The Golden Rolodex: Stagnation and Succession in Defense Law Firms

What It Takes
The Golden Rolodex: Stagnation and Succession in Defense Law Firms

The world of defense law firms can be a gilded cage. Senior partners, armed with years of experience and a rolodex overflowing with client contacts, reign supreme. But what happens when this system creates a logjam, preventing the transfer of both knowledge and firm business to the next generation?

Senior partners, often the rainmakers of the firm, become entrenched, holding onto clients with an iron grip. This creates a barrier for junior lawyers. While some juniors possess the rare talent for independent client development, most rely on established connections to build their careers. When that doesn’t happen, the future often doesn’t bode well for those juniors at the firm.

 

Stagnation by Seniority
The problem is twofold. Firstly, senior partners, while valuable assets to the firm due to their experience and ability to create a reliable stream of income, may not actively seek new clients. There are many reasons for this, including:

  • They may be content with their existing workload and concordant revenue (Why work harder?);
  • They may lack the energy to cultivate new relationships (They’re just worn out, but can’t yet retire for whatever reason); or
  • This being the most uncomfortable of circumstances, some seniors actually lack the ability to attract new business and were lucky in their own right as juniors to have been at the right place at the right time and inherited someone else’s business.

Secondly, their dominance and refusal to either get out of the way or actively help junior lawyers with their development prevents those juniors from forging strong bonds with existing clients, thus hindering their ability to build their own base and eventually take over. This creates a stagnant environment. The firm becomes reliant on a diminishing pool of senior partners who are doing little if anything about succession, while younger talent struggles to find a foothold.

 

The Myth of the Miracle Worker
Many firms seemingly (and inexplicably) possess the false hope that all junior lawyers can magically somehow develop new clients. This belief isn’t realistic and simply doesn’t hold water. Client relationships are built on trust and experience. That often takes years and years to develop. Moreover, as noted above, while some exceptional juniors possess the natural charisma and acumen to do this on their own, they are the outliers. Juniors just aren’t going to be rainmakers senior leadership prays they will be.

 

The Key to Growth: Scaling Up
Here’s the critical point: The key to growth in a defense firm is scale. Without new clients and files, adding new partners simply creates a scenario where more people are fighting over a fixed pot of revenue. This stifles a lot of things as a result: profitability, compensation, and ultimately morale and motivation. When that happens, the firm’s future is endangered.

 

Leadership and Selflessness: The Senior Partner’s Role
Leaders need to lead. In this context, senior partners must transition from rainmakers to firm builders. This requires a shift in mindset – from self-focus to firm-focus. They need to take responsibility for the growth of their juniors, not just as billable hours machines, but as future partners who will carry the torch. Senior partners are best positioned to do this. Their experience and clout are invaluable assets for attracting new clients, and by mentoring junior lawyers and sharing origination credit for new work, they can create a win-win situation.

 

The Cost of Neglect: Disillusionment and Lost Potential
If junior lawyers and their development are ignored, a dangerous dynamic emerges. They begin to feel like fungible cogs in someone else’s money-making pyramid. This breeds cynicism and a sense of purposelessness. No amount of empty rhetoric from management about “culture” and “teamwork” can mask this reality. And often, those juniors ultimately leave, thus obviating all the time and effort that had been expended onboarding and training them.

Sure, some firms might be content with this revolving door approach, simply churning through fresh-faced graduates. But the truly successful firms, the ones built to last, understand the importance of investing in their juniors. They place the onus of achieving scale on those senior partners who are best positioned to share their business acumen and client relationships.

 

The Benefits of Change
This shift in mindset benefits everyone. Senior partners gain valuable assistance, allowing them to focus on complex legal issues while fostering the next generation of leaders. Junior lawyers acquire the skills and experience needed to thrive, ensuring a smooth transition and continued success for the firm.

The “Golden Rolodex” shouldn’t be a barrier, but a bridge. By fostering knowledge transfer, shared success, and a commitment to growth through scale, defense firms can create a dynamic environment where experience and youthful vigor combine to secure a prosperous future.

About Christian Stegmaier
Senior Shareholder

Christian Stegmaier is a shareholder and chair of the Retail & Hospitality Practice Group at Collins & Lacy in Columbia. He is also active in the firm’s professional liability and appellate practices. Stegmaier welcomes your questions at (803) 255-0454 or cstegmaier@collinsandlacy.com.