These insights were originally shared in the LeadWise Forum. LeadWise Forums are monthly events where law firm talent, DEI, practice management, marketing, and business professionals meet to confidentially share experiences, ask questions, exchange ideas, and find solutions to their most critical challenges. To learn more about LeadWise Forums and to request your invitation, click here. 

Effective Strategic Planning Process: Stages and Tools 

Strategic planning is an important process that ensures the practice group’s long-term success. Below we offer a few practical and tested strategies and tools to help develop your group’s strategic plan:

  • Get the Most Insights via the Discovery Interview Process. Organize a series of short (30-45 minutes) discovery interviews of the group members – partners, senior associates, practice group management/development professionals, paralegals, etc. If it’s a smaller practice group, plan to interview all members. If it’s a larger group, look to engage as many people as possible. For those who are not being interviewed, gather their feedback by asking them to provide their responses in writing or through a survey. To get the most comprehensive and honest responses, consider bringing in an outside consultant – people are more comfortable revealing their true thoughts to an outside expert when they know their responses are going to be confidential. The consultant would then consolidate all responses into an overview of the key points, which the entire group will then be able to discuss during a series of facilitated discussions. Not only is this an effective strategic planning tool, but it is also a great engagement tool and morale booster, as it communicates to group members that their experiences and opinions are valuable and matter. 
  • Utilize the Group Approach. Begin your strategic planning process by first meeting with small groups of attorneys in each of the practice groups to establish initial goals. Then, share these goals with the full practice group to flesh things out and get a consensus. 
  • Leverage Virtual Tools. Use Zoom virtual tools (like breakout rooms, whiteboards, and polls) to involve every participant in the discussions. This format allows to gain feedback and ideas from those who might not have contributed or may have felt intimidated to contribute in other kinds of meeting formats. 
  • Use Strategic Planning Models Like the SWOT Analysis. One idea is to divide all practice group members into four groups, with each group being assigned one quadrant of the SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). Each group meets separately to analyze and discuss the issues that fall within their assigned quadrant. They submit their notes to the practice group leaders, who review and prioritize the information. Then the findings are discussed during a full partner meeting to finalize the strategic plan.
  • Create a Simple Tool for Strategy Communication and Implementation Tracking. Once the strategic plan is finalized, create a high-level action-focused strategic map to track progress towards goals throughout the year. A great tool for developing such a map is the Balanced Scorecard (BSC) (first developed and published in the Harvard Business Review in the mid-1990s by Robert Kaplan and David Norton). The BSC condenses the strategic planning report to a digestible format where objectives and initiatives are clearly stated and execution can be easily tracked with all those responsible for certain aspects of the strategy implementation updating the document as needed. This creates clarity, transparency, and engagement throughout the year. 

Key Strategic Initiatives Practice Group Leaders Plan to Focus in the Next 2-3 Years

Here is what many firms are seeing as their key strategic initiatives to tackle in the next 2-3 years:

