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Strategy and Tactics: Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan

By Jim Calloway

Adopting a strategic plan for your law practice probably doesn’t sound like an exciting proposition to many lawyers. This is particularly true if some eager beaver wants to schedule a mandatory weekend retreat for the entire law firm to work on a strategic plan. No one would dispute the need for a business plan. But many of us have been involved in strategic planning exercises for volunteer organizations that generated a lot of words and ideas, but didn’t seem to really change things.

Last month in this space, I wrote a column titled “How is Your Law Practice Going to Change?” While there are many necessary changes that lawyers should be implementing in their business operations, this column was also intended to highlight the many changes occurring in society and in the way businesses operate, which will provide many opportunities for lawyers.

As the year draws to a close, making plans for next year is a very important practice. If you want to make positive changes in your law practice for next year, you certainly cannot wait to make your plan until New Year’s Eve.

That is a really lousy way to celebrate the new year.

Strategy relates to what you want to accomplish and the goals you set. Tactics relate more to how you will accomplish your goals. A strategy for many businesses might be increasing revenue or market share. Various types of tactics can include everything from spending more money on marketing to hiring more employees to increase production.

My personal hope is that many lawyers and law firms plan to improve their business operations by implementing (or better incorporating) improved operations next year. This includes many items I have written about in “Law Practice Tips” such as better implementation of practice management software and services, adopting automated document assembly, improving procedure manuals and workflow checklists, im-proving client satisfaction tools and implementing speech recognition for poor typists, to name a few.

The start of a new year is a natural time to focus on strategy relating to your vision and long-term plans for your law firm. Adopting automated document assembly or revamping your billing process to make it more effective may be critically important for your firm and therefore one of your highest priorities. But those are tactics, not strategies. “Future Proofing Your Law Firm” was the title for one of my Practice Management Advice columns in the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine back in the summer of 2013.

The points I made in that column still serve as a framework for visionary strategic planning for law firms today.

Behave as if it is all about the clients, because it is. We are in a service profession. But it is often easy to focus on the quality of legal services provided at the expense of customer service. We must remember that clients pay attention to both your communications and work product. Every law firm strategic plan must pay attention to the client experience. With the opening of each new matter, lawyers should discuss their client’s expectations and goals and record this information in the client file. We must always remember that this is how the client will judge our services. A corollary is that it is becoming an increasingly risky proposition to represent clients with completely unrealistic expectations. A disgruntled former client — even one with an objectively great result — is not an asset for a law firm.

Ignore technology advances at your peril. Information technology and the speed of information flow today is more a part of our daily lives and daily business operations. This is especially true for lawyers, who spend a large amount of their time processing and managing information. What used to be contained in shelves full of law books and paper client files is now more properly managed in the digital format. Information technology management must be an important part of your strategic plan.

Have a better answer for “What will the total cost be?” We all like predictable costs. Anytime you can quote a potential client a fixed fee, you increase the chance that a client will hire your firm. But even where a range of total fees and costs is based on many factors, you should be able to outline those factors to the prospective client and show how they impact cost.

Know your word processor. Love your word processor. Lawyers are wordsmiths. We draft lots of correspondence, contracts, pleadings and memoranda. Today’s lawyer should understand word processing tools like Microsoft Word Quick Parts, macros and templates. Every lawyer who types less than 30 or 40 words a minute should be given a microphone and a copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking and then provided with training on how to make it actually work for them. (I don’t really care whether you call that one a strategy or a tactic — it is critical!)

Practice being both efficient and effective. Management guru Peter F. Drucker’s often-quoted statement on this topic is: “Efficiency is doing the thing right. Effectiveness is doing the right thing.” Setting up new tools to capture every stray tenth of an hour so that it can be billed may be efficient, but it is not very effective if the client is already pressuring the firm to reduce the attorney fees it pays. Staff reductions may look efficient on the financial side. But training staff to help you provide extra value to your clients may be more effective and more positive.

Appreciate that law firm growth cannot be infinite. Law firms have a historical track record of impressive revenue growth over the last several decades. But the past does not always predict the future. Blogger and law firm consultant Bruce MacEwen’s book Growth Is Dead: Now What? is available on Amazon via his blog. It is an inexpensive purchase and a worthwhile read, no matter what the size of your law firm. We all worry about change and challenges. But the interesting thing about today’s technologically driven business environment is that lower revenues need not equal lower profits.

The above ought to include enough items to fuel any law firm strategic planning retreat. Of course for any business to do real strategic planning, the past few years of financial data will be required. For those who would like a primer on law firm management, First Among Equals: How to Manage a Group of Professionals by Patrick J. McKenna and David H. Maister is a classic, and it is available at quite a reasonable price on Amazon.com.

Lawyers are often criticized for not acting like business people. It is certainly true that historically law firms, at least until they became large law firms, behaved more as a collection of individual professional service providers with pooled resources, expenses and revenues than like many traditional businesses.

Lawyers tended to focus more on new developments in the law and developing new clients than on trends that might be revealed by reading the Wall Street Journal or Harvard Business Review. Those two areas still require a lawyer’s attention. Today’s changes, often fueled by technology advances, happen so quickly that the law, and certainly lawmakers, often lag behind. This lag makes keeping on top of new developments in the law even more challenging, but it also means that there is a greater opportunity for the lawyer to provide value when a regulatory framework is not settled and uncertain.

Strategic planning is very important for today’s law firm, including solo practitioners and small law firms. Lawyers tend to work very hard and stay very busy. It is important to step back regularly and look at possible improvements to the law practice to provide better client service and efficient operations. Many law firms know the changes that they need to accomplish already, but seem to suffer from the lack of available time to research and implement these changes. Strategic planning is the best way to determine how to free up resources for long-term goals.

Your strategic plan will be unique. It will be based on your interests, your existing client base, your geographical location and the practice areas of the law firm’s focus. It need not be a lengthy document. In fact, for smaller law firms, a list of bulleted points and their prioritization rank is probably the most manageable result.

Any future planning exercise requires that all of the stakeholders participate. So, while there may be certain issues that are best considered only by the firm’s lawyers or by the partners, it is generally the case that critical staff members need to be incorporated into the process for it to have value and success.

POPULAR STRATEGIC TOOL

One popular strategic management tool is to employ the SWOT analysis, where attention is paid to the law firm’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. While the firm retreat is a popular format, it is also possible that a series of luncheons or afternoons may work well. The challenge is that lawyers will attempt to “escape from” the process, citing deadlines or client emergencies. If the firm decides to make some changes based on this process, it is important that everybody was given the opportunity to be heard and to participate. So participation must be mandatory.

It is desirable, but not necessary, to cover all outstanding issues. If the firm management could agree on taking steps to solve the three most pressing future concerns of the firm, many would agree that is an outstanding first result. But ultimately, regular strategic planning meetings to review plans, discuss success and failures, and make modifications for the future will become a part of the practice of law for successful law firms.

The simple question that all of the lawyers in a firm should discuss is what they want to be doing next year, five years from now and 10 years from now. We won’t have the ability to foresee all of the changes on our horizon. But we can control our destiny to a greater extent if we follow the adage to “plan your work and work your plan.”

The great Yogi Berra passed away Sept. 22, 2015. He was known for his skill on the baseball diamond and his quotable quotes. My favorite Yogism relates to strategic planning: “You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.”

Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program Director.  Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma?  Contact him at 405-416-7008, 1-800-522-8065 or jimc@okbar.org.  It's a free member benefit!

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- November 21, 2015 -- Vol. 86, No. 30