Planning for the General Counsel’s Departure


For many general counsel, succession planning is either a low priority or is unnecessary. However, the point of a succession plan isn’t just about a Plan B. Succession planning is important for attracting and retaining good talent, and it’s a vital part of business continuity.

In every legal role I’ve ever held, from litigator at Latham & Watkins to in-house lawyer at PepsiCo, I’ve dealt with planning for my eventual departure. We worked out who would handle my client case files when I went in-house, and who would manage the compliance program I built at PepsiCo after I left to go on a 12-month travel sabbatical.

Good succession planning can be as simple as keeping good files so that your successor can easily pick up where you left off, routinely backing up your data and records so institutional knowledge is not lost, and discussing with leadership what kinds of resources are needed to fill your shoes. Creating a solid succession plan for your legal team is crucial to creating healthy business practices for several reasons:

  • Attracting/retaining good talent. Having a thought-out succession plan signals there is a fair, equitable, transparent pathway to leadership, and one that is supportive of promoting from within as well as developing the pipeline for top talent.
  • Business continuity. Identifying the points of contact and the processes that come into play if any of the key legal leaders leave ensures the business will not be left in the lurch should there be a change in the department.
  • Talent management. Once successors to the general counsel and other key roles are identified, you can work to build up their leadership skills if they’re internal.

If you’re the current general counsel, there are many benefits to planning for succession. Supporting the leaders who will succeed you builds your leadership skills. The best and most sought after general counsel are those who focus on leadership and management, not just their technical legal skill. They develop their succession plan to put the right individuals in the right places for leadership, to set the business up for success, and to ensure that the success of the legal department and the company is not fully reliant on their own presence.

A succession plan also enhances your brand. How you depart from a company is just as critical to a positive reputation in the market as how you conducted yourself while in the company. Leaving your leadership in a better position than it was when you arrived will have a significant and long-lasting impact on your reputation and career.

Finally, it sets you up for success in a new role. A strong succession plan ensure a smooth transition out, as well as a smooth transition into your new company.

This approach to succession planning is counter-intuitive and takes courageous leadership. True leadership, however, is measured by the leaders you create around you, not just your own capacity and accomplishments. Don’t look at it as finding your replacement. Look at succession planning as your duty to your company and those coming up after you.


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