The Last Act: Rules of Succession by Patrick J. McKenna

by Managing Partner Forum

In an article in The Recorder, entitled Rules of Succession, the author claims that when a new law firm leader is chosen, it is better to hand over the reins immediately.

Now I don‘t usually take issue with the advice offered by someone who has served for 10-years as Chairman of a distinguished AmLaw firm, but this is one of those times where someone‘s views may not only be unfortunately biased by their own personal experience, but actually hazardous to the personal aspirations and career progress of new law firm leaders.

According to this individual, in 1993 following his announced intention to step down he thought he was doing his firm and his successor a favor by allowing a four-month transition of leadership. He explains, "I could not have been more wrong. The firm drifted. A leadership vacuum ensued. I had the power of the office but, being a lame duck, no one paid any attention to me."

He goes on to counsel new leaders that "Since that time, I have preached on innumerable occasions — managing partner workshops, law firm leadership forums, graduate school programs on law firm management "that law firms should not follow the U.S. approach to transitions in leadership. Elect your new managing partner or chair and get on with it — immediately!"

Now I‘ve had the good fortune to author two monographs: “First 100 Days” for new managing partners; and “Passing The Baton” for those about to relinquish office. Both of these texts benefited enormously from the input of dozens of managing partners from firms of all sizes who provided their real-world perspectives and experiences. In addition I‘ve conducted research and one-on-one interviews with at least 50 law firm leaders covering all aspects of their jobs, the challenges attached to leading a law firm, and the agony of making the difficult transition to becoming a firm leader. All of my work unhesitatingly confirms for me that the problems that this individual refers to (firm drift, leadership vacuum, and the lame duck syndrome) may indeed occur, but are usually the result of not knowing how to conduct an effective transition from one leader to the next.

The accumulated wisdom of the incumbent is incredibly valuable during the transition period and no one is in a better position to get a new leader up to speed than his or her predecessor. I know from first-hand experience in facilitating candid, in-depth discussions between the outgoing and incoming firm leaders, that the outgoing leader can provide unique insights on everything from the expectations of certain power partners to the idiosyncratic attitudes of various board members. Outgoing leaders play an important role in building the foundation upon which their successor can begin their tenure; in particular the two leaders must invest the time to put their heads together. In my experience the ensuing discussion that should take place needs to address a number of specific topics...

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