Ask any successful firm whether they spend time on strategic planning, and the answer is more than likely going to be “Yes.” It’s hard to accomplish anything without a plan. Whether you’re coaching a little league team, dining with a potential client, or preparing for trial, a well-thought out plan is often the key component to success.
Larger law firms are continuously engaged in strategic planning, incorporating new plans, and testing their viability and application, albeit with the help of an army of high-priced consultants. On the other hand, it’s estimated that only 15 percent of firms with nine attorneys or less work to develop a strategic plan. Which begs the question—why are we, as smaller law practices, reluctant to spend the time in developing a strategic plan? Likely you are neck deep in client matters, or maybe you think it’s a waste of time, it’s non-billable work and you need to eat this month, you don’t know where to start, or maybe you believe that the vague plan you have rattling around upstairs is more than sufficient to guide your firm to success. It may seem especially daunting for younger attorneys who have recently set out on their own—there is the fear of creating a plan and missing each of the stated goals, or worse yet, the concern of creating the wrong plan and ultimately putting yourself out of business.
Whatever the reason or apprehension, strategic plans are there to help you succeed, and in their most straightforward form, are a look at all the things your firm could be doing, and narrows those down to the things your firm is actually good at doing.
The advice below is not meant to be a law review article nor a regurgitation of a Harvard Business Review article on Porter’s Five Forces or a SWOT Analysis—there is plethora of great resources out there to help explain those concepts when your strategic plan reaches such a point. No—this is a very brief guide to help new practitioners get started on their strategic plans.
Who Are You and What Are You Good At?
Many people, experts included, get this part wrong. This is not who you want to be or where you see yourself in five years—this is where you are right now and what you realistically see as your firm’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. As a newer small practice attorney, you might have an exaggerated sense of accomplishment or a limited view of your potential abilities. Either way, clear your head and be completely honest with yourself and your current legal and non-legal skills. Do an internal audit and carefully review your financials. What type of client dominates your books? Is this due to skill or something else? What do your clients believe your strengths are? All of these are important questions to ask yourself when you start the planning process.
Clearly Define Your Mission and Goals
Where is your firm going to be in one to five years? Although that question is painful to write—as it reminds me of OCI—it is actually supposed to make you think about your current clients and whether they are the types of clients you would like to have in five years. If the answer is “No,” then you are likely making progress. What is the type of client you would like to have in five years? How do you sign more similarly situated clients? New attorneys on their own are constantly forced to grapple with the question of whether they are going to accept the less-than-ideal client or whether they are going to be more selective. Importantly, your answer does not need to be black and white; rather there can be a gradual progression toward selectivity incorporated into your strategic plan. Ultimately, the goal is to create a clear vision and then craft benchmarks that works toward and support that vision.
Define Your Expected Objectives
While creating financial benchmarks for the coming one to five years has its obvious importance in a strategic plan, you need to be realistic about the benchmarks you set for yourself. The benchmarks that you set need to be manageable and attainable; it does you no good to set a benchmark that triples your profits from the previous year without analyzing the steps needed to do so. There is the undeniable urge to set benchmarks that are more aligned with where you want to be and where you believe you should be, rather than where you truthfully believe you can get. This is not to say that you should sell yourself short—absolutely not. It’s more of a word of caution to fully research your financial goals before you commit yourself to a project too big to handle. Still, what is even more important than setting financial benchmarks is contemplating the steps that are needed to reach them. Many firms, large and small, measure themselves by smaller metrics, such as the number of newsletters contributed to, articles published, seminars delivered, networking events attended, and the number of new contacts and referral sources gained. Thinking about the smaller steps, rather than the larger ones, will help keep you on track with your strategic plan.
Hold Yourself and Your Team Accountable
Accountability is sometimes the hardest part of a strategic plan. There is often the perception that a smaller metric can be ignored if a larger benchmark is achieved, however, thinking like this doesn’t help the overall vision of the firm and will often lead to a gradual deterioration of the entire plan. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer for the right amount of incentives and penalties for achievements and failures, respectively, it is nonetheless important to stress that the benchmarks included in your strategic plan, large and small, were carefully analyzed and are essential pieces to the future success of your firm. Accountability is even more difficult for solo practitioners, as it is entirely up to the individual to hold him or herself accountable. Really—you’re only hurting yourself if you’re not following it.
Constantly Review Your Plan
There are inevitably going to be kinks in your plan. The key is to pinpoint what is working and what is not working and adjust the steps and metrics to account for any processes that are not working. At the beginning, reviewing the metrics you assigned to specific benchmarks on a monthly basis is a good start. This allows you to identify unrealistic benchmarks and less than ideal indicators early on. For example, if you set the mark of obtaining four new clients per month for the first quarter and you obtain two total, then this should help indicate that one of the steps in the process needs to be reevaluated. What steps did you formulate to acquire the clients? Maybe you set a goal of two blog posts per week to help acquire new clients. Instead, maybe you should set a goal of one blog post and one networking event per week. The most important thing to remember while planning is that your strategic plan should not be stagnant—it needs to be considered an ever evolving process that is going to need constant evaluation and testing to be successful.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Young Lawyers Division Solo, Small Firm, and General Practice newsletter, volume 1, number 2. Reprinted with permission. 2016© by the American Bar Association. All rights reserved.