Retirement is all about readiness, and the last few years made seasoned attorneys reexamine their retirement plans. In fact, one-third of retirement-age attorneys in the 2021 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession said the pandemic changed their future plans with 53% delaying the change and 47% embracing it. Yet no matter where you as General Counsel fall on that spectrum, it’s never too early to start thinking about succession planning.
Earlier this year, we held a General Counsel roundtable to discuss that very topic and walked away with incredible insights from those who have already made the transition. With that in mind, here’s the first step to consider in the General Counsel succession planning process: coordinating with the C-Suite.
Determine the Timing
Modern corporations increasingly rely upon General Counsel and Chief Legal Officers to provide legal insights into strategic development, legal governance, regulatory compliance, litigation case management, business ethics, and other crucial areas. Any gap in this role could prove harmful to an organization. So, it’s important to alert the C-Suite and/or Board of Directors to your planned transition as early as possible.
When should you start the planning? The Deloitte General Counsel Transition Lab suggests in-house leaders at least map out their next six months in detail to ensure that no step is overlooked. However, we’ve heard General Counsel say they have started a conversation with the C-Suite or Board as early as 18 months in advance of the desired date. If you are in a law firm, review any partnership agreements before you begin the process.
Herman Fala, retired General Counsel in the real estate development industry, said this about his own retirement:
“After four to four-and-a-half years working with the chief executive officer and the board of trustees, I raised the idea that I might want to scale down my position. We talked about what kind of person ought to be the successor, and there was thought that it should be an outside securities lawyer for a public company. The conclusion in the C-Suite [was that] we’d be better to have somebody that really understands the business of real estate ownership, development, acquisition, and disposition. We started looking at one of our own people […] who were involved in the corporate compliance and security aspects. One of them was very talented, quite young but mature for his age and had a lot of potential, [and] we decided to promote that individual to Deputy General Counsel. For a period of one year, he and I were basically co-General Counsel.”
Define Job Requirements
It’s a good idea to work alongside the C-Suite to define the job requirements for the future of the position, integrating your unique perspective and the planned trajectory of the business. Remember, your own top skills and expertise might not be the requisite practice area specialties or interpersonal skills that will enable a successor in the General Counsel role to thrive.
Michael Helmsley, retired General Counsel in the healthcare industry, said this about changing expectations and requirements as a new generation of leaders took charge:
“Organizationally, [the next generation of executives] wanted to increase diversity, and the focus of my [work] shifted from what was typical of a GC to dealing more with problems and doing firefighting. So, the value equation changed.”
From ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) to DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and cybersecurity policies to legal automation, there’s a wealth of new considerations which General Counsel of yesteryear were not evaluated upon. However, there are some practice areas and skill sets that never go out of style and you can spot those from first-hand experience. Your job is to find someone who can bridge the past with the future, using your industry knowledge and the C-Suite’s vision to find talent that fits.
Stay Firm About Your Departure
If the board is dithering on a decision for a replacement and/or are not supporting your mutually-chosen candidate to excel in a timely transition, do not delay beyond your reasonably set retirement. Retired GCs emphasize the importance of staying firm on your departure dates. You can work as a consultant to allow for some continuity, but you should expect executives to meet you halfway.
Keeping your succession plan front of mind for the executive team can often fall in your court. By regularly discussing challenges and benchmarks in the process during reports or executives’ meetings, you prevent the process from being overbearing or falling off the collective radar. Leading the C-Suite in this process ensures you are leaving on a good note as well as retaining important connections in your network.
Remember, if they need you in the future, you can always do temporary legal work to help the C-Suite resolve any issues that might require your expertise.
Want to hear other insights from retired GCs who have already made their transition retiring from attorney work? Check out our roundtable for more perspectives from seasoned industry leaders on how to craft a successful General Counsel retirement plan.