Part III: Putting a succession plan in place

Sterling Miller

The following is Part III of a three-part series on 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.

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Part III: Putting a succession plan in place

Creating a succession plan is all about identifying the critical jobs for which planning is needed (e.g., general counsel succession planning) and then identifying those individuals that could step into each role (in the short term or down the road). Additionally, you need to account for the knowledge transfer that must occur during any succession.

To make this happen, you must do the following: 1) identify what jobs in the legal department require succession planning; 2) identify the people who are potential successors in those roles (in the short term or in the longer term); 3) create a knowledge management/transfer program; and 4) keep everything current going forward.

Identify the jobs in the legal department that require formal succession planning

Not every lawyer job in the legal department requires a formal succession plan. Focus on the critical ones. The most important job will be that of the general counsel. So, this one goes on the list for sure. After that, it is likely (but not always the case) that the heads of different groups (deputy general counsel for corporate, securities law, litigation, etc.) should have a plan. Beyond that, it simply depends. The test to use is whether the person or position has some unique and critical skill. For each position you identify you need a current job description ready to go.

Identify those individuals that could step into the role

I previously discussed how to evaluate what legal skills the company needed from its lawyers and, when mapped to those needs, which lawyers had which skills – along with development plans for each lawyer to enhance or develop any needed skills. Now take that work and map it to the legal department’s succession needs. There are two tools to use here that are fairly common if you have been involved in managing people. The first is the nine-box matrix and the second is a succession planning work sheet. Download the full white paper to view examples of both.

The nine-box matrix is a tool frequently used to give a snapshot of high-potential employees and those who likely have the tools to be future leaders or take on more responsibility. It also shows employees that potentially do not have what it takes to stick around long term. It does this by measuring potential on one axis and current performance on the other.

The key document in the succession-planning process is the succession planning work sheet. By this I mean the document that actually shows the position in question and the potential successors, including whether they are considered immediate-, medium-, or long-term candidates. First, there should be a formal process run by HR to develop a succession document based on a formal company-wide succession policy. A succession policy sets out the timing of succession planning (e.g., yearly, quarterly, etc.), along with who participates, who is responsible, and so forth. You need to tap into this process. Second, in addition to all of the other information we have discussed so far, from development plans to nine-box grids, to tracking the future legal needs of the company, there is one final piece of information you need before you complete the succession plan document: Are the attorneys in question interested in the positions for which you have them slotted? This means you need to have some very honest and open conversations with the lawyers in the legal department about their goals and intentions.

On the flip side, you should also have a conversation with those members of the department who are nearing the age of retirement and get a sense for when they might wish to leave the department. This cannot be viewed as an attempt to push out older workers (which is illegal in the U.S. and elsewhere) but rather an honest conversation about when someone may wish to depart and how much notice can you plan on receiving – and be sure to work with HR before having this conversation. Once you have gotten your data points together, the chart is relatively easy to compile.

After you complete the planning document, the next task is to begin working with the identified successors (internal) to continue to develop the skills and attributes necessary to take the next step.

Create a knowledge management/transfer process

While the people part is the most important part of the succession management process, you also need to spend time on the knowledge management/transfer process. Anyone stepping into a new role will ideally have a number of transition documents to help with the move. While knowledge management is too large of a topic to discuss fully here, the basics are this: You need to capture the critical tasks, processes, timelines, and operations of the legal department on paper so that they can be easily passed on to any successors (or just so someone can fill in for the current person in the event they are out on extended leave for some reason). The simple way to do this is to start a process of creating a series of short documents (1-2 pages) that capture all of the key aspects of the legal department tasks and operations.

Keep it current

Finally, succession planning done properly is not something you do and put on the shelf to gather dust. Everything needs to be kept current and constantly updated. You should be well aware of the dates of key deliverables in the succession process every year and anticipate what is needed and when. Similarly, the knowledge management must be kept fresh and constantly updated.

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

This concludes our three-part series on succession management. The wave of baby boomer retirements, along with the influx of millennials into the legal department workforce, means that succession planning needs to be front and center from here on out. While difficult at times, you will find that having these conversations and creating a solid succession plan will actually lead to a better and more dynamic legal department.

Good luck!

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