In Successful Law Firms, Actions Speak Louder than Plans

Print PDF

By Gerry Riskin | Jul 7, 2015

Time for action clock“Doing” wins out over “Strategizing”

Studies predictably show that firms with a plan do better than firms without a plan.

As managing partner, you need to determine whether your firm actually has a plan or not. Here is a test that will tell you if you do –

Choose a member of your firm at random and ask her/him what the firm plan is. If you get an answer that resembles your concept of your plan, you win. Winning would place you in rarefied air — most lawyers have no idea what their firm plan is (even the lawyers who were on the committee that drafted it).

The first step in implementing a plan is to communicate it, so that all stakeholders are on the same page. Once you have done that, you need to decide how you will execute it. Here are some suggestions that might help you get it right.

Be careful that what you plan passes the practicality test.

When senior partners lean back in their chairs to create a “plan,” they typically envelop each other in profound abstractions sifted through the filter of critical and analytical thought. The result is a work of art that is absolutely incomprehensible (except by those who created it) and therefore incapable of being executed. To make it worse, several senior people now have a stake in an unworkable plan.

Imagine yourself in a car that is being driven by several strong-minded individuals all at the same time, each with a different route and even a different destination in mind. Clearly, this is a pointless exercise. If you want to help your firm succeed, maintain a light touch on the steering wheel: give your senior leadership team a very short list of issues that are worthy of a place in your plan.

Decide how you will enlist the help of those who need to participate in the execution of the plan.

Have you ever tried to persuade someone to buy another brand of smart phone or automobile than the one they already own, or to change their minds on an issue relating to politics or religion? Okay. Good. Then you know how hard it is to change anyone’s mind about anything. People are deeply invested in their own opinions, biases and prejudices. In relation to firm planning, rather than arguing about the overall objectives, what you need to do is to show the lawyers whose help you need how the firm’s plan is going to help them to achieve their own objectives.

Encourage the firm’s lawyers to take small, incremental steps toward an objective with which they all agree.

As lawyers, we don’t normally think in incremental steps. We think in giant leaps. Ask a lawyer to write an article or make a speech and the typical lawyer will say that the only step involved is to “Write an article” or “Deliver a speech.” BZZZZT! Wrong! Writing an article or a speech begins with a single step – choosing a topic that is relevant to the audience. And how do you do that? By taking more, smaller steps: reviewing recent cases, perhaps, or observing recent trends in the industry you serve. After you decide on a topic, you move on to the next stage of writing your speech or article, and you break that down into small steps, too.

Your firm plan must be broken down into incremental steps as well, and appropriate constituencies within the firm must decide the baby steps that will be taken to achieve the objectives that affect them. By achieving one small step at a time, the team will gain a sense of accomplishment in moving toward an agreed-upon larger goal.

Create metrics to help you measure what you achieve.

If you know exactly what is supposed to happen next, you can determine whether it occurs or not: achievement of a step becomes a binary (yes/no) issue. Without metrics, you will pass George or Elizabeth in the hall and ask, “How’s the project going?” and you will invite meaningless replies such as, “Not too bad,” and “We are getting there.” Instead you need to be able to ask, “Has your team completed that list of top ten corporate targets?” – a question that requires a yes/no response. The clearer you are on what you expect to happen next, the greater the probability that your expectations will be met.

Firm leadership must over-communicate and then over-communicate again: You need to become obsessed with reporting back to the firm.

To return to our driving metaphor, imagine that the next time you take out your car, you find that the dashboard has been covered with masking tape. Will you take the car out in that condition – not knowing at what speed you are travelling, the oil pressure, the RPMs and engine temperature, or how much fuel remains and how much farther you can drive before the tank is empty? Not likely.

Keep in mind that your firm has absolutely no dashboard when it comes to the progress of the firm’s plan except what you communicate directly. You are the dashboard. Car dashboards update themselves in real time and are accessible continuously. A dashboard in an automobile cannot over-communicate. Neither can you.

The greatest minds with the greatest thoughts are crucial to the contemplation of complex legal matters, but thoughts will never move your firm closer to its designated objectives. Create a plan that your people can correlate with their own visions of success, and then design the path they need to take in order to achieve it. It is your responsibility to keep the display illuminated: show your people their progress along the way, thus offering them a sense of fulfillment as they advance together toward the agreed-upon destination.