Don’t do it like the Tories: how to avoid humiliation and chaos when changing leadership

Don’t do it like the Tories: how to avoid humiliation and chaos when changing leadership

Don’t do it like the Tories: how to avoid humiliation and chaos when changing leadership 1200 800 Sean Cullen

One of the best things about having a parent living in the South of France is my regular end of October trip, during which the weather is almost guaranteed to be warm and sunny.  This year has been no different and yet I’ve spent less time outside enjoying the barmy temperature than I normally would.   The reason being of course is that I have been glued to Sky News and Twitter, trying to keep track of the latest developments at the heart of Government.  Liz Truss resigned only last Thursday but it feels like a month ago.  As the three candidates jostled for position over the weekend and then into Monday, I was struck by the difference between the chaos (can it be anything else with Boris involved?) and the orderly way in which law firms tend to handle changes in leadership.

While I am not likening law firm partnerships to our main political parties, it is undeniable that there are certain similarities.  It’s no coincidence that lawyers transfer well into politics – see The Lawyer’s excellent summary of parliamentary candidates at the last general election by way of evidence.  At Byfield we often advise clients on how to handle leadership changes from a communications perspective and there are a number of golden rules that always tend to hold true.

  1. The longer the gap between announcing a new senior or managing partner and the individual taking over, the better.  You don’t necessarily need to do it three years in advance, as Slaughter and May did last year with the announcement of its new senior partner, but a period of say three months gives the impression that the transition is orderly and completely under control.  The reassurance this will give to your people and clients will be considerable. It also gives the very practical benefit of alleviating any pressure to give interviews immediately should you not wish to.  It is perfectly reasonable to wait until the leadership term actually starts before speaking to the media if that feels preferable.
  2. Continuity is key.   I really liked the way Bird & Bird handled the change in CEO last year when David Kerr stepped down after 25 years at the helm.  What could have been a tumultuous change felt calm and fluid and it was smart to push the fact that a lot of succession planning had taken place behind the scenes.  The contrast with Johnson/Truss/Sunak is stark.
  3. Contested elections are an unavoidable fact of life.  That’s fine but all candidates should be strongly discouraged to brief the media during the process even on a background basis.  Splits and factions in firms look as bad as they do in political parties and it is just not convincing if previously vocal candidates then fall into line behind new management when an election is lost.
  4. As the Bird & Bird example shows, old and new management speaking together is powerful and cohesive.  We always encourage outgoing and incoming senior and managing partners to be interviewed together – or even better to interview each other – particularly in internal communications.


Politics has something to learn from the legal profession it seems…