Your Secret Weapon in the Talent War: Succession Planning

The legal market continues to be highly active in 2022. As the fight to attract and retain top-level talent rages on, organizations are looking for ways to distinguish themselves to candidates and retain current high-performing employees.

While this has increased pressure on compensation ranges, money alone often will not drive a candidate’s interest in a position. Instead, high-performing candidates are driven by growth opportunities — positions that will help them achieve their long-term goals. One way to provide candidates with the opportunities they seek, while also addressing talent retention and risk mitigation, is to employ robust and thoughtful succession planning.

The benefits are manifold. Succession planning:

  • Mitigates risks posed by unanticipated gaps in legal coverage
  • Increases engagement and retention in the legal department
  • Attracts top-level talent during the hiring process

Risk Mitigation

In the legal department, succession planning is not often seen as a top priority, given the number of urgent issues the team needs to address with their limited budget. However, a well-thought-out succession plan can improve the efficiency of the legal department and their partnership with the business.

To be an effective business partner, legal must understand the short- and long-term needs of the company, including what legal skills will be necessary to support its plans for growth and expansion. The succession planning process includes a thorough evaluation of the business’s needs and the existing legal department, which identifies potential areas of exposure and gaps in coverage. Addressing these gaps helps to improve alignment and plan for the future, reducing the potential for risk.

Succession planning also identifies emerging high-potential leaders within the organization who can step in to cover for an immediate supervisor in the event of an unanticipated departure or leave of absence. This provides stability and continuity in legal operations from an insider with direct knowledge of the business. In short, succession planning protects organizations from disruptions, particularly in an active hiring market that may lead to unexpected attrition. 

Real World Example

The General Counsel of a publicly traded multinational manufacturing company was preparing to retire but had no potential internal successor. Headquartered in a rural midwestern area, the internal hiring process identified a local candidate that the board rejected as “not GC ready.”

By marketing the position as a successor to the General Counsel and working with the senior Leadership Team and the Board of Directors, DHR conducted a national search and identified a slate of seasoned attorneys with strong leadership and business acumen resulting in the selection of a Board- and C-Suite-approved Assistant General Counsel.

After an 18-month transition period partnering closely with the incumbent, the placement was seamlessly promoted to the General Counsel position.

Employee Retention

In this highly active market, engagement and development are critically important to keeping top-level talent. This is particularly true with respect to high-performing candidates who are looking for leadership opportunities. In April 2022, we conducted a pulse survey to gauge what percentage of the legal market was actively considering leaving their current position, and which factors were weighing most heavily in these decisions. Half of respondents reported that they were unlikely to move in the next 6–12 months. The top three factors keeping them in place were:

  • Fair compensation
  • Opportunities for advancement
  • Involvement in strategic business decisions

Candidates who see no path to leadership in their current positions are more likely to be actively pursuing or receptive to recruitment for other opportunities. A well-developed and articulated succession plan provides emerging leaders with a defined career path to leadership positions within their current organization. It also signals to the legal department that the company is invested in their growth and development and will provide the training and exposure necessary to prepare them for advancement.  

Attracting Talent

In an active market with an abundance of opportunities, candidates can be selective about which opportunities they pursue. When a company is hiring into their legal department, whether for a newly-created position or to backfill an existing position, the focus is on the immediate need for coverage. However, if the position isn’t at the General Counsel or Chief Legal Officer level, candidates will be curious about the growth opportunities the position will provide.

While meeting the requirements for the immediate need is paramount, a company that has the foresight to address development beyond the immediate opening will increase the attractiveness of the position in the market, particularly for top-level talent. A succession plan can create a more detailed and tangible context for conversations about career progression within an organization, while demonstrating that the company values the legal function and is invested in the professional well-being of its members.  For candidates, this can be a clear indication that legal is an integrated partner to the business side.

Real World Example

A Fortune 100 company with an expansive legal department has developed internal guidelines and accountability metrics to promote representation of diverse populations across the organization, including within the legal department.

Internal compensation benchmarking is slightly depressed compared to the market, creating additional challenges in the hiring process during an active market.

Leveraging the company’s well-developed succession plan, which articulates development and advancement opportunities across all levels of the legal department, DHR built robust candidate pipelines and placed top-level diverse talent in emerging leader positions.

Planning for Success

In an active market, companies must adopt effective strategies to stand out from the competition and attract top-level talent. To candidates, a succession plan is what differentiates serious organizations with long-term plans and opportunities for advancement from companies without a clear direction or room to grow.

Creating a well-thought-out plan for succession helps to align the legal and business sides of a company and prepare for inevitable problems, reducing risk and creating stability. In the event of attrition, having a leader ready to quickly step into a new position leads to seamless continuity of operations. High-performing candidates know they are in demand, and if they do not feel properly valued or see opportunities for growth and development in their current positions, they will be ripe for recruitment by another company. Providing a tangible plan for advancement not only helps retain top-level talent, but also makes an organization look attractive to new talent, which is essential for thriving in this market.

Meet the Authors

Maryanne Wanca-Thibault, Ph.D.


Maryanne has more than 30 years of experience as a Consultant and Advisor in the areas of leadership assessment, organizational development and executive coaching.

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