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Law Practice Magazine

The Big Ideas Issue

How Well Are You Implementing Your Strategic Plan?

Allison C Johs


  • Strategic planning should take an external approach.
  • Involve the right stakeholders in the strategic planning process.
  • Ensure accountability by assigning roles, deadlines and benchmarks.
How Well Are You Implementing Your Strategic Plan? Ragiboglu

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A recent white paper by Patrick J. McKenna and Michael B. Rynowecer (authors) discusses the results of a survey (survey) they conducted with law firms of over 100 lawyers about strategic planning. What they found was that while firms are engaging in strategic planning activities, they were less successful in implementing those strategic plans.

Although this survey and the white paper were based on responses from law firm leaders in firms with over 100 lawyers, many of the same problems exist in smaller law firms as well. And in those firms these problems can lead to the complete abandonment of the strategic planning process.

The white paper provides some strategic planning tips that apply to firms of all sizes. Key recommendations include taking an external approach, involving the right stakeholders in the strategic planning process, shortening the expected time within which the plan should be executed, and ensuring that someone is accountable for implementing the elements of the plan.

Take an External Approach

The survey asked whether respondents’ firms’ strategic plans were more internally or externally focused. Internally focused items include billing, pricing and collections policies, human resources and the firm’s website, while externally focused items include client service, firm growth, differentiation from the competition and new or emerging practice areas.

According to the authors, most firms’ strategic planning is too internally focused, making them more akin to operational plans than true strategic plans. While operational plans are important, strategic planning should be more focused on successfully competing in a competitive marketplace.

Taking an external approach to strategic planning focuses more on innovation, predicting how marketplace changes might affect the areas of law the firm practices in and how the firm can proactively incorporate or implement new technologies to improve client service and stay ahead of the competition.

Involve the Right Stakeholders

When asked what they would change about the strategic planning process in the future, answers included things like, “incorporate a broader subset of the partnership in the planning process,” “involve more stakeholders” and “secure genuine partnership commitment to change.”

No strategic plan is going to be successful without the buy-in from the firm, and especially the partners who have an ownership interest in the firm. Although it may seem less time consuming to have only a small portion of the partnership (for example, the executive committee) create the plan and then obtain buy-in from the remaining partners after the plan has been created, as the authors discuss, that approach isn’t usually successful. Ultimately, significantly more time is spent on trying to convince the other partners to accept the strategic plan instead of moving forward.

The easiest way to create buy-in for your strategic plan is to ensure that all the important stakeholders have input into the plan. When people have a hand in creating the plan, it becomes “their” plan, and they take ownership of it. In short, participation creates buy-in. Provide partners with an opportunity to be heard on the elements of the strategic plan, including new initiatives, strategic directions, steps to be taken to reach the firm’s goals, benchmarks and deadlines.

In addition to the internal stakeholders, law firms should also consider including external stakeholders (i.e., clients) in the strategic planning process. This can be done in several ways, including client surveys, focus groups and individual client meetings. Getting clients’ perspective on the challenges they face, the current trends in their industries and their expectations for their legal representation can be invaluable.

Shorten the Term of the Plan

Although law firms are typically slow to change and often lag behind other businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid pace of artificial intelligence have demonstrated how important it is to be agile. Yet, according to the survey responses, over 70 percent of law firms are still creating strategic plans that they expect will not be fully implemented for more than three years.

With the rapid pace of change in today’s marketplace, a plan that cannot or will not be executed within three years is likely to be outdated before it is implemented. As the authors note, “Planning over a shorter time frame offers flexible guidelines that allows you to adapt as needed, and as your future changes. Initiatives that last for around six to twelve months allows [sic] experimentation across different projects. It also helps prevent you from being blind-sided by unexpected trends, competitive disruptions or new technology. This type of planning allows for the fact that if some initiative isn’t a huge success, there is less cost to any mistakes and less lost morale.”

Ensure Accountability

Have you ever left a meeting with a clear idea of a goal and the action steps that need to be taken to reach the goal, only to find out at the next meeting that nothing was done because no one was assigned to complete those action steps or because no deadlines were agreed upon?

When clear responsibility for action steps has not been established, it is common for everyone to leave the meeting thinking that someone else is responsible for ensuring that those action steps will be completed. This lack of accountability is an obstacle to implementing strategic plans as well.

Creating the strategic plan is only the first step. All the (nonbillable) time and effort that goes into creating a strategic plan is wasted if the plan is never implemented. And yet, only 18.6 percent of the respondents to the survey indicated that almost all their strategic plan had been implemented (“all” was not one of the response choices). For the plan to result in change, it must be implemented, and that requires accountability.

When no deadlines, check-in dates, benchmarks or follow-up plans have been confirmed, the strategic plan can easily be forgotten. Only 14.6 percent of survey respondents indicated that they reviewed, or if necessary, revised their strategic plan “several times a year” and another 19.5 percent said they reviewed their strategic plan annually. The authors advise regularly reviewing the strategic plan to determine whether progress is being made, and whether adjustments are necessary.

Some law firm leaders who responded to the survey seemed to recognize these problems, indicating that in the future, they would change the strategic planning process to include “continued refinement of execution and benchmarks for periodic accountability checks” or to be “more focused on where to win and who will be accountable for making it happen.”

Not surprisingly, when asked about their satisfaction with various parts of the strategic planning process, “implementation with designated responsibility and timelines” was one of the elements respondents rated with the highest level of dissatisfaction. Only 15 percent of respondents found their overall strategic planning process to be “excellent,” with another 11 percent rating it “good.”

By ensuring that the strategic planning process is externally focused, involves the right stakeholders, is focused on the next one to three years and includes accountability––both by assigning responsibility for specific elements of the plan and by developing benchmarks and a regular schedule of review––firms will increase the likelihood of both implementation of and satisfaction with their strategic plan and the strategic planning process.