Law firms are notoriously bad at implementing their strategic plans.  Consultants often blame the lack of leadership and accountability that is inherent in partnership entities.  Certainly the consensus method of decision-making that is present in many firms doesn’t promote getting things done.  In fact, I know a managing partner who suggests there are a couple of missing “just do it” chromosomes in lawyers’ DNA structure.  But, whatever the reason, most law firms’ strategic plans sit on a bookshelf gathering dust and whatever change occurs in the firm is coincidental to the fact that they have a plan.

If we want to understand why law firms can’t (or won’t) implement their plans, I don’t think studying the ideas that are never initiated will provide much information.  Instead, perhaps it makes more sense to look at ideas that do get implemented in law firms and try to figure out why it happens.  After all, law firms routinely add laterals, open new offices, create new practice areas, implement sophisticated marketing programs and build ancillary businesses.  Apparently law firms can make things happen when they want to.

By observation, it seems to me that at least one of three factors always seems to be present when implementation occurs.  I don’t think it is coincidence that successfully implemented initiatives are either promoted by an individual who has a strong personal interest in implementation, support the partnership’s desire to maintain the status quo without change, or is something that has already been implemented by a number of other law firms.

Monomania.   Almost every initiative that is implemented in a law firm is the result of one partner’s driving desire to get something done – what my colleague and friend, Patrick McKenna, calls “a monomaniac with a mission.”  Whether it is a new practice area, a new office location or a lateral with lots of potential but little business, most things that happen in a law firm and involve risk occur because they are being pushed by a partner who refuses to take no for an answer.

One of the reasons that the monomaniacs are so successful is their unwavering belief that their proposal cannot fail.  The supporter has greater knowledge of the subject than anyone raising questions so, unless there is an equally zealous opponent, the idea is easy to effectively defend.  An informal survey I recently did of large multiple office law firms who opened at least one office cold (not through a merger) suggests that the overwhelming majority of such offices are the result of one articulate and persistent proponent – not part of a pre-designed strategy.

Monomaniacs on a mission are especially persistent because they often have a personal interest in an issue.   In the 1980s Northern law firms opened Florida offices in record numbers in places like Naples, Sarasota and Boca Raton.  Invariably, the proponents of these offices moved to Florida to “supervise” the firm’s investment.   Opponents, even those who think a proposal is ridiculous, have a less vested interest and are unwilling to devote the time and energy to effectively confront the proponent.

While monomaniacs come up with some good ideas, the failure rate of what they implement is high, in part because their individual crusades are never forced to run the intellectual gauntlet that a strategic plan faces in its adoption.  At the same time, the monomaniacs are almost pathologically incapable of following through on the nuts and bolts of making an initiative work on a sustained basis after its implementation.

The traditional path to implementing strategies is for law firm leaders to build firm-wide consensus about the validity of the strategy.  The lesson learned may be that when the implementation of a strategy involves significant elements of risk, leaders may find their efforts better spent identifying the partner or partners who have a financial, philosophical or personal interest in seeing the strategy successfully implemented and use their zeal to drive implementation.  In other words, harness their passion.

Defending the Status Quo.  A defining feature of law firms is their resistance to change.  There are a few law firms that embrace change and go out of their way to be on the “bleeding edge” of new ideas.  However, most firms follow the common law approach with strict precedents and change being an arduous and hard fought process.  We do a lot of work involving law firm cultures and see that many firms take great pride in “being a ship with a deep keel – slow to change course but stable.”  As we find in working with law firm mergers, even minor changes brought about through the necessity of a merger (such as a new firm name) can be deal breakers.  Firms implementing new time and billing computer software often spend thousands of dollars on customization to preserve the appearance of their reports and to precisely mimic the process used by their old system.  Most law firms don’t like change.

Initiatives designed to defend the status quo seem to have a much greater success of implementation than those that represent change.  Even changes that can be masked as being necessary to preserve the status quo have a better success rate.  For example, in many general practice firms, the development of an IP practice occurred more to defend against work from an existing client being lost to another firm than to take advantage of an opportunity to get new work.

While it may defy logic, it’s clear that an issue cloaked in a defense against change has a much stronger potential for actual implementation than one that is presented as a change.

Herd Instinct.  A colleague who consults with entrepreneurial companies reports that he is constantly being quizzed by his clients about what things no one else is doing.  My experience with law firms, on the other hand, is that they rarely want to consider ideas that are not already in place at several other firms.  In fact, law firms always want to know precisely who those firms are because if they are not firms they hold in esteem, the precedent doesn’t count.

As any law firm managing partner or executive director will probably agree, the surest way to gain acceptance of any concept is to present a list of other firms that are doing it.  It is the reason law firms all over the country were establishing Y2K practices in 1999 and Homeland Security practices today (although most can’t accurately describe what either practice involves).  It certainly explains the million of dollars firms lose every year with small branch offices in Washington, New York and London.  Like the missile gap during the Cold War, the surest way to gain agreement on implementation of a strategic initiative is to demonstrate that the firm is lagging behind competitors.  In fairness, there are some very positive effects that have come about through the strategic use of herd instinct.  For example, much of the client-centered focus in law firm strategic planning comes from firms following what their competitors are doing.

The simple act of identifying several law firms that have successfully executed a proposed strategy dramatically enhances its acceptance and potential for actual implementation.

Are these three tactics “smoke and mirrors?”  Perhaps, but the evidence is clear that plans, ideas and actions cast in the light of any of these three factors have a much higher implementation success rate.  As your firm designs strategies for implementation, it is worth at least taking them into consideration.