In our last blog about law department succession planning, we discussed the importance of conducting some soul-searching before taking the plunge into retirement. The ability of General Counsel to recognize the right moment to begin coordinating fixed timelines with the board is the first step to taking your leave of the organization where you’ve made your career home. After choosing when to go, your next step is to position your successor, in-house attorneys, legal support staff, and enterprise for success.
This is crucial because, without proper continuity, many details could go awry. For example, the expeditious departure of Tesla’s short-lived GC, due to a cultural mismatch and the contentious actions of their Chief Executive Officer, created ripple effects long after the departure in 2019. In 2022 alone, a dozen in-house attorneys have left the electric automotive manufacturer, and there is speculation from connected sources that the acting head of legal has departed as well. There is a high chance the exodus is at least partly due to work culture and insufficient direction from an executive office, especially since no GC was chosen as a replacement.
How can General Counsel avoid confusion and support their staff while also making adequate preparations to leave? According to the seasoned General Counsel in our recent roundtable discussion, a few key strategies can simplify the transition.
Provide Maximum Resources
Whether you are a one-person operation or lead a diverse team, you are likely the central repository of all information pertaining to the law department. You synthesize your understanding of business concerns and objectives through your knowledge of legal processes, compliance mandates, practice area needs, and department technology. Though you know all the people, processes, technology, and legal procedures to consider, whoever takes up your mantle, along with any other corporate attorneys and in-house staff, are likely not attuned to thinking holistically about the business using your particular methods.
Thomas Molchan, Esq., a retired General Counsel for both the telecommunications and food and beverage industries, said this about his own documentation during our roundtable:
“As I looked at my day-to-day work, a lot of the processes were ‘Tom Proprietary.’ I knew how to handle these processes, I knew where things went, and I knew who the people were; but on day one, the poor man or woman in Chicago who would be undertaking [my role and she/he] would have a bit of a difficult time. I spent a good deal of effort ensuring the processes were documented or improving processes.”
As Molchan points out, we all have our own signature approach that may not be obvious to outsiders or even people within the law department. As a General Counsel departs, a transition can turn into a brain drain if proper attention is not paid to the creation of thorough memos, documentation, and training materials in addition to direct coaching.
How you format transitional documents depends on the complexity of the information as well as the technology platforms at your disposal. During Molchan’s transition into retirement, he used the robust AI-powered contract management system his parent company had implemented to input the contracts. From there, he spent time indexing and cross-indexing the information in a user-friendly way—rather than his self-described “Tom Codes”—so people could find everything without a hitch.
As Thomas quipped, “It must have worked because I haven’t received a single phone call since I left almost 9 months ago now.” As long as you provide your successor and in-house attorneys with an easy-to-navigate system they can search and cross-reference in a flash, then you can avoid troubleshooting calls too.
Cement Your Legacy and Connections
Though you might want to relinquish the responsibility of a full-time General Counsel role, that might not necessarily mean you want your legal career behind you. You worked hard to build a legacy and contribute to your organization’s ability to flourish in a competitive marketplace. More than ushering in a new regime, your law department succession planning should empower the business and the people in it to thrive.
In some cases, that translates to verifying which projects can and should be completed during what remains of your tenure. If there are complicated or protracted projects that will outlast your transition, you can use these as teaching moments to guide your successor or even augment the knowledge of your extant in-house staff.
Additionally, there are opportunities to provide your direct reports and connections with assistance in pushing forward to their own goals. Michael Helmsley, Esq., retired General Counsel in the healthcare industry, talked about how supporting his people was one of the key parts of his process:
“In my process, aside from giving notice, I made sure that my team and staff were well positioned. I had conversations, even before I gave notice, with my folks to make sure everyone would be as comfortable as possible. These are people I had worked with over the past 20 years. [I conveyed] that they still had positions in the company and were not going to be vulnerable if I retired. If they chose to go elsewhere, I had positions in other law firms or other organizations ready for them. My Deputy GC wasn’t going to stay, and we got him transitioned as a GC in another healthcare system before I left.”
Providing guidance and assistance to your corporate attorneys and legal staff in their future endeavors is fundamental to leaving on a pitch-perfect note. It not only shows you care about their success on top of the work they’ve done, but you can build your reputation with other organizations when you refer exceptional seasoned attorneys.
Plus, if you ever want to return to the workforce, either in a full-time capacity or as a temporary attorney, you have a range of references willing to vouch for your character as well as your legal aptitude and acumen.
Eager to hear the rest of what our retired GC panel had to say about law department succession planning? Check out our roundtable for more perspectives from seasoned industry leaders on how to set up your enterprise and legacy for complete success.