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Seeing Beyond the End of Your Own Tenure

Taking the long view on succession is crucial to the success of a firm, lawyer and client.

Eagles have acute sight and can spot prey at a distance with pinpoint accuracy. To do this they must be able to see beyond the end of their own beak. Long-sightedness—also referred to colloquially as vision—is a rare and valuable ability.

For people in leadership and senior positions, it is an even more critical skill since taking the long view is crucial to the success of a firm.

Seeing beyond the end of your own tenure involves a number of considerations, but the most critical involve finance and operations.

Understanding how the firm’s money works is job one. Lawyers are notorious for preferring to stick their noses in client files rather than in the firm’s financial statements. Partners, in particular, must understand how the money works, and how it needs to be safeguarded and spent.

Part of Heenan Blaikie LLP’s downfall in early 2014 was due to the firm’s partners taking their entire capital investment with them as they raced for the exits. One lesson to be learned from this mess is that having policies in place that stipulate payouts upon departure may prevent a fatal financial hemorrhage.

Financial acumen is key to knowing how the firm operates currently and how it expects to operate in future. This means participating in and executing on strategy development that ranges from five to ten years into the future. This plan must be reviewed annually to remain on track and provide the basis for each year’s zero-based budget.

Foundational to your operations function is succession planning. Being without a succession plan is like being without a will. It’s irresponsible. No one lives forever. People die or can become incapacitated. Even if you intend to die at your desk, plans must be laid out, communicated and acted upon to enable the grafting of relationships with key clients onto the next generation of lawyers.

Without a succession culture, the younger crop of lawyers is apt to depart, take clients with them and cripple the firm. Better to have them ready to step in when you step back.

Any business that loses its client data is doomed. Yet it is alarming how many law firms continue to tempt fate by keeping client information on spreadsheets, in email programs, and other unsophisticated, no-cost tools.

Ensuring that a firm’s technology is kept current is crucial for safeguarding your information and ensuring productivity.

Too many firms cut corners on keeping information technology up to date and then wonder why computers crash and data, time and productivity are lost, and employees and clients leave to go to other environments where technology is seamless and supportive rather than awkward and undermining.

While technology can be expensive, without retaining a cutting edge at best or an up-to-date status at least, the firm is at risk of being brought to its knees in a flash.

To date, many firms have been successful in spite of themselves. Inattention to how the a firm truly works from financial and operational perspectives, treating it as a private bank or country club, and expecting business to continue as usual especially when clients are demanding change is fiercely shortsighted to the point of risking disaster.

Firms fail. Many are faltering and putting on a brave face. Keeping an eagle-eye trained on what’s happening right now and into the future—and acting fast before it hits you between the eyes—may help keep you from being blindsided.

Heather Suttie is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on legal market strategy and management of legal services firms.

For 25 years, she has advised leaders of premier law firms and legal service providers worldwide — Global to Solo | BigLaw to NewLaw — on innovative strategies pertaining to business, markets, management, and clients.

The result is accelerated performance achieved through a distinctive one of one legal market position and sustained competitive advantage leading to greater market share, revenue, and profits.

The effect is accomplishment of the prime objective — To Win.

Reach her at +1.416.964.9607 or

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