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Question: We hear about big law firms and their strategic planning processes, but what about smaller firms and solos? What process do you recommend? Do we need to hire a consultant?
Peter A. Giuliani: ALL law firms, including solos, can benefit from strategic planning. Running a small law firm is hard enough. Why not have a plan to guide you instead of flying blind? No matter the firm size, the thought process is the same:
1. What is our vision/mission? What do we aspire to be? What is our reason for existence?
2. What three or four things do we have to excel at to achieve that vision and mission? These usually involve areas like client development, service development, attracting and retaining talent, financing the practice and so on.
3. What specific strategies will we undertake to build excellence in the areas we just identified? For example: Grow an associate staff, find a merger partner, hire a lateral who can take over the firm, become expert in XYZ area of law.
4. What action steps need to be taken to implement the strategies? Who will take the action steps, when will the work be completed and what metrics or milestones can we apply to each action step?
This is a highly condensed version of the thought process. The actual process needs input from the owners of the firm, associates and, possibly, some key administrative people. It should also be based on input from clients and other outsiders who are familiar with the marketplace and the law firm’s competitive standing in that marketplace.
With smaller firms, the planning process is more streamlined because fewer people need to be involved and the internal analyses are much simpler. That said, everything hinges on execution. Even the best plan in the world is useless if nobody has the guts to implement it and execute on hard decisions. This is the big danger in smaller firms, because they often don’t have the management structure in place to stay on top of execution. Sometimes the job of the consultant is to guide the planning process and provide the necessary nagging to make sure the plan is executed.
Peter A. Giuliani is a Partner at Smock Law Firm Consultants. His law firm management experience spans more than 43 years, both as a management consultant to law firms and other professional service firms and as Executive Director of Cummings & Lockwood, a 180-lawyer law firm based in Stamford, Connecticut.
John Remsen, Jr.: When we survey law firm managing partners, about 40 percent will tell us that their firm has a strategic plan. And more firms seem to be getting into planning. Yet, over the years, I’ve run into many leaders and administrators at smaller law firms who think that strategic planning is a “big firm thing.” “Besides,” they’ll often say, “we’ve never had a plan before and we’ve been doing okay. Add to that, planning takes time and money. And we’ll need resources to implement a plan. And a plan might involve change or raise issues we’ve been sweeping under the rug, hoping they go away. Best just to leave things alone.”
But change is all around the legal industry. Increased competition. More demanding clients. Sweeping changes in technology. Law firms must adapt or they risk extinction. Every law firm needs a plan, regardless of firm size and practice mix. In fact, a solid, realistic plan is even more important for solos and smaller law firms than for their larger brethren.
In a strategic plan, you look out five years into the future. Are you all on the same page as to where the ship’s headed? Are you achieving buy-in and support from future owners and key support staff? Are you taking action steps to get where you want to go?
A law firm’s strategic plan should be simple, realistic and achievable. Focus attention on just three meaningful priorities at a time. If you can’t fit it on a 3×5 index card, it’s too long. Set deadlines. Establish accountability. Then, make it a regular practice to step back and update the plan from time to time, based on your progress and on the continued evolution of your marketplace.
Here’s a good collection of resources on the topic from the Managing Partner Forum.
John Remsen, Jr. is President and CEO of The Managing Partner Forum, the country’s premiere resource for managing partners and law firm leaders. He is also President of TheRemsenGroup, a leading consulting firm for smaller and midsize law firms. Follow him @JohnRemsen.
Not every law firm has a full-time administrator or professional management to guide them. Send us your questions via email, or use the comment section below, and we’ll pass them on to the experts at the Association of Legal Administrators. Watch for the best ones here in “Ask the Experts.”
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