Most lawyers hate conflict. The one thing they hate even more is change. These two factors make it very difficult for many firms to move from a traditional mode of operation (management made up of lawyers with limited business experience who struggle to balancing billable time while trying to run a law firm) to a strategic business model. In fact, most firms operate with no active business or strategic plan.
As I speak with firms, I ask if they would invest in a company if they knew it had no written goals, no strategy to achieve those goals, no stated revenue projections, no interconnected marketing plan and were not calculating profit margin for their different lines of business. Of course, they smile and say no. Yet, many lawyers today are partners in a business that lacks these key elements. Why?
We could blame our lack of business acumen on law school, but that is a cop out for any lawyer who has risen to partner. I believe the primary reason that most of today’s lawyers fail to ever understand the business behind the practice of law is that many have been fortunate enough, until recently, to maintain comfortable lifestyles practicing in firms with long-standing loyal clients, a few key rainmakers and a good reputation. But the legal landscape has changed, and I don’t believe that things within law firms will ever be the same. Many firms now find themselves receiving RFPs from long-standing clients, discounting fees to obtain market share and rainmakers nearing retirement who are focused on making the most of their last few years of practice versus leaving a legacy within the firm by mentoring, credit sharing and making introductions. This may seem harsh, but I suspect many can relate to this reality.
When I was considering what law firms actually needed to do versus what they wanted to do, I came to the realization that most firms want a band aid to stop the bleeding caused by a deep cut. For example, training lawyers to be better networkers and getting them involved in trade groups will help, but these actions only scratch the surface. I am not saying to stop doing these things, but these fragmented efforts may serve the needs of a few, but unless they are paired with strategy, they will not lead to a stronger more profitable firm long-term.
Successful firms need to repair themselves, stop the slow bleeding and grow stronger than they ever thought they could be. To do this, they must find the time, energy, backbone and money to figure out exactly what will make their firm the best it can possibly be and then create a strategy to accomplish those things. This seems simple, and I realize that it is not.
Firms make the typical excuses. Some firms say they are simply too busy to take the time to plan for their future. Others have had bad experiences with strategic or business planning in the past. A few will say that they are waiting on the next wave of leadership to create a plan. Some are content to remain as they are and see what happens and a small number of firms have the realization that things are not going as well as they should but are too afraid of change to rock the boat. I equate these “excuses” to allowing yourself to bleed out slowly, understanding that you will eventually die, but because the pain is minimal and the small wound is relatively easy to care for, it is not so bad.
So what one element can stop the bleeding? Desire. Desire to lead, to change, and to make hard choices, understanding that you can never please everyone. Desire to work with others to set realistic goals, understand the business of the practice of law and how to maneuver your firm from where it is now to where it should be. Desire to measure every action against agreed upon core values of the firm. Desire to understand key performance metrics and how these impact the firm’s current and future reality. Desire to define how clients, staff, peers and the community are to be cared for and nurtured. Desire for accountability, even when it is hard. Desire to make the practice of law a better profession than it is perceived to be. Desire to become leaders and sustainers within the communities a firm serves. Desire to create a culture that is so positive and dynamic that lawyers are lined up around the block to work at your firm and staff retention is something other firms can only dream about. Desire to become an effective communicator known for giving out information before people begin to ask for it.
Napoleon Hill, in “Think and Grow Rich,” said “The starting point of all achievement is DESIRE. Keep this constantly in mind. Weak desire brings weak results, just as a small fire makes a small amount of heat.” Let 2015 be the year that your firm overcomes fear of conflict and change and embraces desire. You may be surprised how large of a fire you can build! Tea Hoffmann