Edge International

In Successful Law Firms, Actions Speak Louder than Plans

Gerry Riskin

“Doing” wins out over “Strategizing”

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

As a 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 the 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.

Successful Strategy: The Essential Supporting Acts (Part Two)

Sean Larkan

In Part One of this article, I focused on some important pre-strategy initiatives which should be tackled to lay a sound foundation for successful strategy implementation.

Here are some others:

Key governance structures

Fundamental to strategy success is a cohesive partner effort and involvement. It is not something that can simply be done and driven at EXCO/Board or MANCO level. But there are still many firms that have not yet tackled fundamental structures like clarifying what is expected of partners – contribution and performance criteria, and how feedback around meeting those criteria should be gathered and fed back to partners. In some cases this may come with consequences, depending on the basis of your partner equity structures – meritocracy, lock-step or managed lockstep and so on. Depending on the culture of the partnership this will usually flow into partner performance management or feedback, support and development systems.

Get these in place and there is a much greater likelihood you will get your partners focused on assisting to implement firm strategy – after all, it will be a key contribution requirement and criterion for partners and they will be measured on this.


In some cases you may need to streamline decision-making structures in the firm. There are still firms, and quite large ones, who go through a laborious process of having partners review and agree upon virtually every decision of consequence about to be taken by a leader or management executive. Strategy requires decisions being taken, and decisiveness. It usually calls for partners to relinquish some control and decision-making powers to their managing partner/director.

Key information systems and management structures

Once you embark on a strategy exercise, and finalise partner performance management or feedback and development systems for partners, your information and support service management structures and personnel should, and will, be tested to the full. Where possible (in the time available), it is wise to vigorously review these at this early stage to ensure they are adequate and ready to support your strategic initiatives. Otherwise shortcomings here can in themselves cause strategy implementation to stumble or even fail.

The strategy document itself

As noted in Part One to this article, keep the document “lean and mean.” I would suggest limiting this to a short summary of your Core Purpose (however you decide to constitute that), your strategic key objectives (or call them “key result areas”) and key strategies.

Don’t bog it down with too much detail or layers of actions, time-lines and responsibilities for all and sundry in the firm. The detail can come later in the form of implementation plans by task force Leaders, practice/industry group heads, senior support service managers or even partners in their individual business plans.

The reason for this is that you want your strategy walking around in the heads of every partner and manager in the firm. This will only happen if it is short and punchy.

Too often the process of finalising the strategy is dragged out for far too long. As a result partners are lost along the way and interest in and support for the strategy initiative slips. Keeping the document short and focused on truly strategic issues assists greatly. You can test all your strategic key objectives by asking “Will success in achieving this objective have a massive impact on our firm?” If not, it is not strategic and shouldn’t be in your strategy. You will need to be vigilant as partners and managers will invariably try to bring in non-strategic albeit important items on to the list for attention.

Post Strategy

Strategy is good strategy when it works and gets results. You will need to spend most of your time on post-strategy exercises, which is contrary to what happens in most firms. By this point many are too often “tired of strategy”!

Task Forces

I find the simple structure of a very small task force (not a committee) headed up by one driven, energetic partner or support service manager can work wonders. They should report directly to the managing partner on implementation. Where appropriate, short implementation plans can be useful, provided they don’t become bigger than Ben Hur.

Other strategies

Bear in mind that successful firm strategy often runs into or requires other sub-strategies for success. These may include a People Strategy, Finance Strategy or even a Brand Strategy. It is important these follow the same principles and are carefully aligned with the main strategy.

Partner feedback and performance-management systems

This is where these systems come into their own, post-strategy. Partners should receive feedback on and sometimes be measured (depending on the natures of your partner structures) against how they contribute to the strategy-implementation phase.

Keep your strategy alive – stress-testing

Most of the benefits of strategy come not in formulation but in stress-testing and fine-tuning it along the way. Be sure to do this at regular intervals – annually or at most twice annually is usually enough.

