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Future Proofing: Creating Your Preferred Future Requires Strategic Planning

Daniel E Pinnington and Reid F Trautz


  • Creating and executing a strategic plan requires structure and deliberate action, and a critical piece is often missing.
Future Proofing: Creating Your Preferred Future Requires Strategic Planning Maneerat

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Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.

—Will Rogers

Over a decade ago we wrote our first book together, The Busy Lawyer’s Guide to Success: Essential Tips to Power Your Practice, published by the ABA. Our book included a section on strategic planning. This topic is one of the most important for a firm looking to position itself for a bright future, yet few firms spend the time and energy to formally, much less regularly, engage in the strategic planning process. Indeed, there is a profound irony that many lawyers will say they are too busy on the treadmill of today to find time to plan for the future of their practice or firm. 

Creating and executing a strategic plan requires structure and deliberate action, and a critical piece is often missing: an unwavering commitment in words, action and resources (i.e., money and people) from firm leadership to make it happen. Bigger firms will need to put in place and empower a designated group or committee that has the authority to create an agenda for change. In smaller firms, the process will require the collaboration of firm owners and possibly some senior staff.

Regardless of their size, we encourage all firms to take time for strategic planning and not be stopped or bogged down by overcomplicating the process itself. The result of the process will provide direction to the firm that will help it navigate to a preferred future.

When creating a plan, there are five principal questions to consider, at both the overall organizational level and within each practice group or department.

  1. Who are we? Generally, planners must look inward at the organizational level and analyze the current components and resources, such as practice areas, market position, financial performance, office space and location, technology, staff, and other areas of internal operations. If your firm has not engaged in strategic planning in the past few years, you’ll need to address the many changes that have occurred since the pandemic started in 2020, including the shift in employee power to change when and where staff and lawyers work. By the end of this phase, you should know very objectively who you are. 
  2. Who’s out there? Planners need to get a handle on the marketplace, including current and potential clients and competitors such as other law firms and alternative legal service providers. Be sure to look at who’s out there from a client perspective, too. Your perception of the marketplace may be much different from what a prospective client sees, especially as we emerge from the pandemic. The strategic planning process should help identify a unique competitive position of the firm, which in turn can be used to position the firm as different from, and better than, rival firms. Do you know what your clients really want and expect from you?
  3. Who do we want to be? The first two questions generate assessments of the current firm and current marketplace. This third question is where the preparation for your preferred future begins. Integral to the process is the development of a vision of what the firm wants to look like in five, seven or 10 years. Firm planners must ask themselves what the future of the firm should be and establish a mission statement, a vision statement and written goals. Your firm may have already defined and documented these in prior planning sessions, so feel free to review them again. They can be helpful but also a hindrance. The future is coming at us at a much faster rate, so those prior statements and goals may not address the pandemic-driven changes that have occurred over the last few years or meet the needs of the firm moving forward.

    Also, don’t be hindered by form over substance. Even small or incremental steps can ultimately support and result in trans- formative changes. The goal of strategic planning is to be bold yet practical, forward-thinking yet grounded in the reality that bold plans can take time to bear fruit.
  4. How do we get there? Planners then create written action plans that detail the tactics or steps that the firm members will take to reach the stated goals. Each action plan must be assigned to someone in the firm who has responsibility for implementing that plan and has the authority for doing so. Part of the process as well is determining if the firm has the necessary personnel to achieve its goals. Remember, a goal without a plan is just a wish. Yet avoid making a plan that is too rigid or so complicated that no one has time to execute it.
  5. How are we going to execute our plan to get there? As part of its overall plan, the firm needs to have in place a way to peri- odically check its progress so that it can make a shift or strategic move if and when circumstances warrant. Strategic planning is not static: It is a fluid, never-ending process that requires an ongoing commitment to the process from all members of a firm.

Which brings us to the most important part of the process: Don’t let your plans sit on the shelf or in a drawer. Good plans with realistic goals should excite and challenge firm owners and participants. If not, revisit your goals. A good plan should successfully compete with the strong compulsion of most lawyers to service clients and complete billable work.

Don’t forget your personal plan. Strategic plans aren’t just for firms. A personal strategic plan will help you to focus on your longer-term personal goals, and the structure and deliberate action imposed by a formal plan can help you attain those goals. You can create a personal strategic plan by asking yourself personalized versions of the preceding five questions.

You can determine your future, or you can sit back and let others create it for you. Most people will want to envision and create their own future rather than let someone else dictate it for them. Take responsibility for your future and the future of your firm and create personal and firm strategic plans to make those futures happen.