Legaltech in Succession Planning: Equip Your Firm for Long-Term Success

8 min read

You’re getting ready to retire from practice. So give your firm the tools it needs to thrive long after you’ve left.

If you’re starting to get on in years, you’re likely beginning to eye your retirement. You’ve worked hard to lead your firm through good times and bad. You’ve watched it struggle, and you’ve watched it grow. You’ve invested countless hours and sleepless nights solving problems, overcoming challenges, and capitalizing on opportunities. Maybe you started the firm yourself, or maybe you continued the good work of others who came before; either way, you’ve built something you can be proud of. And now, you’re eagerly awaiting the day you can put the long hours behind you and enjoy the freedom that you’ve earned.

But before you ride off into the sunset, there’s one last piece of business to attend to: Succession. You may be retiring, but before you do, you want to ensure you’re leaving the practice in good hands. And you want to see what you’ve built thrive and outlive your working years at the firm.

Leaving your firm on solid footing means giving it the tools it needs to tackle future challenges. Here’s how you can prepare your practice to stay successful in a changing world — even while you’re watching the tide roll out at a seaside resort, enjoying a motorcycle tour of the Grand Canyon, or spending your days on the golf course working on your backswing.

Take Stock of the Legal Market

The market for legal services is changing, as is the way those services are delivered. Zoom court hearings, automation software, online service delivery, and the emergence of a la carte legal service providers are already displacing traditional legal practices and procedures. The OECD noted in 2016 that predictive analytics and other technologies have already started to displace lawyers in simple matters, and that same year, the 100+ year old firm BakerHostetler hired Ross, an AI attorney built on IBM’s artificial intelligence Watson, to handle research for the firm’s bankruptcy department.

(You may remember Watson from its 2011 Jeopardy! run, when it handily defeated Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter —  the two highest-earning Jeopardy! contestants in history — to take home a $1 million prize.)

In other words, law firms are already incorporating cutting-edge technology into practice. These changes are already underway, they are already happening — and if your firm hasn’t yet adapted, you risk losing ground to more digitally-aware competitors. If you want your firm to stay competitive, you first need to understand what your competitors are doing to change the playing field. How are competing firms using technology to save time, increase revenue, and capitalize on new opportunities? And how is your firm positioned to compete?

Some great resources for discovering what your competitors are doing tech-wise include interviews they’ve done with trade magazines, case studies written by legaltech providers, and sometimes even those firms’ own marketing assets.

Digitize Your Records for Easy Access

You might be the pen and paper type of lawyer, someone who keeps hard copies of everything because that’s just how things were done when you were coming up through the ranks of associates. And perhaps that hardcopy record-keeping system worked for you. But if the bulk of your minute books, mission-critical documents, and other records are still on paper, it means whoever is taking over after you leave will face a steep learning curve as they try to work out your organizational system and familiarize themselves with the paper files.

The up-and-coming generation of lawyers are a generation that was raised on technology. According to ABA Journal and American Lawyer, the average law firm partner was 52 years old in 2016, with some firms reporting an average partner age of 42. Meanwhile, Cristie Ford, an associate professor at UBC’s Peter A. Allard School of Law, told Canadian Lawyer in 2017 that the average age of the Allard School’s intake students is 27. The oldest Millennials are turning 40 years old in 2021, while the oldest members of Gen X are turning 56.

That means if you’re passing over the reins, either by selling your practice or by promoting from within, the person who takes over for you will be a member of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) or possibly even an older Millennial (born between 1981 and 1996). Moreover, this person will be leading a team of Generation X and Millennial employees. Both Gen X and Millennials are adept at using new technologies and embrace innovation; Pew Research Center reported in September 2019 that 90% of Gen Xers and 93% of Millennials own a smartphone, compared to only 68% of Baby Boomers. 

Gen X and Millennials aren’t just good with technology; they gleefully adopt new technologies at a rapid pace. These generations view new and emerging technology as a way to solve a stubborn problem. They see law firms that embrace technology as having a competitive advantage. And they feel infinitely more comfortable using cloud-based record-keeping solutions than they do pen-and-paper hardcopy solutions. By digitizing your law firm’s records now, you’ll be ensuring a more seamless transition when your successor is ready to take your place.

If you’re planning to sell your practice when you retire, digitization could also make your practice more attractive to potential buyers or even help you fetch a higher price for it. 

Even if you aren’t ready to leave just yet, even if you’re planning to stick around for a few more years, digitizing your records now means there will be one less thing on your transition to-do list when it comes time to move on.

There are several different strategies that can make light work of digitizing your files. Some of the law firms Appara has spoken with hire a co-op student on summer break to digitize a backlog of paper records. Others simply digitize records as the need arises, for instance, when filing annual resolutions. You might even choose to outsource your digitization to a document conversion company.

When digitizing your law firm’s records, you’ll want to look for a software provider that is continually innovating and updating its product. Software tends to become obsolete quickly; a forward-thinking supplier will be investing regularly into the most cutting-edge technologies, like artificial intelligence, and compatibility with other cloud-based tools.

(At Appara, our product development team is constantly asking “What’s next? What’s the next big innovation that will make our product more effective, or make it easier to use, or create more ROI for users? How do we keep our software relevant 10 years from now?”)

Emergency Succession Planning: Equip Your Firm to Handle Disaster

Succession planning is about more than just retirement. It’s also about preparing your firm to continue carrying out business and fulfilling its legal, ethical, and professional obligations when disaster strikes. An emergency succession plan will determine what happens to your practice in the event of a truly catastrophic business interruption; it could be the difference between your firm surviving or going under. It could be the difference between keeping your team firing on all cylinders…or just firing them.

Equipping your firm with a robust stack of tech tools now is a great way to prepare the firm and your successor for any future disasters. Business interruption events catch a number of firms flat-footed; having the right technology in place now means your firm will be prepared for anything that comes its way. If, for instance, your law office is struck by an earthquake, (or if a novel virus emerges, causing a pandemic that shutters offices all around the world and forces a sudden transition to work-from-home arrangements), the legal technology section of your succession plan will outline how your firm can instantly, seamlessly transition to a remote working arrangement.

Lead By Example: Train Your Team to Be Adaptive

Even if you aren’t planning to retire in the near future, having a succession plan — and the legal technology you need to execute it — is still a worthwhile exercise. The Law Society of British Columbia notes that lawyers owe clients a professional obligation to plan ahead and have procedures in place to deal with unexpected service interruptions, absences, and emergencies. Most law societies in most Canadian provinces, including Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta, have custodianship laws that force the appointment of a custodian in the event that a law practice is left without leadership. While custodianship laws are most frequently enforced against small practices and solo practitioners, they apply equally to all practising lawyers regardless of practice size.

In other words, having a succession plan is just good business. And incorporating emerging legal technology into that plan is a tangible demonstration to your peers, your team, and your successor that your firm is going to stick around for the long haul. By developing a succession plan that incorporates the implementation of legal technology, and by fostering a culture of innovation at your firm, you can keep your firm competitive for decades to come.

Succession planning involves more than just determining who will replace you when you retire. It also means giving your law firm the technology it needs to stay competitive in the digital era, implement disaster continuity plans, and serve as a lasting legacy for everything you’ve accomplished. Before you retire to enjoy the fruits of your labour, secure your life’s work and make your firm more appealing to potential buyers by adding a legaltech component into your succession plan.

Legal technology is redefining not only law’s future, but also its present. Check out our case studies to see how other law firms are saving time and money with Appara.

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