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Law Practice Today

January 2024

Strategic Planning Guidelines to Drive Strategic Alignment

David S Schaefer

Summary

  • The strategic development process is intended to result in certain outputs for inclusion in writing the strategic plan.
  • Implementation of the strategic plan is usually accomplished through an action plan. The action plan is customized based on how much change is contemplated by the strategic plan
  • Strategic development is a process that will take some time, should not be rushed, and should prompt critical thinking, as well as research (internally and externally), about the firm’s identity and core values.
Strategic Planning Guidelines to Drive Strategic Alignment
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Strategic Planning is a Journey, and the Destination is Not the Strategic Plan

Strategic planning is a colloquial term that is usually intended to encompass both strategic development or analysis and then reducing the results into a written strategic plan. While this may be a common understanding, strategic planning does not stop there.  Since the ostensible purpose of strategic planning is the achievement of goals, much of the literature on the subject suggests that strategic planning is a process that begins with strategic development and ends with the achievement of the goals outlined in the strategic plan. Regardless of the degree to which the goals are achieved, many studies have shown that companies that continuously engage in a regular cycle of strategic development, goal setting, implementation, and review do better than those that do not. That has been my experience as well. This is the journey. These guidelines are intended to aid law firm leaders in developing a strategic planning process that seeks to align and sustain the alignment of, their firm’s mission (or core values), vision, infrastructure, and strategy.

Planning for the Journey

Like any journey, the starting point is the commitment to go on the journey. For law firms, this means aligning with the governing body, other senior leadership, and key or influential partners and executives (collectively, the “key stakeholders”) to gain consensus that strategic planning is important, deserves the required resources, and going forward, will be a permanent part of the firm’s leadership and management of both the practice of law and the business of law.

Usually in parallel to obtaining the commitment is the task to assemble the core team members and identify other resources, within and outside the firm, instrumental in the development and analysis, drafting, and presentation of the strategic plan (or iterations thereof) to the various constituencies.   The implementation, oversight, and review of the strategic plan will be established as part of the strategic plan.

It is essential to the success of the first part that there is a respected leader who can marshal the resources, including the firm’s partners, necessary for the process. As in any initiative of this nature, there must be an effective leader.  In the parlance of strategic planning, such a leader acts as a facilitator. The facilitator can be a leader of the firm, but not all leaders can be effective facilitators, whether as a matter of skills, temperament, availability, or otherwise.  In firms that do not have leadership experience in the strategic planning function, they must look to the outside externally for a guide for the journey, at least through the step of preparing a strategic plan. 

Getting Started: Strategic Development

At the outset, strategic development is a process that will take some time, should not be rushed, and should prompt critical thinking, as well as research (internally and externally), about the firm’s identity and core values, where the firm is situated in its market, where the firm wants to go, and how the firm intends to get there.  Since virtually all firms operate through units of departments or groups defined by law practices, industries, or a combination, this portion of the process should consider each unit.  As a practical matter, the strategic development of the firm will be an aggregation and assimilation of the strategic development of each unit.

Initially, the facilitator and the members of the core team should focus on soliciting answers from the key stakeholders and likely others to the following questions:

  • What do you want the firm/unit to do?
  • How do you want the firm/unit to do it?
  • What resources does the firm/unit need to do it?
  • How long will it take for the firm/unit to do it?
  • What do you want the firm/unit to stop doing?
  • What would the firm/unit look like if it did what leadership wants it to do?
  • What would the firm/unit look like if it did not do what leadership wants it to do?

Substantively, the foregoing is intended to supplement the research and analysis of the firm and the marketplace. As a matter of process, it is intended to build support for what goes into the strategic plan. Focus initially on the “why” and then the “what” and the “how.”

As previously noted, strategic development takes time. Soliciting information from key stakeholders is only one component of the process. Many firms do not give themselves enough time to plan properly, especially in terms of gathering market information. Among the common deficiencies of strategic planning processes and strategic plans are the lack of a meaningful effort at differentiation, too little client input, and the avoidance of hard choices (i.e., no articulation of what the firm will not do).   Do not take shortcuts in the research phase — that will lead to bad information coming out further in the process. Also, do not ignore negative information you may learn as a law firm leader. Overcoming adversity is one way for firms to grow.  If the firm does not have a client feedback program in place, the strategic planning process should be used as a catalyst to start one.

As part of the strategic development process, pay attention to your firm’s culture, its infrastructure (e.g., human, financial, and technological resources), and its ability and readiness to adapt to change. Among the failures of strategic planning teams are that they can focus too much on the future and develop a large number of many ambitious goals that are ill-defined and neglect to consider the firm’s strengths that got the firm to where it is today and the infrastructure to achieve them. On the other hand, some strategic planning teams tend to recommend goals and objectives that avoid risks or the need to make changes, rather than manage risks. The goals and objectives need to take all these attributes into account.

Outputs from the Strategic Development Process

The strategic development process is intended to result in the following outputs for inclusion in writing the strategic plan:

Where is the firm now?

