Confronting the Great Resignation: Best Practices in Succession Planning for Law Firm Information Services Departments

Colleen Cable | December 14, 2021

What started as a series of anecdotal coincidences at companies over the past year has now turned into a clearly documented phenomenon. The “Great Resignation” period is underway.

Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index reports that 41% of the U.S. workforce is considering leaving their current employer this year and U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that a record 4 million people quit their jobs in April 2021, kicking off an unprecedented era of workforce disruption.

The legal industry is experiencing the Great Resignation phenomenon first-hand. Lateral moves among law firm partners have been commonplace, and some staff departments, like marketing, have traditionally experienced high turnover, but what we’re seeing this year is unusually high turnover reported by law firms in every area, including in the library. Indeed, 18% of all respondents to HBR Consulting’s 2021 Benchmarking + Legal Information Services Survey (BLISS), anticipate a retirement or departure among department leadership within the next three years. That number jumps to 23% among Am Law 50 firms. There hasn’t been a time in my recent memory where up to a quarter of respondents expect department leadership to depart or retire.

While there are multiple drivers of this workforce disruption that law firms may be able to address—such as allowing remote working arrangements or flexible schedules—there are many that are not and cannot be remedied by the firm. This might include a reconsideration of life priorities, a desire to pursue a lifelong dream, such as writing a book or starting a business, or a desire to live closer to family. The common thread is that all firms are at risk of having a key staff member hand in one of those dreaded letters at any moment.

Although some BLISS respondents report taking proactive steps to manage this talent attrition challenge head-on by putting in place specific plans for the succession of key team members, many have not. In addition to asking about planned departures, BLISS also asked about contingency planning for unexpected departures, which may be more common due to the Great Resignation than ever before. Surprisingly, only 42% responded that they had engaged in this type of planning. At this point, succession and contingency planning is not an optional exercise, it is an inevitable reality—and for many of us, it will be needed sooner than we might think.

I had the privilege of moderating a session on this topic during HBR Consulting’s 2021 LINKS (Legal Information + Knowledge Services) Conference. Our expert speakers were Perkins Coie’s Jennifer Bluestein, chief talent + human resources officer, and her colleague Jessica King, director of library services. Here are some best practices for succession planning in law firm information services departments that were shared during the session, based on Gallagher Consulting’s 10-step succession planning model:

  • Set clear department goals. Think about where you are going and what your goals are for the department. What are the roles that you anticipate needing to fill? Be ready to have frank conversations with employees—and with yourself—about career plans and time horizons at the firm.
  • Define roles and engage colleagues. Determine which specific individuals need to be part of the succession planning process, regardless of their levels of seniority or specific job function. Then prepare what types of conversations you want to have with those employees and how you want to frame the conversations.
  • Offer rewards for developing others. Make sure that your professional development plans for each team member include specific benchmarks for them to help develop other employees’ skills to obtain performance rewards. These incentives keep everyone invested in the department’s success.
  • Evaluate talent and identify possible exit events. Use your workforce planning and talent evaluation processes to execute a comprehensive assessment of each employee’s role in the department. This will help you identify special points of vulnerability so you can prioritize succession plans in those key areas. Once it is time to enter succession planning conversations with department employees, address the “elephant in the room” with potential trigger events that might require a succession, such as a winning lottery ticket or a sudden accident. Your purpose is to simply prepare and protect the firm in the event of a staff departure.

In the end, the most important practice is a commitment to communication with your team members. The best way to ensure a lot of attrition and more than your share of the Great Resignation is to avoid talking about succession plans and just hope for the best. But if you want to build trust in and do the right thing for your department, communicate with your employees openly, honestly, and frequently.

For more information about the LINKS Conference or how HBR can help with your staffing assessments, please contact me or one of my colleagues.