Getting lawyers to accept planning

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Published on 5/8/06

The bane of many law firms is the problem of how to get individualistic attorneys to create and accept both a firm and individual business plans.

It's no secret that lawyers tend to be technicians who want to do what they love doing, whether it's negotiating, drafting a contract, litigating or some other task. They don't want to run a business, and they especially don't want to do business planning.

A plan doesn't have to be complicated. It can be as fundamental as identifying two or three desired business outcomes within a given time period, defining the behaviors necessary to achieve those outcomes, identifying whom to influence in order to get both the desired behaviors and the desired business results, and deciding how to influence them.

Generally, in my experience, successful planning comes from the top. The primary rainmakers of the firm, the management and managing partner all must be in concert: Planning is important and needs to be done by everyone in the firm.

Start with small projects, perhaps even individual coaching, to generate success with and enthusiasm for the process.

All of the key players should agree on the firm's plan. 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. Partners need to "buy in" to a plan.

Solos are not immune from this requirement either. They must get a spouse or "significant other" to accept the general direction of the practice. That is why the first element of any plan is to agree to make and abide by the plan.

The starting point is to gather historical information about the firm's business performance, analyze it and develop realistic modifications for the future. This involves marketing and financial data in the form of documents, statistics, reports, survey results and, when there is nothing else, educated guesses. All this data will create a snapshot of the firm's current marketing and economic health.

Next, identify your goals. A firm that does not decide what kind of practice it wants will wind up with one reflecting whatever walks in the door. It is doubtful that serendipity and whim are the best paths to success.

Set professional and personal objectives and stick to them. Create a profile of the clients and work you want and focus on them. You can increase your revenue dramatically by focusing on clients who will give you the work that you want.

Goals are meaningless if people are not held accountable for them. One forceful approach would be to determine compensation bonuses/rewards on the basis of plan development (a realistic and aggressive plan merits more compensation) and achievement of plan goals.

Failure to achieve goals, however, should not be punished without consideration of the reasons for not achieving the goals: Personal illness, change of business conditions of clients, hard work but unrealistic goals, etc. Consider explanations, not excuses.

John Wooden, famed UCLA basketball coach says: "Failure to plan is planning to fail."

For a lawyer or a firm, it's better to know where one wants to go. There, then, is a greater likelihood of achieving the goals.

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