Law firm strategic planning or just a bunch of tactics?

Last night, during a break at the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s Fall conference, I watched an MSNBC commentator talk about the presidential campaign and the candidates’ strategic plans, or lack thereof. Then, I went to dinner with Allison Shields and Aviva Cuyler. We talked about the strategic planning process of law firms. We agreed that very few law firms we’ve seen have such a plan in place. During our conversation, I recalled a managing partner telling my large law firm Managing Partners Roundtable meeting just this week that his firm created a strategic plan about a year ago and had projected several scenarios, one of which was an economic downturn … and what his firm would do if such an event occurred. He said his firm is doing fine today, still staying close to their strategic plan.

Whether influenced by the media or based on my own conclusions, or a combination of both, it seems tto me hat Senator Obama has stayed calm during periods of difficulty during his campaign. His minions have said they had a “game plan” (translated to mean a strategic plan) and they were sticking to it. Senator MacCain, on the other hand, has not said he has a game plan and appears to be jumping from one tactic to another … seemingly reacting to the day’s news rather than an overarching game plan, or strategic plan. Irrespective of which candidate one supports, the observation of the pundit that the Republican candidate didn’t seem to have a strategic plan jolted me. I hadn’t thought of the political process as being helped by a “plan.”  Duh.  But, of course. Everyone benefits from having a strategic plan that provides a road map that guides you on a path from where you are to where you want to be. Tweaking it, making adjustments from time to time, is quite appropriate.  Just like making alterations to an estate plan from time to time based on marriages, deaths and other family changes.  Even junking a strategic plan is o.k. when circumstances and assumptions change. But, a replacement strategy should be developed in its stead, not just a series of jumps from here to there. That feels too much like Alice tumbling past the Cheshire cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Can law firms benefit from a strategic plan? Quite clearly, the answer is a resounding yes! I’m actually surprised at how few firms, both large and small, have a strategic business plan in place. Managing partners in our Managing Partners Roundtable say that they are peaceful, despite the current financial turmoil, because of the strategic planning process they have in place.

A strategic plan is a forward looking set of goals and objectives, while tactics are ways to implement and achieve those goals, objectives and mission. Looking at America’s corporate structure, all Corporate 100 have strategic plans in place. The failure rate of business in general, according to statistics I’ve seen is 95%, most of which do not have plans. I think there is a correlation between these two factoids.

Those firms without a plan merely hop from one paycheck to another. If they’re successful, it is quite by accident.  As the Cheshire cat said to Alice, if you don’t know where you want to go, just keep going and you’ll get there. (Paraphrased.) Tactics, and especially effective tatics, are important to develop. But, these tactics must be in the context of a firm’s goals and mission.



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