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Practice Innovations - Managing in a changing legal environment
Gray Rule
July 2014 | VOLUME 15, NUMBER 3
Gray Rule
Risk Avoidance through Succession Planning
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»Teaching Legal Research to the Google Generation
»Paying Attention to the Canaries in KM's Mineshaft
»Law Firm Space Planning as a Knowledge Management Strategy
»Crowdsourcing and Work Synergies
»Big Law: Big Data
»Managing Risk Disruption Through Internal Risk Structures: An interview with Donald Caputo, Chief Internal Auditor, Shearman & Sterling
»Risk Avoidance through Succession Planning
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Risk Avoidance through Succession PlanningRonda Fisch, Director of Research & Library Systems, Reed Smith LLP, Pittsburgh, PA
Effective risk management is an ongoing process that must be consciously managed within an organization. In the prior article, Donald Caputo discusses how knowledge capital can present a highly disruptive risk. Given the normal succession of employees through a workplace, succession planning in a law firm library presents a knowledge capital risk on two fronts: while library staff possess the know-how to keep the department running, their work also serves to safeguard the intellectual capital of the firm. While departmental documentation in pursuit of succession planning is surely unglamorous, service departments, such as libraries, abstain at their own peril. The following interview by the author with Sarah E. Lin, Library Systems Librarian at Reed Smith LLP, illustrates how internal documentation and planning facilitated a smooth transition during technical services staff changes at their firm.

Why is documentation important in the area of technical services?

From a compliance standpoint, documentation is needed so auditors can review and determine what procedures, if any, pose a risk to the firm as a whole. From a service standpoint, internal and external clients should feel minimal disruption from an unexpected leave of absence, a reduction in force, or the outsourcing or insourcing of work duties. Succession planning can smooth over changes in staffing: when new staff have their duties laid out before them, they get up to speed faster, resulting in less time lost in the transition and less stress to the rest of the team. So many staffing changes are implemented with little time to prepare; succession planning allows a department to move forward through those changes without losing momentum.

Did you already have a succession plan, and, if not, what caused you to develop one?

The Reed Smith libraries learned the importance of succession planning when their library systems staff was almost completely outsourced in 2012. Managing the library collection is not a client-facing task, yet without it, the work of the library and the attorneys would grind to a halt. When the decision was made to reassign current library staff and outsource their duties, we had only a few precious months to prepare. Up until that point, we had departmental procedures, but they were extremely task-based. When faced with the introduction of a dozen new workers with unequal amounts of experience into the heart of the library, we knew we needed to take our documentation to a higher level.

Can you explain the steps you took when you initiated the documentation process?

We tried to codify, to the fullest extent possible, the entire job that was being outsourced, not just the individual tasks (although we still needed that documentation). We needed to ask several questions related to the new positions:

  • What tasks will they perform?
  • How are the tasks to be accomplished?
  • What idiosyncrasies or office-specific procedures must be included?
  • What does Reed Smith staff do, and how will they interact with the contracted vendor?

From here, we had to evaluate our current documentation to see where there were gaps that needed to be filled. Regardless of the new staff member's previous library experience, we needed a comprehensive manual that they could read thoroughly and refer to as they went about their duties. Not all locations they would be employed at had Reed Smith library staff in residence, so we could not use in-person training as a replacement for inadequate documentation.

With respect to outsourcing technical service functions, were there any specific risk avoidance issues?

Another risk avoidance measure that was particular to having staff employed by an outside vendor was taking into account how existing procedures needed to be changed to secure the physical and intellectual property of the firm. Having outside personnel inside the firm on a regular basis is a risk we took care to address. Two questions were important to answer:

  • With restricted computer access, how will they access the software and documentation they need to do their job?
  • With restricted physical access, how will they perform all of the contracted duties?

As our relationship with our new vendor progressed, the documentation was crucial to answer questions about what Reed Smith expected and how to bring new staff up to speed whenever the outside vendor experienced its own staffing changes.

How has succession planning benefited the library?

The amount of preparation we did enabled us to have a smooth transition and minimal disruption as a result of a very major change to our department; but what if we had avoided this succession planning exercise? If we had had no documentation at all, the library materials would surely have been engulfed in chaos. The skill levels of the workers hired varied considerably, and the distance between our offices meant that there was very little overlap between workers geographically. Clients would most certainly have felt a negative impact, reflecting poorly on our department and the firm as a whole. The adverse effect of failing to manage risk disruption actively, would arguably have been worse than the initial disruption itself.

Had Reed Smith been content to use the existing documentation to manage this succession, the outcome would have still been negative from a client perspective. We did not have the full job description articulated; only certain functions were expressed in our documentation. For example, we had detailed visual instructions on how to process new materials for check-in within our integrated library system. With this documentation, we could have been assured that materials would get from the library to the attorneys who need them. What were missing from these instructions were our internal protocols for assuring that all purchases are approved by library managers and fit within the library budget. Without that extra information written down as part of the department procedures, the library ran the risk of financial mismanagement, with far-reaching implications.

Do you have any suggestions for librarians embarking on a succession planning project?

In order to create adequate succession planning documentation that took into account procedures such as financial approval, it was important to step back and view these positions with a fresh eye and broad perspective. That is the first step we would recommend to other libraries seeking to actively manage risk avoidance through succession planning. Secondly, detailed description, while tedious, is the only way to create reliable documentation and get institutional knowledge transcribed for the benefit of others. Our third step was to gather feedback from many parties, to review the documentation by many different staff members and seek to fill in gaps in the written knowledge. And while it might be comforting to think the work ends there, our fourth step is to constantly revisit the documents and edit as circumstances change. In this, our work will never be complete.

Staff successions create real risk for law firm libraries, but planning and preparing for those disruptions reduces the risk and lets everyone focus on client service. Managing the library collection and the firm's intellectual capital without interruption is a critical function; procedural documentation ensures that when events occur beyond the library's control, the quality of service remains unchanged.

Conducting a departmental risk structure audit is time-consuming and might not be the most exciting project. However, the benefits far outweigh the time invested especially when finding workable solutions to improve the business operations.

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