Strategic Planning in Law Firms: Essential Steps for Success

Law firms doing the “same old thing” isn’t going to work anymore. Despite all the legal industry changes discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, 66% of Managing Partners report that their law firm’s strategy has not changed.  It is imperative for today’s law firms to have a strategic plan that evolves with the firm and changes in the market; however, only 24% of law firms report having strategic plans, even though 71% of Managing Partners report that having a strategic plan improved their firm’s performance.

Strategic PlanningWhat makes a strong strategic plan?

Successful strategic planning is an ongoing process; the first step is creating the plan, but just as crucial is the follow-up. Steps include:

  • Implementation
  • Review
  • Making changes as needed (and things can change fast)

When drafting a strategic plan, it’s important to think about the process–and to incorporate measurable capabilities.  The tenets of good goal setting should apply–keep things simple, realistic, and achievable, looking ahead three to five years with annual goals.  As you create the plan, build it with the knowledge that it is a living document that must change, because the world is changing.  It should function as a sort of guiding principal, and it reminds your firm of your priorities when crisis situations arise.

Chart, Data

With rapidly changing technology, crises and unexpected opportunities, keeping in mind your strategic objectives is a good way to keep your firm focused on your priorities.  When surveyed, Managing Partners indicated the most important strategic objectives were Marketing and Business Development, Succession Planning, Firm Growth and improved lawyer productivity.

Where should a law firm allocate Marketing and Business Development resources?

With Marketing and Business Development as one of the most important pieces of the strategic plan; it’s important to describe what a solid strategy looks like.  For many firms, marketing and business development is not a top priority–it should be.  The research for Re-Envisioning focused questions on trends in allocating marketing resources in the following seven areas:

  • Website and Internet Marketing
  • Firm Events & Seminars
  • Organizational Involvement
  • Charitable Contributions
  • Rankings and Directories
  • Marketing Staff
  • Lawyer Sales Training

When asked about 2015 investments v. 2016 investments, it was clear that most firms are continuing to do what they have done before.  According to Re-Envisioning, “firms are doing the same old things because ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ budgets are set by equity partners unwilling to support marketing expenses, or there is a ‘let’s wait and see what the other firms are doing’ attitude.”  Investing in Marketing & Business Development can pay off in a big way, but of the firms surveyed, only 25% of them invested more than 4% of their revenue in Marketing  & Business Development.   To successfully move forward, law firms need to change their perspective and to truly innovate in terms of their Marketing and Business Development practices.

A good place to start is with the clients your firm already has–and wants to keep.  Break them into A list, B list and C list–so you can identify who may be happier working with a competitor, and who you want to make sure stays with your firm.

What should a law firm consider when developing a business development model?

Beyond an inventory of current clients, it’s important to develop a BD model–representing how your firm views business development and how it works for your firm’s situation.  Your model should answer the following questions:

  • Why do people buy?
  • How do they buy?
  • What are prospects and clients motivations and fears?
  • What is the process for finding prospects and transitioning them into clients?
  • Where does business come from?
  • How does your business development efforts focus on building relationships?
  • How does your firm become a trusted advisor to your clients and community?
  • What differentiates your firm and your lawyers, and how do those differences align with your clients’ needs?

Asking questions like this can help your firm ensure that your marketing and business development resources are going in the right direction–and can help your firm create a deliberate way forward, with an integrated approach to ensure goals are met and resources are not squandered.  Additionally, creating a plan with measurable tenets can help your firm track return on investment so it’s clear what’s working and where additional investment might be warranted.

How does a law firm achieve buy-in for the marketing and business development plan?

Another area to consider is asking individuals in the firm–partners and associates– to create a personal business development plan.  By asking individuals to think about marketing and business development, your firm is demonstrating its commitment to these principals.  Additionally, asking partners and associates to think about how they can best contribute to business development encourages accountability and personal reflection, so individuals can find a way to contribute that is best for them, increasing the likelihood that the commitment will be lasting.

These changes may be around the corner, many law firms are incorporating them already.  Brent Turner, Client Development–Peer Monitor & Thought Leadership at Thomson Reuters, comments, “For the first time in many years, we’re seeing healthy acceleration in the marketing and business development budgets of US Law Firms, let primarily by AMLAW 200 firms.  We’re also seeing evidence that these investments are starting to pay off in a big way.” Terry Isner Jaffe PR Law firm business development



Copyright ©2017 National Law Forum, LLC

Seven Strategies to Succeed at Law Firm Leadership

The title “managing partner” falls short of the mark in describing the work of a law firm leader. “Chief executive officer,” in my opinion, is more accurate. Terminology evolves so that some titles no longer reflect their original meaning.

