Prepare to Communicate More Law Firm Leadership Transitions
August 23, 2023
Mastering the Art of Messaging During Leadership Changes in Law Firms
In an article published by the New York Law Journal, communication experts Jamie Diaferia and Andrew Longstreth delve into the complexities surrounding leadership transitions in major law firms. As the frequency of such transitions increases, the need for a comprehensive and well-executed communication strategy becomes imperative. Drawing on data, case studies and best practices, they explore how law firms can mitigate potential pitfalls while seizing opportunities to reinvigorate their brand and engage with key stakeholders. Read on to discover effective communication tactics that inspire trust, showcase a firm’s values and set the course for future growth.
Prepare to Communicate More Law Firm Leadership Transitions
Since the pandemic, turnover in the leadership ranks of major law firms has been increasing. Transitions can cause anxiety and uncertainty—especially if firms don’t have a clear and consistent messaging. With a good plan, however, firms can use transitions as a way to re-tell their story.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown of managing partner in 2023. From firm financial performance to talent wars to geopolitical risks to broad cultural and technological shifts, their list of things to worry about has never been longer and seems to grow daily.
It’s no wonder some are predicting that the average tenure of a big law firm leader is bound to get shorter. As Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison chairman Brad Karp put it recently, “The burnout risk is too great and the pressures too significant.”
In the last few years, we’ve seen a slew of long-serving and highly successful law firm leaders step aside, allowing a new generation of leaders to emerge. In 2020, more than one-third of Am Law 200 leaders had been in their job for less than three years, according to research from Marcie Borgal Shunk of The Tilt Institute. It’s likely that pool of relatively inexperienced leaders will grow in the coming years.
As leadership transitions occur more frequently, the chance for communication missteps increases. Even under the best of circumstances, leadership transitions can cause anxiety and instability. Lawyers generally crave stability. That’s especially true at Am Law 200 firms, where partners have become accustomed to growing revenues and profits over decades.
In the current environment where lateral partners are more mobile and less loyal than ever to their firms, new leaders must inspire confidence in their colleagues. If they don’t, lawyers will bolt. Research has shown that the number one reason partners leave their firms is not over money but over lack of confidence in their firms’ leaders.
Leadership transitions, of course, don’t just carry downsides. They can also be a valuable opportunity for law firms, offering a rare chance to refresh a firm’s story—to honor its past and lay out a vision for the future. If it’s told well, that story can re-energize the firm and offer clients, prospects and talent reasons to take another look. A comprehensive communication plan is critical to making that happen.
What’s the Story?
Every new leader needs a story that addresses why they are the right person for the job, beyond merely that they were elected to the position. The answers will form the underlying messages needed to address a firm’s key constituencies.
A good place to start is connecting the new leader to the firm’s culture. How does this leader embody the values that support that culture? Are there anecdotes to share? Establishing a leader’s commitment to upholding a firm’s values can help bridge divides and demonstrate continuity that can reassure valued talent.
It’s also important to consider the leader’s accomplishments, skillset and inherent qualities that will help the firm navigate tomorrow’s challenges. Perhaps it’s management experience, such as serving on the firm’s executive committee or leading the transition team during a recent merger. Or maybe it’s intangible strengths that you need to drill down to define. In the last few years, we’ve seen many firms appoint younger, more diverse leaders. Those traits can benefit a firm, but it’s important to draw out why.
Other crucial questions: What will be the new leader’s signature priorities? What will be different from the previous management—is the new leader advancing the firm or staying the course? How do these priorities tie into the firm’s overall goals?
Any kind of organizational change will prompt anxiety, so it’s important that new leaders lay out their vision as soon as possible to explain how they plan to move the firm forward and the context for why it’s the logical next step. Because consensus is so crucial at law firms, it’s also important to stress the support these priorities have internally and who was involved in helping to establish them.
Who Needs to Hear the Story?
A comprehensive communication plan should detail all the key internal and external stakeholders that need to know about a leadership transition. Those will include partners, lawyers, staff, clients and the media.
And it should prioritize who needs to hear it first. At the top of that list should be the firm’s partnership followed by other lawyers and staff. Within those groups, firms may need to devote special attention to certain individuals who, for whatever reason, may not have supported the elevation of the new leader or may be personally impacted by the transition and who are valued contributors. We’ve seen firms overlook this step, leading to an unforced error that can create headaches and bruised egos at best and lost talent at worst.
Highly valued clients also need to be prioritized. As we stated above, leadership transitions are opportunities to re-sell the firm. They can also be opportunities to strengthen client relations and perhaps even expand them.
How Are We Going to Tell the Story?
In addition to segmenting audiences, it’s also important to carefully choose the forum to communicate. Every audience will require different levels of detail and intimacy. Internal audiences, for example, may not just require a written announcement and an FAQ but also a town hall forum to ask questions. A new leader may also need to set up a series of smaller meetings to talk through any potential concerns.
The communication plan should also consider the strengths of the new leader’s communication skills and background. It may make sense, for example, to feature a new leader on video or a podcast that can be shared internally or externally. These efforts can help establish the leader’s brand and further cement their credentials for the job in a controlled setting.
Typically, new law firm leaders are appointed to their positions months or even a year before assuming the job. During that time, it’s important they receive media training and a plan for introducing them to the reporters. Having informal conversations with journalists can pay long-term dividends in establishing the new leader’s vision and passions. It also readies them for the media in the short term when they officially begin their leadership term.
When Does the Story Get Told?
Bearing in mind that leadership transitions don’t happen overnight and typically involve a vetting and election process, internal announcement and transition period, firms must decide when to communicate a leadership succession to external audiences.
While not always the case, it is typically beneficial and practical to make the announcement twice: first, upon election of the new leader and again once the transition has been made. Making the announcement shortly after the election helps a firm control the narrative and ensure the news doesn’t leak, catching a firm flat-footed and forcing them to reactively communicate the transition to key constituents and the media. It also gives firms two bites at the apple when it comes to generating positive media coverage.
For example, when making the first announcement, a firm can pay tribute to the outgoing leader and speak to the strengths of the incoming leader. As the official transition day approaches, firms can seek additional coverage for the new leader and the vision that he or she has worked to crystallize during the transition period.
Values to Guide Communication Plans
Every communication plan will be different, but they should all share a few key values. The first is proactive transparency, which is foundational to creating trust with key audiences. That means regular updates about what changes to expect and when. The second is empathy. Change is rarely easy. Communication around transitions should reflect that. The third is inclusivity to ensure everyone feels invested. And lastly, even though messages for different audiences will vary, they should all be consistent. New managing partners have enough to worry about. Communication missteps shouldn’t be one of them.
Reprinted with permission from the August 22 issue of The New York Law Journal. © 2023 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.