Recently, I assisted a law firm in beginning a leadership
transition process. The firm consisted of one founder, additional
lawyers, three offices, professional support staff and secretarial
support staff. In a small firm, such as this one, leadership
transition often means an ownership transition too. When an
ownership transition changes the balance of power from vesting
fully in one or two founders to others, the firm's identity is put
into flux. When identity changes, changes in responsibilities for
making the business model continue to function effectively usually
As a law firm owner, be aware of what you want
Changes in identity and decision-making authority for any
organization force the currently empowered owner or leaders to
consider their personal vision for success and goals. This means
first asking a very personal question: What do I want?
Seven months before the firm's annual retreat, the founder and I
first discussed a leadership transition. Between then and October
2013, the founder, after conversations with his spouse, expressed
the desire to transition ownership within the next three to five
years. Identifying this SMART goal was an important first step.
SMART goals are Specific (ownership transition), Measureable (owner
to non-owner), Actionable (possible to identify action steps to
reach the goal), Relevant (to vision of a successful and happy
future with spouse and no management responsibilities for a
business), and Time Bound (three to five years).
During the next six months, he began thinking about what that
really meant. He was forced to consider the control he was willing
to give up. The firm's name might change. New owners might manage
the firm differently or might even change the firm's vision and
strategy. Perhaps they would decide to aim for a different target
market. Perhaps they saw the firm's value differently. Although he
wanted to transition ownership, it also was possible that none of
the six possible attorneys, identified as possible new owners,
would be interested in the responsibilities that are tied to
When a business is generating adequate revenue and not facing any
significant changes, lawyers rarely think about what they want from
their business. When faced with a "felt need" for a change or an
impending change, they are forced to address the question.
Regardless of whether you know or not, your state of mind will
affect what you are willing to do. When you do not know what you
want, you avoid making intentional decisions about what to do and
tend to do what is easiest or what holds your attention at any
Face your fears and create an action plan
It was decided that the annual retreat would be used to test the
possibility of an ownership transition. This meant facing a nearly
unspoken fear and finding out whether any of the six attorneys
would be interested in taking ownership of the firm. If the answer
was "yes," the rest of the time at the retreat could be used to
begin an ownership and leadership transition process. In this case,
all six attorneys expressed an interest in ownership. Had they not
been interested, this would have been critical data about the
available opportunities for purposes of attaining the founder's
vision and goals for his happy and successful future.
Ownership and leadership transitions raise strategy issues
The following strategy-related issues are common in any ownership
or leadership transition:
- Do the attorneys to whom ownership and leadership is to be
transferred have the requisite skills to be effective? If not, what
skills are missing and what is the plan to develop their
- What is the current organizational business model and strategy?
Who is responsible for doing what to bring in business, do the work
and collect revenue for delivering the work?
- What do the incoming owners and leaders want for the future
business model and strategy?
- How will you create a shared understanding and language about
the business model for the current and future owners so that
coordination of efforts necessary for the transition of roles and
responsibilities becomes possible?
Create a shared understanding of and language for discussing
In the capacity of law firm consultant and retreat designer and
facilitator, I was able to introduce a three-pronged "Open System
Business Model" to explain the law firm dynamics, roles and
responsibilities. (See Diagrams 1 and 2) The intention was to get
the attorneys thinking about what roles and responsibilities,
beyond doing good legal work, are necessary to generate clients and
revenue in any law firm. This is a significant difference in
thinking between partners and associates or owners and employees of
After hearing an explanation of how law firms generate clients and
revenue and seeing the business model, they examined the actual
data collected on the current state of the marketing and sales
roles and responsibilities in the law firm. Review and discussion
of the data identified two significant gaps in the marketing and
sales activities. The first gap was a complete absence of any
attorneys publishing to build lawyer reputation. The second was a
weakness in developing and adjusting marketing messages to sell
individual lawyers and the firm. This "reveal" was the first step
in beginning to answer whether the attorneys had adequate skills
and how efforts could be coordinated for the business model to be
Make immediate process changes that will drive information
sharing, skill development and future behaviors needed to support
the business model
Once the group shared a language and understanding of the business
model, they could discuss new behaviors to support the
effectiveness of the business model. Academic and anecdotal
research has repeatedly demonstrated that the best way to learn how
to lead and develop marketing and sales skills is by leading and
engaging in marketing and sales activities with specific goals.
Leading and engaging in marketing and sales activities in small
groups is the ideal process design for the shared goals of learning
the skills and achieving sales goals.
Five separate marketing and sales teams were formed after
identifying key clients and potential clients, discussing the best
opportunities and deciding on the top five opportunities. Each team
identified a team leader. I provided a list of team leadership
responsibilities and team marketing and sales tasks. This small
change also planted the idea that there will be a need for or an
Organization redesign: What is it and why does it matter?
As mentioned in the introduction, an ownership transition often
changes the balance of power, puts the firm's identity in flux, and
changes roles and responsibilities for making the business model
effective. It changes the organization dynamics. Organization
dynamics refers to the interaction of strategy, structures,
processes and resource allocation.
When we talk about organization dynamics, we are talking about how
the different parts of the organization interact to drive the
organization's revenue generation strategy. Important questions to
- Are the revenue generation centers supposed to be individual
attorneys or groups of attorneys? Once centers are identified, what
is the strategic action plan that is intended to enable the centers
to reach their revenue targets?
- Which of the organization's structures ensure that the right
people are interacting as needed to reach assigned targets for:
revenue generation, work production and revenue collection? Which
structures impede such behavior? "Structures" refers to the formal
and informal groupings of people.
- Which processes are supporting the skills and best practices
necessary to reach those targets? Which processes are obstacles?
The term "processes" refers to the Open System Business Model
processes for generating requests for legal work, creating the
legal work and delivering work and collecting fees.
- Are resources being allocated as needed to support revenue
generation strategic plans?
In closing, prepare for an ownership or leadership transition and
increase your success. It's that simple.
Susan Letterman White, JD, MS (Organization Development)
is a consultant, trainer, coach and retreat facilitator for
professional service providers. She designs and delivers data-based
culture change solutions for leadership development, improved
work-flow, diversity and inclusion, and business development. Susan
is the immediate past chair of the ABA Women Rainmakers
(2011-2013), was an employment law litigator and trusted advisor to
her clients for more than 20 years and a law firm managing partner
before she was awarded her M.S. degree with Academic Distinction in
2008. She is also an adjunct professor at Northeastern University.