It’s common wisdom that law firms are lousy at the implementation of strategy.  The typical reason given is the lack of accountability in their governance structures.  That’s true, but I can point to lots of firms that lack accountability but were still able to pull the trigger on strategic implementation and make meaningful changes in their firms.

I recently wrote an article on the problems that firms have in getting things implemented.  That caused me to do a little study of the law firms that seem to have done a particularly good job implementing, and to try to understand what went right.  The following is my list of features that I observed as being present in firms that have experienced the successful implementation of their strategic plans:

1. The ability to convince the turkeys to vote for Christmas .  Typically, someone’s ox is gored if a law firm’s strategy is implemented.  At the extreme, firms have strategies designed to reduce the number of unproductive partners.  Less dramatically, law firms may seek to focus on a practice area that does not directly benefit a significant number of partners.  Usually the consensus building process involves attempts to convince partners that a rising tide lifts all boats and they will benefit from general increases in profitability, even if their practice or industry group is not involved.  It’s even tougher to get partners to sign on when their continued partnership in the firm may be at stake under revised firm standards.

Firms who have been successful in implementing strategy – especially strategies where implementation may have an adverse affect on some partners – generally have used one of two approaches.  The first is a “full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes” approach where the firm’s management (typically a small group) drives the implementation forward.  By the time most partners understand what happened, the heavy lifting is done and successful results are occurring.  Users of this approach understand that the vast majority of partners don’t particularly care what management does so long as it does not impact on their personal work life.  Their view is that “The firm can focus on any practice group it wants, open offices, close offices – do virtually anything, but if you try to move me from a 2:1 to a 3:1 secretarial assignment, we’re going to the mattresses.”  Management theorists would decry this approach as being imperialistic and it does seem to work best with new managing partners and management committees where they have a partnership mandate.  I can’t say I unconditionally recommend this approach (what one managing partner described as “ripping the bandage off”) but I report to you that it is frequently successful.

The alternative is a more political approach.  It involves putting together a strategic package that gives everyone something.  Management sells the strategy by pointing to how it benefits partners as individuals and increases overall profitability while ignoring the aspects which may be adverse to an individual partner.  This is the way most bills get through Congress.  This approach is not as expedient as ripping the bandage off, but for many firms it is a culturally necessary alternative.  As an example of the extreme of this approach, one firm with a number of highly underproductive partners could not get the partnership to focus on external revenue producing issues until it dealt with its problem partners.  The firm eventually admitted to itself that firing partners, no matter how far below the mainstream of production, was simply not part of their culture.  Instead, they implemented a social welfare system in which partners working below a certain number of billable hours were made non-equity partners and paid a fixed amount about 20 percent below a first year associate’s pay – regardless of their work ethic.  The majority of the firm’s remaining equity partners (for whom the practice cost an average of $8,000 apiece annually) found that approach, at least for the short-term, more acceptable than head-lopping and bought into the whole plan.

2.  Clear action steps.  Most strategic plans (and this is as true for corporations as it is for law firms) never get down to the nitty-gritty of who does what to whom, and when.  Firms that are successful implementers understand that to both get anything done and to build enthusiasm for implementation, everyone has to understand exactly what their job is in the implementation.  This means that the plan must be dreadfully specific and excruciatingly detailed.  If the plan calls for a tree to be chopped down (for the environmentalists, we’re speaking metaphorically here) by the litigation practice group, it will never get done.  The action plan has to address (or make sure the practice group addresses) who will bring the ax, who will swing it and who will get rid of the wood.  The key is to name specific actions and fatal dates.

3.  Not permitting failure to be an option.  When law firms split up tasks they allow partners to make grand promises, deliver nothing and then be excused.   At a practice group meeting a partner will take on responsibility for interviewing five potential clients with which the firm lost proposal competitions to competing firms.  A month later at another meeting the partner will apologize but, due to a client engagement that took up all of his time, he wasn’t able to do the interviews.  Of course he’s excused – client work comes first – and he promises to do the interviews before the next meeting.  A month later the process repeats itself: promise big, deliver nothing and be excused.  The firms who were successful in implementing their plans assigned small chunks (only one client interview) and made it clear that this was as important to the firm’s future as client work.

4.  Setting goals within the partners’ pain threshold.  Arnold Palmer supposedly created the phrase “never up, never in” meaning that, in golf, a ball that stops short of the hole has no chance of going into the hole.  Unfortunately, this phrase has been used in countless law firms to justify insanely aggressive goals.  The place you see this the most is when firms attempt to correct profitability programs by setting a much higher billable hour goal.  I recently reviewed a plan where the firm’s partners, who traditionally worked about 1350 hours, set a billable hour target of 1800.  Now, even assuming the firm had enough work to support the higher goal and despite everyone nodding their heads at a partnership meeting that 1800 was indeed a noble goal, no one really intended to change their personal work ethic.  The result was that their average billable hours actually dropped the following year.  The firms that succeed, especially with internal strategies, understand the importance of incremental goals with a detailed plan of what will change and the resources required (in the example, where the work will come from).

5.  Not trying to fix everything at once.  My wife and I learned early on with our children that the way to get them to eat was not to load too much food on their plates.  If we gave them very small portions, they would clean their plates and ask for more.  If they had a full plate they would be overwhelmed and never get started eating.  Law firms that get things implemented avoid the Soviet-style comprehensive plans and focus on three or four (at most) strategies.  When those get implemented, they focus on a new set of issues.  If a firm tries to work on too many strategies all at once the partners, like our children, become overwhelmed and accomplish nothing.

6.  Leaders have nagging rights.  Lawyers lead busy lives.  They have client responsibilities and family obligations.  Performing tasks to implement the firm’s strategic plan naturally fall to the bottom of the list.  In egalitarian organizations like law partnerships, practice group leaders and management committee members have little inherent authority to take action to assure completion of tasks.  Uniquely, in almost every law firm that has been successful in implementing anything, the leaders have nagging rights.  This means that the people with responsibility to get things done are granted, either by the firm’s culture or through personal approval by individual partners, the ability to remind, encourage, badger and nag.

7.  Acceptance of change.  Lawyers dislike change.  They depend on precedents – stare decisis and all that.  But, if everything was moving along perfectly as it were, the issue would never have even come up in planning discussions.  Strategic plan implementation involves change, and (here’s the important part) you can’t change and stay the same.  Firms that are successful implementers dislike change as much as any other law firm.  They just grit their teeth and understand that change doesn’t always result in improvement, but improvement rarely comes without change.

8.  Management delegates.  In creating action plans, the easy way out is to try to do everything yourself.  Firms frequently assign almost all the tasks to a couple of practice group heads or the Management Committee.  I reviewed the first draft of an implementation plan the other day where a full 80% of the actions were in the Managing Partner’s column.  Yes, there are adages that say “to get something done you give it to the busiest person” and “if you want something done right – do it yourself.”  But, the surest way to bog down a plan (not to mention killing off any enthusiasm among the rank and file partners) is to hoard all of the implementation within a few managers.  Better they spend their time supervising and nagging others in doing the work.

So there you have it.  No magic formulas but the features listed were consistently present in firms with a history of strong implementation.  The punch line is, of course, it makes far less difference what your firm’s strategy is than whether you are able to actually implement it.  Emulation of some of these law firm characteristics may help that occur.