Succession planning for in-house lawyers

Within any team or organisation, there are particular roles that are business-critical.

They’re not always only senior roles, although senior roles are likely to be business-critical.

If the person carrying out one of these roles leaves the organisation or is absent or no longer around, how will the organisation cope?

The post-holder is likely to have a particular mix of experience, expertise and skills that the organisation relies on and if that person leaves or is absent for a period, this will have a material, detrimental impact. The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development has defined succession planning as focusing on identifying and growing talent to fill business critical positions in the future.

It’s very difficult to find a successor for a key role from scratch. The fact of the person not being there may prompt a reconsideration of the role to look at whether, for example, it could be done in another way in the light of business changes. Or you may decide that you want to recruit externally to bring in fresh ideas or perspective.

The point is that you don’t want to be doing this on the back foot, reacting to events. It’s better to have a longer-term strategy with a plan for carrying out these business-critical roles. This is where succession planning comes in.

Succession planning and leadership development

There are similarities in that many organisations will have programmes to identify and develop future leaders. This means that there is likely to be a good deal of overlap between the two as many key roles will be senior ones. However, even where there is no programme of this type, there is still a need for good succession planning and development.

Succession and replacement

There’s also a distinction to be drawn between replacement and succession in that replacement is concerned with identifying those who could replace the people carrying out key roles whereas succession is concerned with not only identifying successors but also with developing them so that they have the skills to carry out those roles, as and when the need arises.

Three stages of succession planning

Stage 1 - Preparation


  • Which roles are the most critical such that the legal service will be undermined if the roles are not carried out effectively and efficiently?
  • What are the skills, experience and qualities needed to carry out them out? For example, do the post-holders need particular legal and business experience and client skills?
  • What does high-level performance look like in these roles? What are the clients’ needs and expectations and what are the key competencies that you need lawyers in these roles to display? For example, you’re likely to want excellent legal skills and industry knowledge; client focus and a global perspective; flexibility and adaptability, good communication skills and a results orientation; an ability to plan and think strategically, build trust, collaborate and develop others.
  • Are there any business or industry changes that will affect how the role will need to be carried out in the future? Will the post-holder need a different skill-set than currently?
  • What are your options for succession in different scenarios? While you will want to build in some short-term replacement options, the aim is to think about longer term succession.
  • Will all key positions be filled internally or should there be a mix of home-grown and external successors? Are there roles where you feel that specialist external experience is likely to be beneficial or where a fresh perspective is needed?
  • How will you communicate with high-potential successors? What level of transparency will there be?   

Stage 2 – Identifying potential successors

You will need to identify the individuals before implementing developmental plans. You could use a succession planning grid that measures potential and performance to help with this process. You may be using something similar across the whole team for performance management but, in this context, you’re interested in those who you’re targeting for ‘accelerated’ development. A typical nine box grid would be:

High Potential/Low Performance

High Potential/Medium Performance

High Potential/High Performance

Medium Potential/Low Performance

Medium Potential/Medium Performance

Medium Potential/High Performance

Low Potential/Low Performance

Low Potential/Medium Performance

Low Potential/High Performance

Clearly, you’ll focus on colleagues in the top right box. That’s not to say that others, such as those in the top three boxes or the centre right box are not capable of becoming successors, but they will all need additional development to get there over time.

It’s important not to be choosing successors in isolation. This won’t happen if you’re plugging into an existing future leaders type programme. Otherwise, you’ll want to enlist support from your line manager and senior management generally. This will help you clarify performance standards and also provide you with valuable, objective feedback, on performance and potential.

Stage 3 – Developing successors

You need to equip the successors with the skills to carry out the key roles you’ve identified. This means agreeing a development plan with them. This is likely to comprise a mix of experiential on-the-job training together with classroom teaching, personality tools and assessments, ‘softer’ skills training, plus mentoring and coaching support.

For key roles within a legal team, your development ‘programme’ should have senior management involvement, not least to ensure that it meets the needs and demands of the business both now and in the future. You won’t want to be developing leaders for a role or business environment that is becoming less relevant.

The Manager’s Role in Succession

Good succession and leadership development are not just the responsibility of the HR department. Line managers and team leaders should play a vital role.

Firstly, managers should be leaders themselves and, as such, they are committed to developing their team members.

Secondly, development training should have an important experiential element (on-the-job) requiring the line manager to be closely involved in helping provide opportunities that stretch the potential successor. For example, by ensuring that potential successors get a range of assignments and experience across the team and the organisation.

Thirdly, managers are ideally placed to give developmental feedback and it’s something that they need to do well. Finally, managers should be accountable for the development of their team as part of their own performance criteria.


It’s important that succession planning and development is not something that’s considered only occasionally. Rather, they should be part of annual business planning as they are integral to both business continuity and responding to business changes and challenges.

Typical actions will include an annual review of key roles, people and succession planning by the CEO and their reports and by each business function, including looking at where changes in the business environment are likely to arise; an annual review of organisational leaders, possibly including assessment tools; and reviewing and adapting development plans and programmes to make sure that they remain relevant.

Succession in flat management teams

Many in-house legal teams now have flatter management structures meaning that there may be fewer key management roles to plan for succession. This does not mean that it is only management roles that are critical as this might also apply to a subject matter expert not managing others where the succession plan includes making that lawyer’s knowledge accessible to others.

For management roles, the fact that you have few of them emphasises the need to make sure that you have a robust succession plan. If lawyer X leaves or is absent for a period, how will you replace them whilst maintaining the level of service that your clients expect? Managers have no need to apologise for developing their successors but they may need to be resilient and diplomatic if clients’ query why their ‘go to’ lawyer in the team is unavailable because they’re working on other (more critical) matters and you are developing another lawyer to take over some of their workload.

Succession Planning in Smaller Teams

If your organisation does not have an established succession and leadership development programme, does this mitigate against effective succession planning? It certainly means that you may need to adopt a more bespoke process. You’re likely to have fewer resources to devote to the process and there may be fewer people with the necessary skills and experience to support it. There may also be some resistance from existing post-holders who may feel threatened by the process.

On the other hand, it may be easier to adopt personal development plans rather than using generic plans. Remember also that developing successors is not just about training programmes that take people away from their day job - an important component is the development of legal and other skills through dealing with real workplace issues and problems.

The importance of good recruitment

Good succession planning is underpinned by good recruitment. Your recruitment processes should help you identify not just the best person for the role in question but also highlight their potential as a future leader in the team. This means recruiting people with not only good legal skills but with a learning mindset and the flexibility to adapt.


“How to successfully succeed at succession planning” – HR Director September 2018

“Developing Leadership Talent” – Society of Human Resources Management 2007

Russell Reynolds Associates Leadership Competencies 2005