An important element of strategic planning for many law firms is the identification of specific areas of practice where the firm wants to emphasize its growth. Whether this emphasis involves lateral recruiting or targeted marketing support, intensifying focus on one practice area, office or industry group means removing focus from others. This means that law firm leaders must find a politically acceptable way of providing increased resources to some while limiting support to others.
The managing partner of a law firm we recently worked with told a story to his partners when questioned about the “favoritism” being shown to a couple of practice groups in the firm’s strategic plan. Apparently he had worked as the assistant manager of a good sized neighborhood bookstore in Chicago while attending law school. One of his tasks each week was to decide what books would be displayed in the window of the bookstore. He was constantly lobbied by book distributors and members of the store’s staff about books they liked and recommended for the window. Early on, he tried to satisfy everyone and the store’s display window was filled with books of all types and subjects. But on weeks when he was too busy to devote much effort to the window, he would simply put in the large displays provided by publishers for the two or three best sellers that were “hot” that week. Over time he noticed that the store’s sales were substantially greater on weeks when the window was focused on a couple of books than when a whole variety of books were equally represented. Interestingly, while much of the sales increase came from the best sellers, the sales of all sorts of other books also rose as the more focused window drew more buyers into the store.
While his partners agreed that this was a great story, it unfortunately didn’t do much to convince them that allowing some practices to benefit from greater attention than others was a good idea (the members of one particularly disaffected practice group accused the firm of creating a caste system in which they were the “untouchables”). However, despite the concerns, the firm’s leadership pursued a plan that focused on building their transactional capability in two specific industries with a focus on certain types of businesses as clients. To gain reasonable consensus from the partnership on the focus, the firm laid out a three point implementation plan.
1. Take the devil out of the details. The leaders of the firm perceived that reluctance to support the plan was more about uncertainty than professional jealousy. In early discussions it became clear that descriptions such as “focus” and “emphasis” were too vague and created fear that the partnership was giving one practice group a blank check. To resolve this, a precise business plan for the development, marketing and management of the targeted practices was created, complete with a budget of the resources involved and an understanding of what compensation credit members of the group would receive for business development and expansion successes. Members of other practices were recruited to serve on the firm’s equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office to develop an ROI analysis of the plan and the level of return that would have to be received by the partnership as a whole before individual members of the targeted practice group would benefit.
2. What’s in it for me? The leadership worked with each practice group to identify areas where the results of successful implementation of the plan could be leveraged to other groups. They were careful to not create factious benefits, but recognized that the overall benefit of the increase in firm profitability from the plan (a rising tide lifts all boats) would exceed the likely profitability of any investment made in some groups. At the same time, they attempted to accurately estimate the impact of the plan on the recruiting capability and marketing resources for each practice group based on operations in prior years (for most groups there was no real negative impact).
3. Measurement and reporting. To manage expectations and assure transparency to the partners, a separate page was added to the monthly financial report that showed the actual expenditures and value of time worked for the targeted groups compared to the budget. It also reports on the completion of action steps under the plan’s implementation.
I have to confess that this is still a work in progress so I can’t report a successful result, except that implementation is occurring, the non-targeted groups seem reasonably satisfied with the plan and no partners have left the firm. But, on balance, I think that there is general agreement that focusing the firm’s resources on its best opportunities makes more sense than trying to keep everyone happy by making a mediocre effort across a broad spectrum.