Succession planning in the legal world

When a managing partner steps down, how do law firms select a replacement?
Illustration of an older lawyer rolling out a red carpet

Kimberly Whaley knows what happens when people fail to plan for the future. As the founder of WEL Partners, an estate-litigation boutique in Toronto, she helps families sort through the sensitive affairs of the dead, dying and vulnerable. “If I’ve learned anything in my practice, it’s that people don’t do succession well,” she says. When estate planning is left to the last minute—or neglected entirely—this invariably leads to chaos. Siblings sue one another. Family businesses collapse. “I see it all the time,” she says.

Whaley’s clients have provided her with more than just work. They’ve taught her a valuable lesson about the importance of succession planning in law. After launching WEL Partners, in the early aughts, she worked tirelessly to win clients and turn her small firm into an industry leader. Now in her mid-50s, she’s started to think about how she might scale back her leadership responsibilities in the near future. “I’m excited about seeing the firm continue,” she says. “But there is a certain amount of fear attached to it, too, because it is your reputation that you worked hard for decades to achieve.”

The fact that Whaley is looking ahead sets her apart from many of her peers. Last year, a working group at the Law Society of Ontario issued a report lamenting the lack of succession planning among sole practitioners and small-firm owners. When such lawyers can no longer practise—whether due to death, illness or licence revocation—and there’s no clear successor on record, the Law Society has to appoint a trustee to handle the fallout. Over the past decade, there have been so many instances of inadequate succession planning that the Law Society’s trustee-services division has nearly doubled in size and budget. It now costs close to $2 million per year to run the department. That figure stands to rise as the Baby Boomer generation continues to exit the workforce: in 2020, more than 2,000 of Ontario’s sole practitioners were older than 65, an almost 240-percent increase since 2005.

To respond to this problem, the Law Society’s working group recommended mandating succession planning at all law firms. Implementing such a measure, which is currently under consideration, would follow in the footsteps of Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, both of which already have such policies in place.

Of course, even without a mandate, law firms of all sizes regularly announce new managing partners. Indeed, the legal world is flush with press releases that celebrate these appointments. What’s not well known is how firms decide who to promote. And yet, the selection process matters a great deal. Lawyers need to feel confident that their leaders—who play a central role in everything from partner compensation to long-term strategy—are qualified and have earned the top job fairly. How have law firms sought to meet that challenge?

A few years ago, Lerners LLP, which is home to about 145 lawyers, started to notice how it might improve its management structure. At the time, a four-person executive committee ran the operation. It consisted of the managing partners at the firm’s flagship offices, in Toronto and London, plus another partner from each city. Quite often, the committee got bogged down on operational tasks, such as handling HR issues or overseeing the marketing team. This left little time for strategic planning or to practise law. Meanwhile, no policy set out when a leader had to step down. Partners could serve in management for years without having to declare a date of departure.

After careful consideration, Lerners settled on a number of reforms. First, the firm hired additional management executives, including a chief information officer and a chief marketing officer, to help oversee business operations. And it drew up a plan to replace the executive committee with a single chair and managing partners in Toronto and London. With an expanded C-suite in place, the chair could focus on overall strategy and the managing partners could oversee and support the firm’s lawyers. All three leaders would have the capacity to maintain a legal practice.

Lerners also devised a new method for selecting leaders. Equity partners with an interest in one of the new roles had to notify a three-person nominating and review committee. After assessing the options, the committee would put forward a slate of recommended candidates. The partnership would then have to approve each choice in a secret-ballot vote. To prevent stagnation at the top, Lerners introduced term limits: each leader would serve for four years, with an option to stand for re-election for a second term.

The goal was to have the new structure in place by January 2022. With that in mind, the nominating and review committee endorsed Anne Spafford, who’d become Toronto’s managing partner in 2020, to stay in that role for at least two more years. It put forward Yola Ventresca to take the top job in London. And it proposed that Graham Porter, who previously led the London office and chaired the executive committee, serve as the chair for at least one year. The equity partners ratified each recommendation.

In January 2023, Porter stepped down and Cynthia Kuehl assumed the role of chair. The nominating and review committee had put her forward. “But it wasn’t an anointing,” says Kuehl. She had openly presented her vision to the partnership.And, she points out, another partner could have challenged her candidacy, triggering a competitive election. In the end, that didn’t happen: she ran unopposed, and the partnership approved her appointment.

To Kuehl, term limits are essential. “There’s so much change in the legal profession,” she says. “Your leaders need to change, too, so they bring new ideas.” Her hope is that term limits will provide lawyers from equity-seeking groups with regular opportunities to break into management.

The nominating and review committee is also responsible for identifying and nurturing future leaders—not just chairs and managing partners but also practice-group leaders and committee members. The committee regularly administers a survey to gauge all partners’ interest in leadership. “People sometimes hesitate to put up their hands to say they’re interested, particularly if they’re more junior,” says Jennifer Hunter, a partner and chair of the nominating and review committee. “Just by asking, we are creating more interest.”

Importantly, what works at Lerners may not be the right approach at a smaller operation. Minden Gross LLP, a corporate firm in Toronto with about 65 lawyers, took a less structured approach to its recent change in leadership. A few years ago, the firm’s longtime managing partner, Raymond Slattery, who was in his mid-60s, announced his intentions to step down. He didn’t have to look far to find his successor. Brian Temins had joined the firm in 2007, built a successful mergers-and-acquisitions practice and quickly volunteered for management positions. Before long, Temins was serving alongside Slattery on the firm’s executive and compensation committees. “It was incremental,” says Slattery. “He just started taking on more and more roles.”

Slattery openly vouched for Temins as his replacement. “I worked hard on lobbying everybody to create a situation where it was kind of a fait accompli that this was the right thing for the firm,” says Slattery. Ultimately, the equity partners approved Temins’s promotion with unanimous support. In 2021, he officially became the managing partner.

According to both Slattery and Temins, the process was organic and relatively painless. “It was never my goal to come here and say, ‘I want to be managing partner,’” says Temins. “It was a natural progression.” Slattery remains a partner at Minden Gross, which means Temins can still seek his advice when thorny issues arise.

Temins—who still finds time for his busy practice—says the current generation of managing partners needs to confront tough questions: How often should lawyers have to come into the office? How can firms hang on to clients as senior lawyers retire en masse? How should firms employ artificial intelligence? In a rapidly changing world, he says, leaders have to act wisely: “You don’t want to go all in on a particular AI product and find out that you bought a Betamax.”

Though Temins is excited to steer his firm into the future, not every lawyer is drawn to leadership. After all, he explains, managing partners have to worry about the unglamorous duties of hiring, firing, and reprimanding under-performing partners—all while, in most instances, earning less than the top rainmakers. “A lot of people prefer to focus on the client side as their singular role,” says Temins.

In Whaley’s case, she’d like to cultivate a team of like-minded partners who could support her in management—and, potentially, one day take over the firm entirely. She’ll need people with natural leadership abilities and a knack for big-picture thinking. She’ll also need people who are comfortable with the reality of estate litigation, in which clients often hire a lawyer while dealing with a lot of angst, anxiety and emotion.

Whaley spent the bulk of her career building her firm from nothing, and she’d love to see its legacy continue. “Eventually, I’ll be giving up something that has been in the making for a couple of decades,” she says. “I want to do it right.”

This story is from our Fall 2023 Issue.

Illustration by Melanie Lambrick.