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THE MAGAZINE      October 2002
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Chair’s Message: Building Business Strategies

Several years ago, I found myself sitting next to my firm’s outgoing managing partner. One problem with managing a big firm is that you can’t keep both your partners and your clients happy at the same time. Your practice has to go for a couple of years while you do the management thing.

So I asked "Pete" (which may or may not be his real name) how things were going as he prepared to step down from his management seat. He seemed a bit on edge. "Things are slow," he said. "I need to find some clients." Always a contrarian, I goaded Pete a bit, knowing he was one of our least technological partners. "You know," I said, "this lull might be a perfect opportunity to buff up your tech skills. I can see a lot of ways you could use document assembly to impress your real estate clients. You could create leases and other documents right on the spot using a notebook computer. It would blow away your clients."

"I can’t learn all that computer stuff," Pete said. "I don’t have the time. I’m too busy looking for clients." It was all I could do to keep from chuckling at the irony of his response. Pete had on his management hat and was talking business strategy. The need "to get some clients" was the top thing on his mind. He could have been speaking for almost any law firm.

Like Pete, few firms spend much time on developing a solid, longer-term business strategy. Sure, most pay lip service to goals like "We aim to be the premier legal provider in the city/state/region." But there’s more to it than that. Much more.

The first thing you learn in business is that success begins with a sound and thorough business strategy. "Let’s find some clients" is a decent beginning, but you should challenge yourself to do a whole lot more. For starters, ask yourself these questions—and don't gloss over them:

  • Who are we? What makes us unique?
  • At what level can we compete? Locally, regionally, nationally?
  • What can we offer that is quantifiably different from or better than our competitors? How can we best distinguish what we offer? (Don’t stop at "we have great lawyers."
  • Could we do a better job of providing our services? How?
  • Is there a need for what we offer, or could offer?
  • Could we do it better as part of a larger or smaller organization, or through an alliance?

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you are done when you get through this list. The next step is to distill this thinking into an action plan, one that can be articulated to your partners, employees and potential clients. And, even if you get that far, you are still only just beginning. Action plans lead to timetables and, most importantly, to key performance indicators. You have to monitor those regularly, and you have to change your plan as you discover mistakes. Above all, people have to take responsibility to get things done.

Businesspeople often put these questions to their clients as well as their partners. The market can tell you a lot about how to succeed if you listen carefully. And you can learn a lot from your competitors. The successful ones have already answered these questions.

Strategy may seem anathema to a profession weaned on the vision of "hanging out a shingle" and seeing what happens. It also scares people: If you set goals, you might fail. But a bad strategy is better than no strategy at all—and failing is worse than not trying. After all, if you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?

John C. Tredennick, Jr. (jtredennick@caseshare.com) is a partner at Holland & Hart and CEO of CaseShare Systems, an Internet company building paperless systems for the legal and business communities.