Strategy for Law Firms – Nine Tips for Management

Strategy is About Winningsource: Google images

Strategy is About Winning
source: Google images

Let’s face it, putting an effective strategy into place isn’t easy! Just mentioning the word ‘strategy’ can bring grown partners out into cold sweats!

When we ask, most firms tell us that they’ve got a strategy. But we sense that something is invariably not working smoothly.  From our perspective, we see the Managing Partner or Board having a relatively clear sense of where they are trying to sail the ship, but we also notice the following:

  • This strategy is rarely described in the same way by partners or senior support staff
  • Even if there is a clear agreement as to what the strategy is, a substantial proportion of partners is not committed to it –they might even disagree with important elements of it
  • There isn’t much happening to implement the strategy and what is happening progresses painfully slowly causing management or staff to get frustrated.

Does any of this sound like your firm? If it does, you will be reassured to know that assistance is to hand. Sherwood is undergoing a study into current best practice in strategy development. Our starting point, based on our own experience, is that nine key factors are at play, as described below. We use the terms strategy, vision, plan loosely to reflect the language typically used in firms.

1.     Is there a vision, goal or 3-5 year plan for your firm?

Many consider this to be the starting point. There doesn’t need to be a big heavy document. But something needs to exist in people’s heads so that they can make decisions which help the firm move towards its goal.

The more clearly the firm’s vision is defined, the more likely it will be that practice groups will have strategies which are aligned to the firm’s strategy. The same argument applies to partners having aligned individual plans.

One managing partner puts particular emphasis on defining and clarifying the firm’s culture and values, saying: “I think it’s more important that we work together with a willingness to live to a set of values and the discipline to see this through.”

  • 2.     To what extent is this overall vision known to all partners and key staff?

Firms tend to underestimate how difficult it is to communicate the vision. It is rare for us to get the same answers from partners in a firm, suggesting there is room for improving the clarity of the message.

One firm developed a strategy based on the number 5. Apparently this strategy is still referred to by staff because it was so memorable. It went something like this:

 In 5 years, we’ll be on 5 floors generating £50 million in fees with 500 people and one of the top 50 firms.

A board member of one firm thinks it’s important to express the strategy in terms of stories: “A problem with strategy is that it sounds so dull. We try to use stories and say to clients that we’re going to stay with them through changes in their lives”.

Another tip is to make the goals attractive. More people would like to think that their ship is sailing to the sandy beaches of Rio rather than a sweat shop!

  • 3.     How often is the vision referred to?

Leaders tend to think that, after they’ve told people something once, it’s clearly in everybody’s heads. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way! People need reminding repeatedly. In part this is because there are so many other things being said by management (eg ‘get those timesheets out!’, ‘chase those debtors!’ etc) that the vision stuff gets drowned out. Also, people won’t see it as important unless it gets repeated. This is a good example of actions speaking louder than words.

A CEO of a regional firm puts it like this. “As a result of talking to Sherwood about strategy, I’ve now realised that communication with staff is so important that I’ve introduced quarterly staff meetings so we can demonstrate the importance of the strategic message”.

Other tips are to have strategy elements referred to on the intranet startup page or on internal management memos. Also what about telling your clients?

  • 4.     To what extent are partners and staff committed to the vision?

This is key. If you have to chase people all the time, because the partners don’t have their heart into it, the strategy is looking unsustainable. Whatever the strategy involves, whether it’s developing new practice areas, or opening new offices, it’s going to take a lot of energy. It helps hugely if people can find their own enthusiasm.

Partners tend to be more committed to a vision when they can see that the goals clearly affect them. The more the strategy can be defined in terms of clients, sectors and types of work that affect the partners, the more commitment you are likely to get.

5.     How widely were partners and key staff consulted in creating the vision?

In our experience, this is the biggest single contributor to building commitment. If the strategy descends from on high as a pile of wizzy PowerPoint slides, it might win people’s heads over but it is unlikely to win their hearts. Asking partners and staff questions about where their passion lies and what concerns they have about the future is a good starting point. Management then need to show they’ve listened and build in what people say into the plans.

But what happens if certain partners don’t get the overall strategy they want? Well, the final strategy needs selling big time! What can win partners over is if they can see a rosy future for themselves by implementing the strategy. What status will they have? What role? What career prospects? What remuneration? If they can see an attractive outcome for themselves, partners are more likely to commit to the strategy.

6.     To what extent is management actively motivating partners and staff?

Enacting the strategy is tough. Management should be going around the firm asking people how they’re getting on and showing that they care. Not so much formal meetings. More walking the corridors and catching people at the coffee machines.

Everybody is different. What motivates one person might not motivate another. But most people will respond well to some pats on the back and a few ‘well done’s’.

  • 7.     At what speed is the vision being implemented?

Most law firm leaders we know are often frustrated at the speed of progress.  A CEO said: “Of course progress is slow – we’re a law firm!” The truth is that it does take time to do big strategic things. Sometimes the targets set are over ambitious. This can be demoralising. We believe it’s better to make progress which is slow but sure.

It can help to have frequent and achievable milestones. One firm has tried having quarterly bonuses based on results over successive 3 month period.

Another view is that it is better to have the herd thundering even if it’s going in slightly the wrong direction.

  • 8.     To what extent is lack of progress tolerated?

Many law firm leaders find this one of the most challenging aspects of their job – tackling underperformance. It tends to be left with leaders crossing their fingers that the issue will somehow go away. It rarely does. Our advice here is to be really clear up front about what is expected and to have lots of formal and informal review meetings to pick up early if progress is slow.

Any person who initially struggles to achieve the new objectives should be offered support.

  • 9.     To what extent is management leading by example?

People respond more to what you do, rather than what you say. If you’re not doing your bit to implement the strategy, why should anybody else?!

It can be useful for management to agree how they are going to demonstrate their leadership in implementing the new strategy.

One CEO said: “I’ve also got a meeting booked in with my senior partner. I’m going to use your checklist as an agenda and we’re both going to assess how we’re doing on strategy. I think that’s going to be really useful. We might agree an alternative approach to make better progress.”

Final Thoughts 

If you’re looking for some fundamental structure to your approach to strategy, there are three key concepts in successful strategy formulation and implementation.

ENGAGEMENT – Consult widely, involve partners and staff and build commitment 

VISION – Create an attractive vision of the future and keep reminding people where you’re all sailing to 

EXECUTION – Be magnanimous with your praise yet merciless in making it happen

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