Succession Planning for Professional Services

When a professional is told to think about their succession strategy, it feels like a euphemism for “hurry up and retire”. That’s because we think of succession as an exit, instead of as a growth and sustainment strategy. Technically, succession is the act of inheriting something so our focus on change is accurate. But we are better served to think of succession as a transition, rather than an ending. And we’d do well to consider succession as a five to ten-year process. Here are three ways to do this:

Personal Succession Plan

A personal succession plan identifies, over a period of years, how you will safely transition from what you are doing now to what you want to be doing in the future. Life doesn’t stop after retirement. Most professionals have a list of things they want to accomplish once they’re finished their “nine to five” job. But you can’t suddenly become an author, judge, board member etc. It can take years to position yourself for credibility in those roles. It also takes time to transfer the client base and good will you have in your current role safely over to someone else from your organization. Professionals who don’t know what they want to accomplish in the next stage of their life spend each day like the next. Professionals who know what they want next spend the prior five to ten years of this transfer very differently: with greater focus, purpose and productivity.

Practice Team Succession Strategy

A practice team succession strategy is important for ensuring a steady roster of expertise is available in your organization. Teams are not static: as their members age and grow in experience and expertise, the value proposition of the group similarly shifts. A young professional will be a mid-level professional in five years, and a senior professional in ten. They should be doing very different work at each stage. Groups should ensure that they are not top-heavy, and that there are appropriate people to hand work down to. Chart your team over the coming five or ten years. Will you maintain a range of levels of experience and skill sets? Do you have enough redundancy to survive departures?

Firm Succession Strategy

A firm succession strategy is critical for ensuring a firm can survive and thrive through to the next generation. Too many organizations assume they will always survive, regardless of who is at the helm. But the professional services industry is overly dependent on personal connections. It DOES matter who is offering those services. It also matters that an organization’s professionals are learning their craft, but also learning how to lead, and how to market/develop business. Are you preparing the next generation of leaders, or trusting that they’ll ripen sufficiently on their own? Have you thought about how you will transition older professionals out of the firm – financially as well as in terms of client relationships? Firms should also assess their service areas and predict – over time – potential shifts in the marketplace and their own ability to deliver on those skillsets. You may need to look very different in the next ten years in terms of size, location, leverage (partners to associates), staffing, and even service offerings. How will the firm move from where you are to where you need to be? A strategic plan identifies what you need to do. A succession strategy identifies how will do it.

Succession plans are action plans based on a strategic direction you have decided to take. The strategy is useless without a game plan and commitment to achieve it. Think of succession as your transition strategy from where you are now to where you want to be. This isn’t a call to retire. It’s a call to lead.

About the Author

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coaching for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at