Pass on your expertise

Professionalism in succession planning

Professionalism on Point

Stephanie Villinski

Stephanie Villinski is the deputy director at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. She helps to execute operations and programs within the commission through technology and project management. She also contributes to the commission’s mentoring, education and law school programs.

October 2019

A quote associated with both Abraham Lincoln and Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” It’s significance for the legal profession hit me at the recent 45th ABA National Conference on Professional Responsibility in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In a session titled “How Lawyers Will Practice in the Future,” a panel of four millennials encouraged conference attendees to “share your knowledge.” At first, it struck me as ironic. This panel of young attorneys — from what Time magazine has labeled the “Me Me Me Generation” — was shining a light on the potential detriments of a lack of cross-generational collaboration in law. Putting stereotypes aside, I couldn’t ignore the wisdom of this succession-planning discussion.

I’ve seen it too many times in my legal career. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big or small firm; a government or legal aid organization; the patterns are similar. Many of the organization’s top leaders don’t pass on their knowledge, relationships and skills to the next generation of leaders.

Too often, a leader’s institutional knowledge is lost when they retire, leaving everyone else to “reinvent the wheel.” They fail to pass the torch and thus can inadvertently extinguish the flame. Talk about inefficient.

Data from a recent article shows more than half of a firm’s revenue is generated from clients whose relationships are managed or controlled by partners who are at least 60 years old.

The impact of this is as big as you might think. Research in the same article demonstrated that when clients are served by a single partner, 72% would consider moving their business to a competitor if that partner leaves the firm. In sharp contrast, only 10% of clients who are served by multiple partners would consider a similar move.

This isn’t only an economic issue, it’s also a professionalism issue. Without proper succession planning, the potential negative impact on your clients increases.

Rule 1.3 of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct requires that a lawyer act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client. Part of this diligence includes making sure that client matters can be addressed by another competent lawyer should you no longer be able to provide representation.

Succession planning shows clients that your relationship is a priority. Their needs aren’t only being met now, but you’re also taking steps to ensure they will be met in the future.

To ensure proper succession planning is in place, legal professionals need to be open to new ways of doing things. But, as most of us know, lawyers are commonly risk averse. We like things the way they are.

To add to that, it can be difficult for established leaders to make space for new ones. We all have a natural fear of being replaced. More seasoned lawyers may object to younger attorneys being “handed” their hard-earned clients. These emotions can make the transition into a new career or retirement a bit rocky.

It’s important for people to feel like their contributions and hard work matter. However, it’s possible to build on these valuable contributions while fostering future leaders. The Society for Human Resource Management recommends that giving bright prospects places to go, learn and advance within the organization will make it stronger for generations to come.

One way to do this is to make knowledge transfer part of everyday work. Management expert and Harvard Business School professor Dorothy Leonard stresses the need for leaders to share their “deep smarts” through mentoring.

The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism is committed to mentoring as a way to increase professionalism and enable knowledge-sharing in the legal profession. That’s why the commission created the lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring program in 2011 per Supreme Court Rule 795(d)(11). The program pairs new lawyers with experienced attorneys, who offer professional guidance and share their judgment and skills.

Mentoring pairs meet at least eight times a year to focus on professionalism, legal ethics, civility, diversity and inclusion and mental health and substance abuse. In 2018, 797 lawyers from 51 Illinois cities and eight states participated in the program; 98% of these lawyers said they would recommend the program to other lawyers.

The issue of succession planning isn’t going anywhere. It’s estimated that by next year, 31 million jobs will become available as baby boomers retire and another 24 million new jobs will be created. Like it or not, it’s time to bring millennials (and soon Generation Z) along with us.

To find out more about how the commission’s mentoring program can aid in succession planning and beyond, check out