Law Firm Strategy: The People or the Market?

If you have not already prepared your business plan for the forthcoming financial year, then chances are you are actively looking to implement something. And you may have gone even further and plotted a course for the next 3 or even 5 years.

Of course, trying to predict how the profession will look over the next 18-24 months is nigh on impossible what with ABS, Jackson and legal aid cuts.

You would be excused if you decided not to even bother; but the reality is that even if you think you can play a wait and see game, your competitors are likely to be busy planning (or plotting) how they can guide a course through the morass. Oh, and they may be looking very closely at your loyal and long-standing clients to see how they might acquire them!

It is likely the case that the middle ground (which you most likely occupy) will get even tougher, and clients will become more discerning.

Word of mouth referrals will still be a significant driver for work, but you are likely to find that the smart firms up their game and start to differentiate their service offering. It might start with a loyalty programme but will quickly envelope tiered services and guarantees.

Clients have never cared much for the process and we know how unpredictable that can be sometimes. But what they do care passionately about is:

(a) being treated in a grown up way;

(b) making sure you do what you say you are going to do;

(c) over-delivering on your service; and

(d) holding true to your price promise, however that might appear.

You are going to need to stay much closer to your clients – yes you may have to appear genuinely interested and friendly – and remember that there will other legal entities chasing your clients’ business. Just imagine it if you had a Uber brand set up in your town? I would be worried.

All things being equal, implementing these changes would be quite straightforward, but, of course, they are not.

I suspect you are looking at the position from the perspective where you have all the right seats on the bus taken. As it is, and much as it pains me to say so, you either have a couple of empty seats or, more likely, the wrong people occupying a whole slew of seats (see Good to Great by Jim Collins for a better explanation of the seats/bus dimension).

And that’s just it. You need to be very careful when undertaking any strategic exercise that you recognise the (severe) limitations of making those dreams a reality. You might be well advised to look at the current organisational chart and measure it against the likely success of the plan(s) as opposed to the situation if you either replaced or recruited people to fill those all important positions.

Even when you bring in a lateral or train someone there is no guarantee that things will turn out any differently but in my experience sticking with the Devil you know is not an equal position. In reality it is usually too painful for partners to make the crucial decision to change personnel, even if the business critical issue is staring them square between the eyes.

I would be surprised if firms had not already drawn up a mental short-list of those people who are holding the firm back or where most action is needed.

The important thing is not to waste time plotting a course, however adventurous it may look, if your current fee earner cohort are never likely to be in a position to make it a reality. And it may not just be the fee earners. It may be lack of any meaningful HR, FD or Business Development personnel or at least people who have witnessed other business sectors thrash their way to success. Law is not the only business to suffer dislocation and come out fitter and stronger.

My advice is to plan your strategy by reference to the market and not to your people. One is easier to control than the other even if at times it may not seem like it!

~ JS ~

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