I keep two beehives as a hobby. Late one evening early in the fall, well after dark, I went out to check on how they were faring in the cooler weather. I found that one of the hives had just been abandoned. The colony had for some unknown reason lost its most productive and important bee: the queen. I quickly pulled off three of the honey supers that I had intended on leaving for them to get them through the winter. I would retrieve the rest of the honey stores in the brood boxes and the remaining honey super when I returned from a two-day trip I was leaving for the next day. When I returned from my trip however, I found the rest of the hive being raided by the other hive and several other species of bees. There was no honey left to harvest.
I was struck by the similarity between my beehives and so many small to mid sized law firms that are reliant on one or a few big producers. When a hive loses its queen, the bees have a narrow window of 24-48 hours to replace their queen by feeding a substance known as royal jelly to new eggs. This causes the young eggs to develop into queens. The worker bees themselves cannot carry on a hive without a queen. They must instead rear some of their young to become queens. If successful, a new queen will emerge and the colony will continue under new leadership.
Unlike a beehive, a law firm has the ability to cultivate the development of its new leaders over a longer period of time. However, if a firm is not taking the appropriate actions for succession planning, it too is at jeopardy of losing its honey. The worker bees cannot become producers if the firm waits too long to develop its new leaders.
My former law firm is currently going through this same process as most of the strongest client relationships are concentrated in a small number of senior attorneys who are now retiring. In some instances the firm has been successful in transitioning client relationships to junior partners. In other cases, the firm may be at risk. Only time will tell how successful it will be at the conclusion of this transition.
As we wrote in an earlier blog entry, in order to ensure their continued prosperity, law firms need to hire lawyers with the characteristics to become successors to senior attorneys. Proper development begins with hiring the right people then continues with the development of these lawyers into leaders. It takes hard work, proper planning and focus. If your top producers leave the firm next year, are you prepared to save the honey? Have you been feeding the royal jelly to your associates and junior partners or are they just worker bees?