Chase Simmons of Polsinelli is the first to admit that his law firm’s decision to name him as its new leader didn’t happen quickly.
“We started talking about the need for a succession plan five or six years out,” Simmons, who became the 825-lawyer firm’s chair and CEO on Jan. 1, told Bloomberg Law. “We had a first generation of leaders, and the firm had grown greatly so there was a need to look across the entire firm to decide what we wanted. We then changed our mind a couple of times over what the process would be.”
To replace Russ Welsh, a 20-year veteran of the chairmanship, the firm took a number of steps that included hiring a consultant, conducting in-house interviews, filling out questionnaires, holding a retreat, and having candidates learn more about the firm’s business side.
Baby-Boomer founders and senior partners are aging and retiring, so many law firms are facing transitions to new chairs and managing partners— whether they are prepared or not.
And strong leadership has become ever more important as the legal industry grows more complicated, due in part to shifting client expectations and disruption from new technologies and service providers.
Still, most firms focus heavily on client relationships and avoid a formal succession plan in order to sidestep rivalries among partners, or to steer clear of creating a sense that founders or long-time partners are being rushed out the door.
“At some firms, people who are the most successful partners have the most say,” Robert Brigham, a partner in the San Francisco-based partner practice group of legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, said.
“Some are self-aware, and others are not. A co-chairman structure can work well to accommodate this, but in today’s market firms have to take leadership seriously because it’s a competitive market where there are winners and losers,” Brigham said.