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Working On Your Practice … Or In It?

By Michael Baker

The Allied Command in World War II spent more than two years preparing for D-Day. When asked about the plan—which resulted in the successful Allied invasion of occupied France—General Dwight D. Eisenhower commented, “The plans were useless, but the planning was indispensable.” I think about that quote often when strategizing about my own firm—and when I’m talking with lawyers who complain that their firms are headed in the wrong direction, yet who are unwilling to step up and lead.

It’s not that these lawyers are lazy. Far from it. They are working like mad to make their practices succeed. And that’s precisely the problem.

Leading Is Hard Work

Fueled initially by passion and vision, over time law firm partners become mired in the daily grind of doing the client work. That leaves little time or energy for the slow, painful work of planning—anticipating future needs and building capacity to meet them.

The shorthand for this dynamic is working “in” rather than working “on” the business. Working in can mean answering email, servicing clients, finding new clients, hiring, firing and the like. In a law practice, most partners are simultaneously responsible for bringing the work in as well as doing it. It’s a tough balancing act.

When you work on the business, you steer the course of the enterprise—identifying and developing new market niches, building your team and so on. It’s easy to understand why this part gets ignored, but it’s essential to guard against it—especially when loss of focus can give the competition a foot in the door.

Master Delegator

Jared Heyman gets this distinction. Heyman is an under-40 entrepreneur and founder of Infosurv, a multimillion-dollar online marketing research firm. In 2010 he embarked on a two-year global traveling sabbatical. He says more value was created in the company during that period that at any time during its history. For Heyman, working on the business meant learning to delegate: “When I decided that I wanted Infosurv to derive its value separate from me, every time a task came across my desk I’d ask myself, ‘Am I the only one who can do this?’ If the answer was no I’d delegate it. If the answer was yes, I’d note the required skills that only I possessed at the time. If the skill was teachable I’d look for it in my next hire.”

Over time, Heyman says he “obsolesced” himself from day-to-day operations, which permitted him to grow, plan and lead, even from a distance. I’m not advocating you leave and travel the world. Rather, think about what you can do to add real value to your practice and firm. If that’s business development, work on removing the “everyday noise” and work on developing a plan to get there. 

Working On It

For those of us who didn’t figure this out at age 35, like Heyman, there’s good news. Change is possible at any stage of your business career. It’s all about making the commitment. I recommend these strategies.

  • Get it on the calendar. Much as you would schedule a client, make a regular appointment with yourself. Block off a couple of hours every week, close the door or escape to Starbucks if your office is too distracting. If there’s no opportunity during the week, do it over the weekend.
  • Get focused. Finding the time is great, but you also must focus the time. Be deliberate and disciplined about what you want to accomplish. You have to work on your plan before you can use it to work on your firm. Think big. Envision your practice 1, 3 and 10 years down the road.
  • Get some help. Look for a mentor, coach or sounding board. Many successful people love sharing their experience. You may find inspiration and guidance from others facing similar business challenges in formal networks or informal gatherings.

Remember, you’re the chief cook—in your practice, and in your life—but you need to train other people to wash the bottles. That way you can keep your sights on that big neon menu in the sky.

Birmingham native Mike Baker is a CPA and Managing Partner of Dent, Baker & Company. He joined the firm in 1989. A Certified Financial Planner, Mike is a member of AICPA and the Alabama Society of Certified Public Accountants. Reach him at

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Michael Baker

Michael Baker is Managing Partner at Dent Moses, a national accounting consultancy based in Birmingham, Alabama. A CPA and Certified Financial Planner, Michael’s practice is concentrated in the area of taxation and general business consulting. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Alabama Society of Certified Public Accountants and the Financial Planning Association. Additionally, he serves as Chairman of the UAB Accounting Advisory Board and is involved with Samford University’s Brock School of Business.

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