  • Mission or purpose statement
  • Core values
  • Competitors and competitive analysis
  • Industry and practice group assessment
  • Client input

Where is the firm going?

  • Vision statement
  • Internal and external forces currently driving or obstructing the firm and what, if anything, the firm needs to do to change or reinforce

How does the firm get to where it wants to go?

  • Goals
  • Objectives
  • Operations plan, including capacity, that addresses who manages and monitors the strategic plan
  • Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and performance metrics

Make your Strategic Plan SMART

The last section above – how does the firm get from here to there – is the crux of the strategic plan. The strategic planning team – and law firm leadership – should be cognizant that the interplay among the goals, the objectives, and the KPIs and performance metrics is perhaps the single most important key to success. The objectives should support the goals and the KPIs and performance metrics should be in furtherance of the objectives as either leading or lagging indicators. What ties them all together is that the objectives are SMART, namely: Smart; Measurable; Achievable; Realistic; and Time-Bound. Each letter of the SMART acronym focuses on a different aspect that makes the objectives more focused and the goals more achievable. A detailed discussion is beyond the scope of these Guidelines.  There is, however, plenty of literature resources on this topic.

Writing the Strategic Plan: Reducing Strategic Analysis to a Written Plan

Once the team has obtained the outputs of the strategic analysis, it is time to reduce those outputs to writing. One of the most common inquiries is the request for a strategic plan template.  This question is not unexpected given that attorneys frequently use templates, models, and precedence in their practice. My response is that a strategic plan shares many of the elements of a good, comprehensive story of a journey, and, therefore, the firm should write its own story in form and substance that will best resonate within the firm.  While we do not have a template, we have addressed above and summarized below the topics that should be considered for the written plan.  While an effective strategic plan does not have to include all the possible topics summarized below, there are at least four essential elements, namely: the goals, the objectives, the practice/industry group analysis, and the applicable KPIs and metrics. Nonetheless, the strategic plan should include all the elements that are necessary or desirable for your firm to use as the guide to implement the strategic plan. See the Illustrative Table of Contents and Commentary below.

Although a detailed discussion of how to write the strategic plan is beyond the scope of these Guidelines, it is highly recommended that the strategic plan be written with a view toward it being abbreviated and segmented into several permutations and combinations for it to be presented to different classes of stakeholders in the firm, and, potentially, those outside the firm. If the various personnel within the firm are not aware of the firm’s strategy and their role in its implementation and success, then it is not likely that the firm or those personnel will succeed. One cautionary note is that writing the strategic plan, including preparing the presentation and other collateral material, takes time, as does the presentation to various audiences.

Communicating the Strategic Plan

The key stakeholders (and likely others) should have the entire strategic plan. Nonetheless, comprehension, buy-in, and commitment to implement the strategic plan will be significantly enhanced if effort is devoted to developing meaningful and impactful ways to present the strategic plan to various audiences. At a minimum, it is recommended that elected firm leadership deliver an executive summary and a PowerPoint-style presentation in person or via video. Since most strategic plans contain confidential information and may be too detailed for most personnel, an abbreviated version should be prepared and presented to a wider audience. Finally, there are some elements of a strategic plan – mission, vision, and values – that, if prepared, should be widely distributed to all personnel. Reminding them of your firm’s mission, vision, and values reinforces their importance to the firm. These documents can be included on the firm’s intranet, employee manual handbook, and other visuals displayed around the firm. Finally, some of all of those elements will have value to audiences outside the firm, such as clients, prospective clients, prospective hires, and in some cases, strategic partners and vendors.

The Next Step in the Journey: Implementation

Implementation of the strategic plan is usually accomplished through an action plan. The action plan is customized based on how much change is contemplated by the strategic plan, the firm’s readiness to change, and the capabilities and infrastructure available. Like the strategic planning process itself, leadership and facilitation are essential. The cautionary note here is not to skimp on this phase or all the work that went into the strategic planning process will be for naught.

Illustrative table of contents of a strategic plan and commentary

Title or Topic Desirability Comments
Executive Summary Desirable Essential if the plan is lengthy
Company Description Desirable Useful to level set and sometimes useful to set out how the firm got to where it is today
Mission or Purpose Statement Highly Desirable Sometimes a mission or purpose statement is combined with the vision statement
Core Values Highly Desirable Often combined with mission or purpose statement
Vision Statement Highly Desirable     See above
Goals  Essential Should be consistent with the duration of the covered period
Objectives Essential Supports the goals
Practice/Industry Group Analysis Essential Typically, this is where the SWOT analysis would be included
Marketing Plan Optional  Often in a separate plan and supplemented by practice/industry group plans
Capacity Highly Desirable Often combined with operations plan and included in a separated document; also often bypassed
Operations Plan Highly Desirable Often either in a separate document or bypassed
Financial Projections Highly Desirable Often bypassed 
KPIs & Performance Metrics  Essential SMART formula: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound

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