Given a lawyer’s typical drive towards growth and advancement, landing in a legal department where there is no visible path to advancement can make it hard to navigate the next step forward. “Generally lawyers go to law school, they article, they become an associate, then work towards partnership,” says Bindu Cudjoe deputy general counsel at BMO Financial Group. “There isn’t necessarily a need to be terribly creative about where you go and where you step off that ladder. So what’s empowering and a little scary for somebody who comes in-house for the first time is having to do that kind of thinking.
“I think because of the nature of our department we have a senior leadership team that is made up of very seasoned professionals and I think any of those people could, if need be, step into the role. It’s not always in our control in the legal department to decide who our successor is. There’s obviously other very important stakeholders but I do think part of our role is to make sure we have a strong pipeline to lead the organization forward from a legal and regulatory risk management perspective.”
Succession planning in the legal department isn’t just about grooming someone to take over the general counsel’s office. It should also be about developing a team and providing career advancement, says Andrea Wood, senior vice president of legal services at Telus in Vancouver. “Everybody from the general counsel on down has a succession plan, so in those plans we identify people who are likely successors and we start with the succession plan and ensure that in building their development plans we are building the capability they would need to assume the role for which they are slated as successor,” says Wood.
Large legal departments tend to do a more proactive job of creating career paths and succession plans, but it seems more smaller groups are tackling the issue these days as retention of talent becomes more important and employees demand it. “I do think some departments and GCs are trying to do better for their good people in recent years,” says Joe Milstone, co-founder of Cognition LLP who sees a lot of in-house legal departments. “Particularly as departments grow, they have the ability to create a bit more of a career path with different levels of seniority rather than just a GC and ‘everyone else.’”
Often, however, succession planning for that top job is pushed to the side. “I imagine this is in part because some GCs aren’t too comfortable in having a plan so ready for their departure [possibly before he or she is ready to depart], and also sometimes because ‘anointing’ a successor can cause political and divisive issues in the department,” says Milstone.
Telus has an advanced succession and development plan for all of its employees and it extends to the legal department. “As part of the Telus team, our legal department is expected to be just as careful about succession planning as any other part of the organization,” says Wood. “We spend a lot of time on talent development and for us, succession planning is part of talent development.”
The Telus legal team has formal succession plans in place for almost all of the lawyers and development plans for every lawyer, paralegal, and legal assistant. “Everybody in the department is expected to look at how they want to grow and is encouraged to speak to senior leaders about that. And senior leaders are encouraged to do everything they can to facilitate that growth,” she says.
Telus has about 55 lawyers nationally but it doesn’t let geography get in the way if someone wants to pursue a job that isn’t in their home office. “It actually raises an interesting issue for us,” says Wood. “My team is based in Vancouver, Burnaby, Edmonton, Toronto, and Montreal. Yet we want people to consider that they could qualify for and grow into any job regardless of where they are based.”
For example, if a lawyer at Telus is interested in growing into a procurement role but it happens that all of the procurement lawyers are based in Vancouver, a lawyer in Montreal interested in that job would be encouraged to pursue the position. We try to be very indifferent as to location when we fill those roles. More often than not it’s possible. So we pay a lot of attention to team building across the country and encourage people to ignore geography.”
Ultimately, it’s up to each individual manager at Telus to make sure there is a succession plan in place for the people reporting to that manager. “We might have very junior lawyers who express interest in becoming general counsel at some point. So my job is to tell them what skills they would need to build over time to become the general counsel and then to work with them to make sure they gain those skills,” says Wood.
The lawyers in the team can see the planning in action. Over the last two years, two senior counsel at Telus have moved into associate general counsel roles, and two associate general counsels have moved into vice president roles. As well, two vice presidents have moved into SVP roles, including Wood.
“It’s in the company’s interest to develop good succession plans, but more than anything it’s in the interest of the lawyers working on the team that they have consistent conversations with the managers about where they want to head as their career evolves and what skills they want to acquire along the way. If you need a reason to think about succession planning it’s because it’s a very convenient way to get into really important discussion with team members and how they want their careers to evolve,” says Wood.
Cudjoe, at BMO Financial Group, has been in the legal department three years, but BMO has actively been doing succession planning in the legal, compliance, and investigative services group for more than a decade. “I think when we talk about succession planning we see it as part of what we do around having talent discussions,” says Cudjoe. “It’s a discussion about who is on the team, what are their strengths and what opportunities are there for them? Those opportunities could be advancement, a lateral or horizontal move, or into another part of the bank. We see succession planning not so much as anointing the next GC but rather how do we help people achieve their professional and career development within the organization?
That can mean a member of the team thinking beyond another lawyer job to maybe a role in compliance that would leverage their skills. Or it could be moving into risk or some of the human resource functions. “There are lots of places in the bank that would be logical for somebody from our group to go to,” says Cudjoe. “When we talk about succession planning there’s the bigger piece of thinking about it as career development and the more deliberate piece around senior leadership roles of LCCG. We do have succession slates to see who can step into the role immediately if necessary in one to three years, and we have slates that run out to five years plus. That helps us crystalize our thinking a bit, but we’re having discussions around talent at all levels of the organization throughout the year.”
“It’s not that we ask people to sit at their desks and hope for the best — you have to be engaged, you have to ask for what you need, seek opportunities, and then it’s a manager’s responsibility to help develop somebody so they’re ready for that next opportunity,” says Cudjoe. “That’s what can be very different from a law firm where I’m not certain that development piece happens. It’s about developing leadership skills and P&L accountability — different than what you would be expected to develop as a lawyer.”
And whether you’re part of a one- or 100-lawyer team succession planning can happen. “It’s more complicated, with 100 people but it’s looking to see what are your skill sets and how do you grow those out,” says Cudjoe. “I think it can happen in a smaller place — sometimes workloads don’t permit and career development feels like a nice to have as opposed to a must have. I’m not always certain lawyers are as proactive about that.”
She points out: “It can be different in a place like this. The variety of different roles and functions — the sky is kind of the limit. One of the challenges we’ve experienced is to translate what it means to be a lawyer — we’re not just about stopping things from happening — we’re creative and strong communicators and have the ability to execute. The best lawyers and those who can transition into other roles clearly demonstrate that or can articulate that in terms of what they can bring to the table.”
There’s also the question as to whether senior management push the legal department for succession planning the same way it would other business units. “Arguably, this would be the case if more GCs were seen as being strategic and innovative leaders in their line of business rather than just senior functional stewards in some little understood and necessarily evil functional area who are largely interchangeable with others in the profession either from within or outside,” says Milstone.
He says the opposite of this is that an increasing number of corporate counsel don’t necessarily have the top job on their career bucket list for a number of reasons — not the least of which is that it does come under more scrutiny akin to other business unit leaders that is often assessed in hard numbers which can be intimidating to anyone used to achieving riskless success by simply putting in lots of hours and being responsive to clients.