedback are core to developing in-house talent. It needs to be regular, candid, and constructive. The feedback should be about things the attorney does well, things they need to work on/improve, and whether there are any potential roadblocks to them advancing in the company/legal department. It requires managers who are capable and well-trained.

Useful evaluations will consider a number of different viewpoints, often called a “360 review.” Some evaluations also seek input from people outside the company, e.g., outside counsel. The 360 process can be very formal and tied to a process run by the HR department (which is ideally what you want) or it can be informal. Its purpose is to gather insights and useful information about how best to develop the lawyer into the type of employee the company needs for its next generation of leaders. Remember that while a performance review focuses on how well the lawyer did vs. specific goals set at the beginning of the year, a 360 evaluation focuses on behaviors and attributes that the legal department (and the company) wish to develop in its leaders. One is more operational, the other more strategic.

Creating a development plan

We now arrive at the most important part of the development of succession talent – the development plan. This is the culmination of the talent/skills chart and the results of the formal evaluation process. In its simplest terms, the development plan is the road map for the how the lawyer will develop the skills and attributes needed to become a senior leader in the legal department and, potentially, the next general counsel of the company. Essentially, you will identify areas for development and, hopefully, things the employee can do to work on developing any particular skill or attribute.

Use of external resources

So far our focus has been on internal talent – as it should be. Internally is where you should have your biggest bang for the buck in terms of finding the right fit for your company, both from a skills and personality standpoint. But if need be, there are three ways to find talent externally: 1) a general job posting that invites people to apply for a position; 2) engage a recruiter (head hunter) to find you the right person for the open position; or 3) searching your – and your team’s – own “Rolodex” of who to call if an opening becomes available.

Posting an open job with a call for applicants will certainly get you a lot of résumés. Be prepared for a lot of work and for an increased likelihood of making a hiring error as just about anyone can put on a good initial interview. Using a recruiter will likely get you a smaller pool of very qualified applicants much quicker. It is expensive, but getting the right person is usually worth considering the cost of this route (along with the tremendous amount of time saved because the recruiter does all the logistical work). One way to make working with a recruiter easier is to establish the relationship before you need them.

Finally, in your career you will come across lawyers from your outside law firms or during conferences, trade association meetings, or other places who you think might make a good fit. Keep a list of these people. When an opening comes up, these folks should be high on your list to speak with about the job. And don’t forget to ask your own team for similar recommendations in terms of outside counsel or other lawyers they think might be a good fit.

The proper evaluation of talent (internal and external) is critical to a successful succession plan for the legal department. Understanding which lawyers you can develop into the next generation of leaders gives you the next building block for succession planning. Now that you know who’s who, you are ready for the creation of the succession plan.

Download the full version of this article, complete with helpful tools and charts

About the author

Sterling Miller spent over 20 years as in-house counsel, including as general counsel for Sabre Corporation and Travelocity. He currently serves as Senior Counsel for Hilgers Graben PLLC focusing on litigation, data privacy, compliance, and consulting with in-house legal departments. He is CIPP/US certified in data privacy. You can follow his blog “Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel” at and follow him on Twitter® @10ThingsLegal. The American Bar Association is publishing a book of his blog posts later this year/early 2017. His first book, The Evolution of Professional Football, was published by Mill City Press in December 2015 and is available on Amazon® and at