The Planning Process: Navigation vs.White Water Rafting

During the Great Recession, many previously successful business organizations with detailed and elaborate planning processes failed. Some pundits concluded that planning is not possible in these volatile times. Rather than navigating into the future, these pundits said the best any organization can do is a form of white water rafting, riding the rapids to cope with events as they happen. Given the individualistic mindset, short-term focus and flexible operating style typical of lawyers, such an attitude is too prevalent in law firms.

It is important for lawyers and firms not to confuse plans and tactics. A strategic plan is a forward-looking set of goals and objectives, while tactics are ways to implement and achieve those goals, objectives and mission. Tactics, and especially effective tactics, are important, but only within the context of a firm's goals and mission. (This is not the time or place to go into the nuances among mission, vision and goals; I'm looking at the essence between goals and tactics here.)

For planning to happen, all of the key players must agree on the direction of the firm. If the partners are not clear about the overall goals as well as specific objectives and strategies, then the planning process is bound to be sabotaged and of little use. As partners "buy in" to the idea, all members of the firm — including associates, paralegals and staff — should have input into the planning process.

For solo practitioners, the buy-in requirement can encompass a spouse, "significant other" or entire family.

Thus the first step of any law firm plan is to define and agree upon objectives. With this as a foundation:

  • Step 2 is agreement to make and abide by the plan.
  • Step 3 is to gather data, analyze it and develop realistic modifications for the future.
  • Step 4 is firm leadership's agreement to abide by the plan.
  • Step 5 is communication and firm-wide agreement.
  • Step 6 is continual assessment of progress toward plan goals.

Often the biggest objection to a plan is that it locks the firm into rigidity at a time when flexibility is needed. But good planning is not static; it is meant to be a guide against which to judge actions or outcomes. If a certain aspect of a plan is not working or needs some adjustment, change it.

Plans can always be revised to better reflect changing situations — so long as the firm knows what outcome it wants. Making regular adjustments is quite appropriate, just as people make alterations to an estate plan when family circumstances change. Even junking a strategic plan is acceptable when circumstances and assumptions warrant. But, a replacement strategy should be developed in its stead, not just a series of jumps from here to there.

Other planning efforts can be encompassed in a broad strategic plan. These can include a marketing plan to focus on ideal clients, a cash flow plan to guide allocation of revenues and expenses, or a succession plan to transfer client duties as lawyers approach retirement. Like the overall strategic plan, such secondary plans should identify the desired business outcomes within a given time period, define what is necessary to achieve those outcomes, and work toward them consistently.

As all plans are continually reviewed and revised, the planning process becomes institutionalized — and the firm's navigation inspires confidence.

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