two trees in a lake at sunset

There are two phenomena that are too common in law firm strategic planning.  The first is the the exciting, visionary, brilliantly-written strategic plan that collects dust on a remote bookshelf in the managing partner's office and is never implemented.  The second is the plan that consumes substantial resources -- especially partner time -- but produces disappointing results, and sometimes counterproductive ones.

In my 25 years of guiding law firms and other legal service organizations through strategic planning and implementation, I have formulated five critical questions that law firm leaders and managers should ask whenever they consider a new strategic plan. Of course, these are not the only questions than should be asked during the planning process.  However, the ability to provide well-informed answers to each of these questions -- and not just optimistic visions -- is a very reliable predictor of whether a particular strategic goal, or the entire plan, will implemented with successful results.

Conversely, when law firms fail to achieve their strategic ambitions, it is usually because of a failure to consider one or more of these questions with honest amounts of business prudence and intellectual discipline.

five indicators of probable success ...or otherwise

These questions are even more critically important -- and usually more difficult to answer -- for law firm networks and similar organizations.

1.  Will achievement of this objective make a profound difference to our measurable performance?

Some law firms labor mightily, but bring forth only a strategic mouse: a document of carefully wordsmithed bland generalities that are more like a description of the status quo than a response to the challenges that will confront the firm in the not-too-distant future. 

There are a variety of ways to discuss this question:  How will this objective make us different?  How will it improve our competitive position in our market?  Will it create a differentiating competitive advantage for us?  

All of these considerations must be grounded, however, in observable, measurable improvements in performance.  If a firm cannot define this "profound difference" with reasonable clarity, there is a very high probablity that pursuit of a strategic objective will produce a disappointing return on investment, especially the investments of partner time and management attention.

2.  How will we measure success?

If you can't measure it, you probably cannot manage it.  Do not approve a strategic plan unless there are clear measurements for each strategic objective.  These need not be complex; the best ones usually are relatively simple.  Strategic performance measurements are important for three reasons:

  • They tell us if we actually have improved things, rather than just changed them.
  • They monitor our progress to achievement of the strategic objective.
  • They can be accurate, reliable diagnostic indicators to alert us to potential implementation problems before they degenerate into a crisis.

3.  Is each implementing tactic relevant?

Some law firms use their strategic plans as a "catch all" for an assortment of unrelated fixes for relatively minor operational problems.  I have observed some very good strategic plans weighed down by strategically trivial action items that address ordinary business issues that can and should be fixed by routine business planning and management initiatives.  

Some firms believe that detailed, relatively minor action items should be included in the strategic plan as "guidance" to the firm's staff or to "make them feel like they are part of the strategy."  These are worthwhile thoughts, but there are two problems with them:

  • First of all, a strategic plan should be a conceptually "lean," intellectually disciplined document to achieve what the firm must achieve in the future, and not a "something for everyone" manifesto.  
  • Second, separate implementation plans, which are drafted for each operating department with the participation of staff, are the better way to do this. Operational staff usually are in a better position to apply the strategic objectives to their work than are the partners who wrote the strategic plan. Moreover, these supplemental planning efforts are usually more effective in promoting "buy in" by the staff than are a list of directives handed down by the firm's management.

The concept of strategic relevance implies two questions that should be asked about every proposed action in the strategic plan:

  • Does this proposed "strategic tactic" more properly belong in a category labeled as "obvious good ideas?"  Unless it requires an extraordinary amount of resources (and almost none of these "obvious good ideas" usually do), why not just go ahead and do it?  It probably does not belong in the strategic plan, and its presences as a "strategic action" could distract the firm from implementation items that are genuinely strategic.
  • Can we explain, in clear and observable terms, how the proposed action item will directly and substantially support the achievement of the strategic goal to which it relates?  "It will make us a stronger firm" is not good enough.  The more persuasive response is "We will not be able to achieve our strategic objective unless we do this."

 4.  What resources will we need?

Not even the biggest law firm can do everything at once.  A firm's selection and prioritization of its strategic objectives should be based on probable return on investment.  Which objectives, if achieved, will give us the best return on our investment over the next few years?  

Most firms are reasonably good at estimating the costs of new technology, new staff, and new marketing campaigns. They usually grossly underestimate the investment in terms of the value of partner time that will be required to produce successful results.  There are several useful questions to ask:

  • Which partners are going to experience the greatest impact on their time and attention?
  • What is a reasonable expectation of the average amount of time that the impacted partners will need to devote each month?
  • When is that impact likely to be the greatest?
  • What will be the time requirements for partners who are not among the most impacted?

5.  Who is the best person to be responsible for implementation of each objective?

Every strategic objective needs a "strategic sponsor," who will be responsible and accountable for implementation.  Sometimes a committee can manage implementation reasonably well, but there should be one person designated to lead the process with respect to each objective.  

The four questions about resource requirements also can help to identify the partners or other managers who are in the best position to assume responsibility for managing the implementation of an objective or tactic.  Law firms are notoriously weak in assigning responsibility for implementation.  Partners and managers usually are already fully engaged with client service and day-to-day operations.  In this resource-poor environment, law firms often make three fatal mistakes:

  • When selecting the objectives and tactics that they want to include in the strategic plan, they fail to consider the issue of "Who will do this?"  If there is no one who can reasonably be expected to take responsibility for implementation, this could be an indication that the strategic objective, however noble and compelling, is not likely to be achieved.
  • They assign responsibility to the people who, with an unfortunately high frequency, are already the busiest persons in the firm.  For this reason, my colleagues and I usually advise strongly against assigning implementation responsibilities to the managing partner.
  • The assigned "strategic sponsors" do not delegate tasks and functions to others.  

"Implementation starts now."

These five issues are why, when my colleagues and I facilitate strategic planning meetings of our clients, we frequently remind them, well before the final draft of the strategic plan is adopted, that "implementation starts now."  Considerations of whether and how each objective will be implemented should be an integral part of the strategic planning process.

Norman Clark