A big portion of the success of strategic planning is that it forces law firms to focus their attention on a few selected practices or industries – preferably those in which the firm has a position of dominance. This means that lawyers in other practices may feel like neglected stepchildren. How the firm deals with these lawyers may determine the success of the implementation of its plan.
Most law firm cultures involve extreme egalitarianism. Whether considering the size of partner offices or the amount of marketing budgets, firms take pride in treating everyone equally. Unfortunately, most firms have limited resources to devote to strategic planning efforts. Whether the resource is advertising dollars or management enthusiasm, attempting to spread whatever is available among the broadest number of practices usually means that no practice gets enough of the necessary resources to cause a meaningful impact. In fact, spreading resources too thinly may be the primary cause of law firms’ failure to implement their strategic plans.
We have seen this jealousy among practice groups so often that we can actually identify six stages that many law firms go through as they establish a strategic direction:
Stage 1: Sulking. The initial reaction of non-targeted practice areas (especially among the practice group leaders) is often to sulk by withdrawing from communication. This sometimes presents itself as a boycott of partnership meetings, failure to attend the firm retreat and unwillingness to perform basic practice group leader functions. Sometimes the practice group leader will sulk even if he or she does not personally disagree with the strategic plan out of a belief that this is their responsibility to the group’s members (sort of like a baseball manager half-heartedly kicking dirt on an umpire after a questionable call).
The best approach to a sulking practice group is to treat them as you would a pouting child. Continue normal communications, continue to invite them to participate in firm activities, but don’t engage them with sympathy. They are attempting to gain credibility for their position by demanding and receiving management’s attention. And, like a child, attention only results in more sulking. It is important to constantly reinforce the plan’s objective to have the tide raise all boats and demonstrate how success in any practice group benefits all others – both in terms of additional referral work and in overall profitability.
Stage 2: Attack. If sulking does not produce a result, the next stage is often to attack the basic logic of the strategic plan. Assumptions made in the creation of the plan will be attacked as being inappropriate by using the adage, “When you have the law on your side, argue the law; otherwise argue the facts.” The source of statistics or financial information may be challenged. In the extreme, the credibility and candor of the strategic planning committee members may be brought into question.
Arguing toe-to-toe rarely works. The best approach for the planning committee is to express confidence and offer partners the opportunity to review any of the factual information the committee used.
Stage 3: Obstructionism. In some extreme circumstances, practice groups aggrieved by the strategic plan may actually attempt to obstruct actions to implement the plan by failing to cooperate and share information, disregarding basic procedures and scheduling conflicting meetings, events and activities.
Fortunately, obstructionism is so extreme that it does not occur very often. When it does, it is usually short-lived. This is because it is so obviously counterproductive for the law firm that it fails to gain attention or sympathy for the position of the group.
Stage 4: Negotiation. The next step is almost always an attempt to negotiate cooperation with the plan in exchange for some level of greater current resources or promises of primary attention in future plan revision. To some extent, this may be face-saving for the practice group leader. The degree to which the planning committee participates in these negotiations is a function of the firm’s culture, the value of what is demanded and the importance of the group’s support for the plan.
Stage 5: Martyrdom. Regardless of the success of what has gone on before, practice groups will almost always reach a point in which they take the position of martyrs. This involves the group, usually through its leader, proudly announcing that it is sacrificing its own interests for the benefit of the strategic plan. This is usually the end of the issue and management should allow the group its moment of glory.
Stage 6: Mitigation. In the best of all circumstances there is one final stage. This is where some form of synergy or client-sharing occurs between the practice area receiving strategic attention and the practice that is not. This is, of course, what the plan was envisioned to create.
In fairness, we should note that there are firms in which none of these behaviors occur and everyone realizes that driving the firm to a focused strategy is in everyone’s best interest.