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The importance of succession planning for boutiques

In order for this firm founder to hand over the reins of her boutique to a new managing partner, the pair needed open and honest conversations — and said that this has helped lay the groundwork for the firm moving forward.

user iconLauren Croft 15 September 2022 SME Law
The importance of succession planning for boutiques
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Speaking recently on The Boutique Lawyer Show, founding partner Sarah Rey and managing partner Melissa Scadden, both from Melbourne-based firm Justitia Lawyers and Consultants, discussed the firm’s shift in leadership and plans moving forward.

After starting Justitia in 2005 with a former colleague who then stepped away from the firm, Ms Rey then hired Ms Scadden as a senior associate, who became managing partner five years down the track. 

In terms of becoming managing partner and taking over the reins from Ms Rey, Ms Scadden said that the shift involved a lot of open conversations and succession planning.


“She’s still in the role of founding partner. We work very well together as the three partners, and I think we have a fantastically complementary skill set. And so, I was interested to understand what that would all look like both immediately and a little bit further into the future. In terms of other support, it was essentially having that confidence that it was going to be a transition,” she said.

“So that there was that transition, and it was very much that those [systems] were in place. That was important to me as well. And having the support of the team as well was also very important. We’ve got a fantastic culture at Justitia. It’s very collaborative, very supportive. And I knew I could not succeed in the role if I did not have the support of my colleagues. And so, feeling confident that I had that was also very important.”

Similarly, Ms Rey said there was a “high level of trust” when it came to appointing a new managing partner.

“I do think it’s really important to give organisations the opportunity to refresh with a different person at the helm. And so, it’s a question of working out when’s a good time to slow down or step away. And by stepping away, you’re not necessarily obviously losing control as such, but you are giving someone else a chance to work with all the opportunity that a law firm has to offer. Melissa came with a different style and approach, which was totally appropriate, and is, I think, refreshing for people in the firm and for our clients,” she said.

“And you don’t want to be seen to be holding the organisation back as well with the way that you do things. So as with everything, you’ve got to take a few risks and let that person then have the reigns to do what they want to do. And I can imagine, I don’t think I fall into this category, but Melissa can feel free to be completely open and honest in this program.

“But I can see how someone who likes to be in control might struggle with letting go of their responsibilities, their duties, their access to all the decision making. And I think you just have to acknowledge that and give yourself a bit of time, and based on both trust and good communication skills, work your way through that. And I think Melissa and I probably have had a few conversations along those lines. It doesn’t have to happen overnight.”

Now that she’s managing partner, Ms Scadden has numerous strategic decisions in mind for the firm — namely around staff retention, recruitment and client relationships.

“I’m feeling very positive about the firm’s direction, absolutely. We are actually currently going through a little bit of a strategic planning phase to ensure that the vision that I have is actually properly articulated. And then we’re able to communicate that. So, there’s certainly hopefully a period of growth in the firm’s future where we’re looking at continuing to build our presence in the market to build our brand, and also bring on board some more people, key people, that will assist in that really live and breathe the culture,” she explained.

“And given we’re talking about succession planning, to continue to hopefully be in the firm’s future from a leadership perspective as well. I think what I’m really conscious about going through this process with Sarah is that it’s important to start planning very early on as to what those future steps might be, because it does really take time and you have to be very flexible in terms of the people that may come and go throughout the firm, but certainly need to make sure that when you are recruiting, you do have that in mind as well. So that’s certainly something that feeds into this planning that we’re doing at the moment.”

When asked if, post-pandemic, firms will have to consider different factors when it comes to succession planning, the pair said that a lot of lawyers — and leaders — are redefining their relationship with work.

“I think it’s actually really important at the moment that anyone who’s looking at succession planning or looking at bringing in a new leader that they recognise that people do seem to be, I think, redefining their relationship with work. We’re certainly seeing a shift at the moment that most of the listeners will have heard of the new quiet, quitting trend. And particularly in our profession, I think we’re seeing some more junior lawyers who are starting to look at the boundaries they set in place and look at the role that work is playing in their lives,” Ms Scadden said.

“I think it’s very important that anyone who is looking at any kind of succession plan, looking at the culture of their firm, looking at who they might want to bring in to carry that forward, that they’re factoring that in, that they’re factoring that there are those changes and that the leadership they need to be prepared for that. It needs to be open to perhaps change the culture and do things differently rather than necessarily. Change is difficult. No one likes it, but I think it really is important that those things are factored in.”

Moreover, Ms Rey added that “coming out of the pandemic, a lot of lawyers, in particular, are suffering burnout, whether they realise it or not”.

“And whilst the lockdowns in Victoria are over, the ripple effect is continuing. It’s a question of people’s energy, and whilst they might think that they want to do X today, they might feel differently next week about whether they want to do X. So, I think it’s a little bit harder to plan and know entirely that those people that you are banking on are going to be around for that reason,” she said.

“And then the other reflection I think I’ve had post-pandemic is that people should be creative about partnerships with other organisations or other like-minded firms that share values and possibly that they might be more of an appetite to build and to grow and to merge potentially because people are thinking a bit more creatively at post-pandemic.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Sarah Rey and Melissa Scadden, click below: