Many law firms of a reasonable size may well have conducted some form of strategy review within the last five to ten years. This makes many partners of law firms and indeed their leaders somewhat resistant to further reviews, especially if much of the previous strategy remains unfulfilled or in cases where the more intractable strategic initiatives have stubbornly resisted implementation satisfactorily or at all. Failure to implement can become a vicious circle. If the firm has a history of uncompleted projects, partners will tend to keep their heads down when a new project is introduced and bide their time until yet another initiative bites the dust.
There are a number of ways to revive or kickstart stalled projects. Persistence is certainly necessary, and law firm leaders have often told me that they had to be just like a dog with a bone to see through some of their initiatives. As well as persistence in the face of opposition or indifference, there are three methods which leaders can use to gain or regain impetus.
Repaint the vision
Visions do not always have to focus on nirvana. Sometimes, a doom-and-gloom vision is a necessary wake-up call. Bad news can therefore help to kickstart action. The loss of an important client, the defection of a key partner or the prospect of poor financial results have all been used by leaders to start or reinvigorate projects. The implementation of a revised performance management system or actions to resolve a consistently underperforming team or office may have resisted change in good times, but may be easier to solve against a pessimistic backdrop. Conversely, changes to partner profit sharing are always more tricky when profits are going down and not up. Equally, a more positive vision may be needed to introduce the possibility of merger or an acquisition. Here scenario planning may enable the leaders to present the alternative possible future states that the firm may face.
Remodel the strategic project
If a project has stalled or remained uncompleted, it sometimes helps to modify the initiative or make substantial changes to it – though just a change of name is not enough. Clearly, duplication of effort should be avoided by utilising the good work that has been done before. But fresh research, updated financial analysis and further insights into possible downsides can all help to give the project a make-over. Work can also be done to resolve previous obstacles and sticking points.
It can sometimes help to reduce the scope of the project. I have, for example, known some firms that have needed more than one attempt to implement a successful client relationship management program, and this has often been achieved by limiting the scheme initially to a pilot program affecting only a few key clients.
Change the project team or leader
Getting busy practising lawyers to take on non-billable projects has never been easy, and when they do agree to head up a project or initiative, they often promise much and deliver little, blaming work overload for their inactivity or lack of success. Whilst continuity is good, sometimes a complete change of team is necessary to one with fresh ideas and no pre-conceptions or historical baggage. Sometimes changing the project leader is enough.
By way of example, I know several firms that have made several unsuccessful attempts to build or strengthen one of their departments. The building of a successful corporate department, for instance, often falls into the pile of projects that seem too difficult to achieve. It is not easy for regional or mid-sized firms to build thriving commercial departments, and all too easy for partners using the “We have tried before” argument to resist renewed attempts to bolster up groups that lack critical mass, a decent client base or quality partners. The building of a successful corporate department should never be treated as a Holy Grail initiative for a mid-sized firm, and deep research is always needed to see if such a move is strategically necessary, practicably viable or even likely to be welcomed by the firm’s core client base. There has to be a compelling answer to the question of why a capable corporate partner or group of partners should ever be willing to join your firm. Buoyed up by favourable research, however, an enthusiastic new team or project leader may be able to bring the success that has previously eluded the firm.
The tendency of partners to resist change on the grounds that “We have tried this before and it didn’t work” remains a strong disincentive for a leadership team to consider new ideas, introduce new plans or refresh uncompleted projects – even where plans and projects seem to be critical to success. People often prefer the “certain imperfect,” rather than the risk and uncertainty of change in pursuit of something better. There are however basically only three types of law firm – those that make things happen, those that watch things happening, and those who say “what happened?” It is better to be in the first category than in the last.
This article first appeared in Managing Partner for December 2014 (Volume 17 Issue 4) and is reproduced with their permission