Law firm management professionals boost support functions and can play an important advisory role in succession planning, writes legal recruitment expert Vivek Das
The success of the recent G20 Summit held in India and the signing of major agreements such as the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor have brought global attention to the Indian economy. Additionally, the greater involvement of private companies in the successful Chandrayaan-3 lunar mission, the expansion of the gaming/sports sector, and the growing use of AI across sectors are markers of increasing commercial activity and have broadened the horizon for the legal sector in India.
The country’s global shift is mirrored in the Indian legal market with regular interactions between Indian and foreign law firms. The relationship has even partially morphed from collaboration and mutual co-operation into one of competition in certain areas. Increased globalisation has required the legal services market to internalise international norms and raise the quality of services to be on par with international firms.
Firms have been compelled to blend technology into their everyday operations, more so after covid-19. There is a general acceptance of, and push for, implementing technology-based solutions. Firms are also using psychometric tests in screening candidates before hiring.
There is renewed focus on continuing legal education, encouraging sabbaticals or secondments, staff training and development programmes, and adopting newer partnership structures with a clearer distinction between ownership and management of law firms for more effectual management and sustainable growth.
This has propelled the idea of involving management professionals to derive the best from the existing resources and infrastructure, and drive growth for law firms. While most tier I and tier II firms have been doing this for years, its importance has increased given the mounting levels of competition in the sector.
How law firm management professionals impact growth
As the legal landscape in India is evolving, there is a growing demand for standardisation of services. Success is increasingly not only measured in terms of profits and/or clients serviced.
It is equally important for firms to be socially responsible, provide a safe work environment, have gender diversity, follow ethical norms and processes, be thought leaders, and contribute to the profession as well as society.
Typically, these professionals/consultants interact with the functional support professionals who take care of important functions at the firm like human resources (identifying talent, implementing training and development programmes to keep the talent pool future-ready); information technology (securing data and creating an easy interface for the exchange of information within and outside the law firm); finance (managing cash flows and achieving financial operational efficiencies); marketing and practice development (creating a distinction, sustaining market perception and keeping the concern going by generating more work and propelling growth); knowledge management (managing the repository of information and know-how for building thought leadership); and office administration (ensuring safety, security and smooth operations) to derive the desired results for the firm.
Greater involvement of management professionals
The growing interplay between Indian and foreign firms, and other industry stakeholders (students, clients, industry associations, etc.) has led to a greater involvement of management professionals in law firms.
In the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a growing acceptance of law firm management professionals at such firms and having a chief operating officer (COO), chief executive officer (CEO) and other such CXOs (chief of HR, chief of strategy, etc.) is becoming common.
Their job at the firm is to bring a well-defined focus, help set up the right processes, encourage and drive performance with the right incentives, provide a supportive environment for growth, and help achieve operational efficiencies by blending the right legal technology, so that the lawyers can continue to concentrate on client engagement and other billable activities, execution of legal work, and other important activities like participating in thought leadership engagements, business networking and pro-bono initiatives.
There are many successful case studies in the Indian context making a strong case for the involvement of law firm management professionals where they have helped generate considerable growth for firms.
While strategising practice growth will always be a priority for law firms, succession planning to ensure a smooth transition when the time for a handover arises is increasingly important.
Succession planning refers to a business strategy and not a mere contingency plan. Therefore, it has to be an ongoing process to identify and develop deserving employees to take up future leadership roles in the organisation when the current leaders cannot lead owing to sudden incapacities, unforeseeable circumstances or when they decide to move on for newer opportunities.
A failed succession plan may result in a loss of both revenue and clients. but getting it right becomes complex given the emotions attached. Most law firms are working towards effecting a smooth transition and embrace ways to involve “to be transitioned” partners/lawyers in other areas of management to avoid professional and/or personal discomfort.
Involving management professionals can really help in this. Through a robust and comprehensive talent strategy for absorbing both new and transitioned professionals, meticulous planning, effective training, and clear policies and communication, they can aid a smooth transition.
Succession planning for law firm management professionals
In devising an effective succession plan it is imperative to have a thorough understanding of the process, including its pros and cons, exploring available options, and knowing the firm’s culture and its objectives.
The idea is to ensure that continuity of the business concern is not affected by the mere absence of such members of the leadership.
Understanding the process will provide more clarity and help in exploring transition options (internal transition or through hiring laterally) that meets the requirements of the firm and is best suited considering its work culture. The process itself will promote inclusivity and diversity. Transitions will be smoother if brought under the mentorship of current leaders, where potential new leaders can work alongside their seniors.
There has to be an emphasis on cross-training (to the extent possible) to help them develop skills, knowledge and an understanding of the business.
The current leadership must have the support of an administrative staff to assist in handling menial clerical, administrative and financial tasks, and those related to servicing the firm’s clients, to aid in continuity during the handover.
Other factors in considering the right fit
It is essential that there is absolute clarity in the scope, skill set and capabilities required for key positions so that job descriptions can be prepared accordingly.
In the case of internal transitions, once the potential candidates have been identified for future roles, the firm should start investing in their professional development, help them take up/enrol in leadership training and programmes, start involving them in strategic management meetings, and pair them with select partners for practice planning where constant feedback is given on their progress up the ladder.
Having effective mentorship/buddy programmes will help in identifying promising talent. As law firms diversify into other areas of practice and expand their footprint across India and globally, considering more than one candidate and grooming them for future leadership positions, as opposed to just anointing a successor, pays rich dividends.
It is important to support, show confidence in and build a trusting relationship with identified candidates. Talking to them about how the firm sees their potential growth, their career progression, what is expected of them and the support they will get from the firm will draw more commitment and loyalty.
There should also be flexibility in considering laterals; the process of picking the right talent from outside the company should not be rushed into and assistance from head hunters should not be ruled out.
Typically, law firms have succession/exit plans in place through executed partnership agreements that govern how the retirement or withdrawal of a partner is handled. However, for many law firm management professionals, the idea is very nascent and yet to find its feet.
Hence, it is important to tread carefully, make this a defined process by taking the time to identify and properly develop future leaders today who can allow a more seamless transition tomorrow.
Vivek Das is the founder of Pro-Consulting Solutions, a company that provides practice management, branding and recruitment services to law firms. All views expressed are personal.