There are many reasons for this – reporting successes or problem areas, keeping partners interested and motivated and adapting to changing market conditions. Strategy is a living animal, a journey rather than a destination, and one which never really ends, as firms adapt, strategise further and move on to new things to compete effectively – and ideally, to dominate.

Strategy on its own does not achieve success. It is rather everything that goes with strategy to ensure its success.

I hope these ideas will prompt readers to consider what these things may be in the case of your firm. Each firm will be different – as to culture, structures, stage of development, strategic prerogatives – and these will determine how you tackle and support your strategy to successful implementation and results.

Successful Strategy: The Essential Supporting Acts (Part One)

Sean Larkan

Behind successful firms is some form of successfully executed strategy. It can be short, punchy, even informal and, at a push, in someone’s head! The test is implementation and results, which always separates success from failure.

Strategy is not simply about ‘doing things better’; it is about achieving serious competitive advantage. It is high level, not operational or administrative.

The strategic plan itself is a relatively small part. It must be reinforced with many other supporting acts.

In this series of articles, aimed at small to medium firms starting out or wanting to upgrade their strategy process, I will outline some of these supporting exercises. If they are not undertaken it will seriously undermine a firm’s chance of getting results from strategy. Leaders will be challenged here – professionals like to jump straight into ‘doing stuff’: i.e. implementation.


The Strategy Document

The plan itself is often viewed as ‘the strategy’. In fact it is only a concise summation of key things that are sought, and, at a high level, how they will be achieved. Keep this document short and punchy. The strategy document must also be kept alive; it must be regularly updated.

But let’s consider some essential steps, ‘pre-strategy’.

Get your Partners Involved – from Inception

Get the partners involved upfront. This gets their support, shows them respect, generates ideas, identifies issues dear to them and improves chances of success and involvement down the line.

You must maintain their interest over a sustained period. They need to know how their role and contribution is valued and will make a difference. This is no easy task, but must be done. It requires real persistence. Keep your partners involved and interested but do not use too much of their time or bore them. This is a real test of leadership, as strategy is a journey not a destination and always a fine balancing act. It never truly has an ‘end’ and takes many twists and turns along the way.

Start by asking some searching open-ended questions based around the tried and tested SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities or threats) framework but also covering ‘core purpose’ items mentioned below. Also ask ‘What is going well?’ and ‘What could we do better?’ Challenge the partners to think about what in the firm:

  • it should ‘stop doing’ (e.g. a loss-leading practice area);
  • exhibits unrealised potential (e.g. taking advantage of existing client relationships);
  • are substantial hidden expenses (e.g. less than full utilisation of expensive legal or support staff).

Do this ‘one on one’ or via a survey, but keep it short, punchy and relevant. Be sure to revert with survey outcomes or at least a summation of key points. Your job is to keep them interested and involved. By consulting, communicating and showing respect you do this.

Core Purpose or Strategic Intent

There is no single way to deal with concepts such as ‘core purpose’ but there should be a structure to it. I like to think of core purpose as clarifying your vision (what you want to be or where you want to go), what kind of firm you will be (e.g. ‘managed’ lockstep), your key cultural attributes (how we do things around here), your values (beliefs and understandings of what you will tolerate and not tolerate), what legal practices you will undertake or industry sectors you will focus on and the locations where you will choose to do this. Get these clear up-front and you will have set a very nice foundation for what is to come.

This is yet another test of leadership as this is arguably the most difficult thing around which to maintain interest. You will be met with all the usual scepticism, cynicism and sometimes downright objection. You will have to work your way through this.

Another thing I like to do early on is combine the values and cultural attributes exercise into ‘guiding principles,’ an idea I got from Norton Rose. Guiding Principles is a simple concept everyone can understand and it simply seems to make sense to professionals, which is half the battle. Otherwise, you will forever find partners or staff confused by concepts such as values and cultural attributes and what they mean. It is another little step in trying to keep things simple.

I look forward to communicating further in subsequent articles on this important topic!