Businesses of all shapes and sizes set aside time at year’s end to review their mission statement, strategic plan and operational plan. Unfortunately, few solo and small law firms see the value in using these particular business-planning tools.
At times, I confess I’ve questioned the value of those tools as well. But the most successful firms, with the happiest lawyers, usually have a clear direction. They have a mission statement that everyone can buy into, along with well-developed plans. This is what I call a “vision of the business” — they know who they are, where they are going and what success looks like.
No matter your law firm’s size, there is value in knowing who you are as a business and where you are headed. Simply put, if you have no clear direction, isn’t your long-term success being left to the whims of fate? It certainly is.
Don’t End Up Where You Don’t Want to Be
Over the years, I have visited a number of firms where workloads are unreasonable, office space is disheveled, retirement plans have never been fully implemented, staff comes and goes, and the clientele is not ideal. As for the lawyers, it isn’t uncommon to hear sad stories about how their professional careers have taken them to a place far different from where they thought they’d be. Sometimes you can even see it on their faces.
It is clear that these lawyers are not actively managing their practices. Instead, they have been reacting to whatever comes up day-to-day, and passively allowed their firm to morph into the unfulfilling situation at hand.
In a law firm, if there is no agreed-on direction, or no shared vision, the business side of the practice is simply adrift in a sea of fog.
Make Individual Goals Part of Firm Goals
Few people reach their desired goals by chance — to reach goals, you first have to set them. To that end, I encourage you to create a business vision that allows everyone in your firm to see and understand collective goals. Everybody should know where the goal line is and how the firm intends to get there.
To start, all lawyers in the firm should define where they want their practice to be in 5, 10 and 20 years out. Here is a framework to focus on:
- How many hours a month they see themselves working.
- What practice areas they wish to focus on.
- Where they hope to be financially.
- Whether they are interested in firm leadership, and if so, in what role.
- When they want to retire.
The next step is to review all of the personal vision statements to see if a unified, firmwide vision can be crafted from the individual parts. One way or another, everyone will have information that will enable them to make decisions about their future.
Assuming a common vision can be created, you will have a good starting point for mapping out a formal — or informal — strategic plan.
Let’s say your firm’s vision includes a need to reduce workloads so that you can regain a balance between professional and personal lives. Perhaps you drop — or at least stop accepting — any new problem clients? After all, problem clients tend to occupy excessive staff time and are often fee collection problems. If you can reduce your stress and time load by no longer working for those clients, you will be more than compensated with more personal time, or more time to spend seeking better clients who can pay you. Couple this with training to identify potential problem clients and you’re moving in the right direction.
Here are a few more examples of the kinds of topics to address as you define your firm’s vision.
- Be intentional with planned growth with a purpose versus growing for growth’s sake alone.
- Rethink your firm’s advertising message in relation to your new vision and develop a well-thought-out move into the social media marketing space.
- Establish a budget that accounts for an ongoing investment in a retirement plan versus letting lawyers fend for themselves.
- Consider the need for hardware and software spending to be an ongoing operational expense that maximizes productivity and enables the firm to be competitive. Of course, such spending should be done in accordance with a purposeful implementation of new tech tools and systems.
Believe it or not, creating and implementing a firm vision can also help reduce your firm’s risk of a malpractice claim. Heck, if you are successful in avoiding problem clients going forward, that alone will reduce your exposure. But you can go much further with smart practice management tactics. For example:
- Are you training new associates to conduct intake interviews with an eye toward accurately assessing whether prospective clients are a good fit and can actually afford your services?
- Have you implemented firmwide procedures, such as a firm computer calendaring system versus allowing each lawyer calendar according to personal preference?
Standardized processes allow a firm to truly operate as a firm instead of being a firm in name only.
The choice to spend time on the vision of your firm is yours. I understand why some lawyers may not see the value. But I’ve also seen situations where there was no plan, no vision, no nothing — and that didn’t end well.
At this point in my life, I have come to appreciate the value of planning for the future — and that all starts with knowing what you want the future to be.
Mark Bassingthwaighte is Risk Manager for ALPS Property & Casualty Insurance Company (ALPS), a leading provider of lawyers’ professional liability insurance. In his tenure with the company, he has conducted over 1,000 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented numerous continuing legal education seminars throughout the U.S., and written extensively on risk management and technology. Mark received his J.D. from Drake University Law School and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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