  • Scenario Planning. Scenario planning is a disciplined way to formulate strategic hypotheses in the context of existing driving forces and their uncertainties. Some firms are engaging in this type of planning in the face of the potential recession. There are different ways to develop scenarios. One idea, which is particularly relevant in a potential recession, is to think of scenario planning from the angle of revenue reduction: meaning, “What should our plan be if our revenue drops 5%, 10%, or 15%?” 
  • Do the ROI Analysis. At LeadWise Group, one of our favorite strategic tools for assessing your firm’s current activities, programs, or investments is the I-CARE exercise. It’s great to do at any point (no need to wait for the full planning process) and simple. Just ask the question, “What activities, programs, and/or investments do we need to Increase, Continue, Avoid, Reduce, or Eliminate?” 
  • Focus on Your Existing Clients. Remember, your clients are facing the threat of potential recession too! Do you know what they are worried about? And how can you support them better in these uncertain times? Some ideas are to: 
    • Schedule strategic debriefs with your clients to understand:
      • Whether your level of service is the best it can be;
      • What’s working well; 
      • What’s not working well; and
      • What requests they may have.
    • Increase face-to-face contact between your clients and your lawyers. Consider creating more structure around initiatives that would get lawyers face-to-face with clients. For example, you could create small teams and task them with arranging visits to a certain number of clients within a specified timeframe. The primary goal would be to learn about the issues and concerns the clients are facing. Then each team would submit a short report about the visit and any needs the client may have flagged. The aggregated findings from all teams can then be created into a practice group-level report highlighting all follow-up items and potential opportunities. 
    • Share your gratitude! Tell your clients you appreciate them for choosing to do business with your firm. You might think it’s obvious, and your clients know it, but kind words of gratitude can go a long way.
  • Succession Planning. For many firms and individual practice groups, succession planning is becoming a top issue. What we are hearing from clients is that in the past their firms were not focusing on succession planning as much. But with many of their Baby Boomer generation partners approaching retirement in the next 2-5 years, succession planning has become imperative. Some firms have mandatory retirement age policies, but many do not. For these firms, succession planning can be a tricky process – you don’t want to make your senior partners feel like they’re being rushed out the door. Still, you also want to signal to the younger generation of your firm or group that you have a plan and that this is a safe place for them to establish their professional roots.
  • Increase Talent Retention. Retention issues are multifaceted and complex. Meaning, retention challenges are driven by different factors. It could be a result of one or several of the following factors: low morale/poor culture, inadequate lawyer compensation, poor management and leadership exhibited by partners, lack of effective professional development for associates, ineffective or absence of succession planning, etc. Therefore, in order to improve retention, your firm or practice group must first diagnose the correct reasons for attrition before developing solutions. In other words, you need to know what you need to fix before trying to fix it. 
  • Business Development. Business development is the driving force behind any firm’s financial success. Here is what firms are doing in this area:
    • Cross-selling. Many firms are doubling their focus on cross-selling efforts. As we head into what might be a challenging economic year, many are focusing on additional services that they could provide to their client base to continue growing that relationship. 
    • Strategic account management. One firm has committed to identifying a core group of clients with whom they want to strengthen their relationship. A lead partner is designated as being responsible for each strategic account and will lead a team of lawyers in an effort to drive a cohesive strategy for client service, outreach, and expansion of services. 
    • Business development playbook exercises. Another firm has invested in working with an outside consultant to help develop BD playbooks, which are, in essence, BD strategic plans for each of their key industry groups. Based on these plans, each group committed to executing certain initiatives.
  • Knowledge management. Some firms are looking to focus on streamlining and strengthening their knowledge management processes. One firm’s commitment to this initiative is demonstrated by the fact that they brought a director of knowledge management on board.

The Biggest Challenges to Effective Implementation of the Strategic Plan

To close out our conversation, let’s address what we see as the biggest obstacles to effectively implementing the strategic plan that was put in place: 

  • Loss of momentum. Many participants shared that one of their biggest challenges to the effective execution of their strategic plans is that after the first few months, many lawyers lose steam and stop executing.
  • Loss (or lack) of motivation. Some firms experience a lack of motivation that’s needed to execute the plans. Sometimes motivation was never there; other times, it was lost due to internal dynamics, politics, or culture. 
  • Lack of clear leadership and accountability. We find that most implementation issues stem from the lack of clearly defined leadership roles and the absence of a strong accountability system, which enables key people to hold themselves and others responsible for the ongoing progress. In some firms, this is due to the firm’s culture of “niceness” (i.e., holding people accountable is seen as rude, pushy, and uncomfortable, so it’s avoided). In other firms, it’s because the wrong people are chosen as key leads in driving the strategic objectives; they either don’t have the time or the motivation to move things along effectively. 

The execution challenges can be complex and political since this stage involves the most unpredictable variable of all: and it’s not the market conditions; it’s the people!