The king is dead

March 20, 2014

What do you do when your firm’s leadership changes?

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Law firms are people businesses. Personalities matter and especially when it comes to the bigwigs. Law firm leaders shape a firm’s culture, not only driving the dull but critical stuff like organisational structure and processes, but breathing life into the very atmosphere itself: collegiate or competitive, sympathetic or cut-throat – you can blame your top team.

When that leadership changes, the ramifications are huge. Lawyers rising the ranks will at the very least face a period of some internal uncertainty – made worse by rampant speculation if the departure is sudden. Why have they really left? What’s the firm trying to hide? Is this another Dewey in the making (the press just love dropping the Dewey-bomb)?

Most recently, it was the leadership shake-up at DLA Piper that got the trade press clacking. With co-CEO Nigel Knowles poised to replace Tony Angel as global co-chairman in January 2015, journalists have jumped to read between the lines. Fuelled by the reported surprise among some partners that Angel is leaving so early, they are burning with questions. Why only one term? Was there a Knowles-Angel personality clash? Is this a sign that DLA Piper is finally struggling to manage its vast empire? Oh, how the press want that story.

The fact that Angel’s appointment was only ever meant to be for a fixed term is beside the point. That he might just have had enough of law firm management – most think this will be his last stint in such a role – makes for pretty dull reading. Problem is that reporters competing to find the scoop can only increase the tension for those left in the wake of a leader’s exit.

Beyond conjecture there is a far more important point for DLA Piper’s lawyers anyway. The firm has a pretty sound succession plan that has been announced well ahead of time. That’s more than can be said for many other firms, which have precisely no idea of who their future leaders might be. And even if they do, it doesn’t mean they’ll in any way plan for their transition.

So what does this mean if your leader has just announced his or her resignation? How can you deal with the potential turmoil it might cause?

  1. Well, the earlier you consider this possibility the better. Think about the leadership/succession plan before you join a firm. You might like the sound of a firm’s culture and its strategic plan, but how is it planning to take its vision beyond the current leadership, should it change? What succession plan is in place, if any? And how is the firm bringing up its next generation of leadership? If it’s vague on any or all of the above, be concerned.
  2. Even if there is no succession plan, good networking will give you a strong sense of who might be manoeuvring for a place at the top. This will give you invaluable insight into not just how the leadership might change, but what ideas and policies the new person/team will bring to the firm. Law firms are still unique in largely bringing up their leaders from within. Use this to your advantage.
  3. Play the game. Consider which people/teams have and will have the most power in the future running of the firm. Then form alliances. In so doing, don’t assume the firm’s decision drivers are necessarily the same people as the named leadership team. In some firms, the real power lies very firmly behind the throne.
  4. Time your alliances wisely, especially if your firm is prone to faction fighting. Avoid getting on the wrong side of the existing leadership by looking like you’re supporting a coup. Unless, of course, it’s time for a coup.
  5. On the resignation of your leader, don’t pay too much attention to press reports. They’ll be looking for the big story and the juicier the better. Speculation doesn’t make for the truth.
  6. Change can be good. It might just be that a new leadership team will inject the firm with fresh ideas, renewed vitality and better prospects. Embrace the opportunity.
  7. Even if you have misgivings, give any new leader/s your full support. However ‘novel’ their ideas might be, the chances are they will settle down fairly quickly. Law firms are renowned for being slow to change – not for revolution.
  8. If you have joined a small to mid-sized firm, then your firm might be vulnerable to merger (or more accurately acquisition). In this case, your choices are relatively limited. Leadership change is likely and the firm you have known may change fundamentally. The best advice is probably to suck it and see, but be prepared. Take a look at our related piece ‘Merger Most Foul’.

Changes in leadership can be tough. But they are rarely a total surprise. By watching out for the signs, you’ll be better placed to cope with the transition. You may even find it’s a rare opportunity to get noticed, and to drive your career in a new and better direction. CP

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