Managing partner has become such a term. When a managing partner is named, is the law firm really appointing a manager in the corporate sense? A manager, after all, is a caretaker responsible for oversight of a unit or department.

A recent survey on the topic of law firm management and leadership asked those polled to distinguish between a “manager” and a “leader.” Insights that the survey respondents offered included, “Management is mechanical, while leadership is inspirational,” and “The leader sets the direction and the plan, while the manager implements the plan.”

Another survey respondent was more pointed: “Managers implement what leaders want them to do. Most law firm managers want to be loved and not to lead.” Saying that managers want most to be loved may overstate the case. But it does sum up the problem. If a law firm needs vision, inspiration, motivation, cohesion, consensus, direction-setting and the establishing of firmwide goals, it needs strong leadership committed to that work.

Leading Lawyers 

The hard realities of law firm leadership are apparent. Among them:

  • The authority of lawyer management (or leadership) is derived from the willingness of the firm’s partners to be managed (or led).
  • Partners perceive themselves as being owners of the firm, having certain prerogatives and independence, not as employees to be managed.
  • Each firm has its own personality and culture, and the management techniques effective in one firm may or may not be successful in another.

In the face of these hard realities, many managing partners retreat into the noncontroversial confines of day-to-day management, putting aside attempts to exercise true leadership. What is needed instead is a well-thought-out plan to lead your firm forward into the 21st century.


1. Create Job Descriptions for Yourself, Your Successor and Other Firm Leaders.

Remember, you’re drafting a job description for a CEO, not a manager. Think of your job description as a contract with your partners. At a minimum, it should delineate the amount of time you will devote to management responsibilities. A CEO’s primary responsibilities should include strategic planning, setting the future direction of the firm, cultivating relationships with major clients, and identifying and grooming future firm leaders. To compensate for time lost from your personal practice, the job description should define your pay structure.

2. Redefine the Role of Practice Group Chair.

Practice group chairs are too often treated as lions among their prides. Often they are appointed because they are the senior member of the group or the most effective rainmaker. This does not mean they are the most effective manager, the best mentor or the most committed to the success of the firm. Practice group chairs should be elevated to the level of senior management. They should be given the full authority to manage their groups. Practice group leaders need to be chosen based on the ability and the commitment to lead.

3. Get to Know the Firm’s Client Base Personally.

No partner should “own” a key institutional client. Managing partners should reach out to client contacts and underscore the message that the firm—not only the client’s chosen counsel—is pleased to be of service. Ask the client for feedback, learn the client’s business and the industry, and strategize to help the client reach its goals. Do more for the firm’s clients than simply putting out fires.

4. Identify and Hire a Strong Chief Operating Officer.

If you are going to be an effective leader or CEO, you have to get the minutiae off your desk. Delegate day-to-day administrative responsibility to a strong, competent executive director or COO. This person should head up a team of business professionals and serve as your trusted “second hand” on the leadership team.

5. Offer Reforms to “Time and Money” Matters.

You will be asking senior management to take on a more extensive and defined role in the operations of the firm. Adjust the time demands on the executive committee and the practice group leaders to allow for sufficient nonbillable time for them to fulfill their management responsibilities. Likewise, adjust the compensation criteria for senior managers to acknowledge the time they must devote to management matters and for the firm-benefitting results that they achieve.

6. Start (or Reenergize) the Strategic Planning Process.

A strategic plan is a living document that requires modification and fine-tuning from the first day it is implemented. If you have been selected as the firm’s managing partner, presumably you have a vision of what you want the firm to become, what you want it to achieve. Sell this vision and muster a supporting coalition among the equity partners. You don’t need to win them all over, but you will need an effective critical mass and working majority. With this group at your back, start small and keep the initial goals simple. Suggest three or four one-year priority items with sufficient low-hanging fruit to show short-term wins. Consolidate your gains and move forward.

7. Maintain Your Firm’s Investment in Its Future.

The challenges of launching new initiatives, creating consensus and moving your firm forward can sometimes cause a firm leader to forget about the little things that, in the end, may prove to be just as important as greater goals. Don’t forget to implement a first-rate training and associate development program. Here lies the future of your firm. Don’t forget about marketing and business development initiatives. These provide the growth that will finance your firm’s future. Don’t forget about technology upgrades. These are the essential tools that keep your firm on the cutting edge and ahead of the pack. And don’t ignore your successor. Heirs apparent need the opportunity to learn the principles of law firm management.

The old Chinese proverb says that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. Becoming a leader of a law firm is similar. A CEO must, step by step, patiently bring along the uninterested, the doubters and the curmudgeons to join the advocates and the reformers. Bold vision and small steps are the stuff of leadership.

Copyright 2016 The Remsen Group