Route map to success

It’s a fact that if you were setting out on a journey you hadn’t taken before you would probably consult a map or use a satellite navigation aid to help you find your way. It’s also a fact that law firms who have a written business plan perform better than those who don’t have a plan.

Too often we find that the partners of a law firm think that they have a business plan, but more often than not it is contained in their heads, all with a slightly differing version, and hasn’t been shared with the rest of the firm. Telepathy isn’t working for them, and the firm is not as successful as they would like.

Most lawyers have no idea what the firm’s business plan is, sadly even those that were on the committee that helped to draft a plan can be left flummoxed when it comes to explaining what the plan actually is.

Here are some tips to help you prepare a plan to give your firm its best chance of success.

Which direction are you going in?

It may sound obvious but it’s important to be clear from the outset of preparing a plan why the plan is necessary and what you are actually planning for.

Lawyers with excellent drafting skills can come unstruck by spending hours, weeks then months, crafting the “perfect” business plan with hundreds of pages of beautifully written, but largely irrelevant detail.

Keep it simple. Depending on the size of your firm and the areas of practice you cover, it is possible to distil your business plan into a couple of sides of A4.

Stay focussed on the overall purpose of what the plan is actually for.

Who’s driving?

Too many back seat drivers make the journey much longer…

Typically, lawyers have little experience of the planning process, they tell themselves, “How hard can it be, after all it’s just a document and I’m good at writing those” They may even read a book for guidance, and encouraged by business guru theory, embark on a plan to start writing a plan, which they plan to do just as soon as they find some time to plan what they want to put in the plan!

Another approach sometimes taken is to delegate the preparation of various parts of the plan across several partners, and the result is often a work of art incomprehensible except by those who created it, and incapable of execution. It may even languish in a draw forgotten, and unloved.

The solution is to identify someone in your firm who either has planning experience or consider getting external help, which will keep you focussed on the task in hand. Nominate partners who are interested in taking responsibility for collating the relevant information needed. People are interested in their objectives, so to gain buy in for what you are trying to achieve, you will need to demonstrate to your lawyers how the business plan is going to help them to achieve their own goals.

Encourage lawyers to think of business planning as learning to drive. It took several lessons to become accomplished enough to pass your driving test. The same applies to planning, the process must be broken down into small incremental steps, with each team and/or department, considering their objectives and how they will affect them, and how those objectives relate to the overall business objectives of the firm. By Identifying smaller goals and the steps that will be taken to achieve them, the process appears less daunting.

Another advantage of this approach is that lawyers of the firm feel involved in the process and are more likely to be accountable and take responsibility for achieving the objectives agreed. There is a huge sense of accomplishment in achieving one small step at a time towards achieving a larger goal.

How much longer is the journey?

You will need to measure progress to see how far you’ve come. By establishing metrics, you can plot your progress, and just like a car journey, you will need to take regular opportunities to check that you are keeping on track. You need to be able to ask whether smaller objectives have been achieved by the agreed target dates planned, and if not why not? Is there a need for resources? Training?

Reviewing deliverable outcomes by clearly set dates, you are more likely to ensure action is taken. The plan may need tweaking or adjusting to achieve the longer term objectives set, so be prepared for the plan to be a little fluid rather than set in stone.

Tell everyone where they are going.

It can’t be over emphasised how crucial it is to communicate the content of the business plan to everyone in the firm who will be involved in helping to achieve its objectives. Not sharing, is one of the biggest mistakes law firms make.

How can staff help you to achieve objectives if you don’t tell them what they are?

You can decide which parts of the plan and to what extent you want to share any confidential information with employees. It’s a judgement of trust.

Everyone will need to be kept up to date on how much progress is being made and so you must become obsessed with sharing the detail. Celebrate even the smallest milestone being achieved to keep enthusiasm going. Anyone with children will relate how quickly a happy journey can become an ordeal if the children get bored, so the trick is to keep people interested in the journey, and you achieve this by communication.

You wouldn’t keep driving if the instruments on the dashboard of the car couldn’t be read and you didn’t know how much fuel and water the engine had left. Similarly, those with overall responsibility for the business plan must act like the car dashboard to ensure that everyone in the firm feels safe to keep driving the plan forward.

Dashboards update themselves with real time information as you drive along, with information that is easily accessible and continuously available. This means you have to keep measuring, reviewing, adjusting if necessary, and communicating progress. – keep it going, you can’t over communicate.

Are we there yet?

Thinking about preparing a business plan? That isn’t going to get you any closer to achieving your objectives…

You need to create a plan that your partners and employees can relate to, with their own vision of success and the route they need follow to achieve it. The role of management is to keep the dashboard visible, to keep communicating progress of the journey, offering a sense of achievement as the whole form works towards the agreed destination of a successful year ahead.

Kimberley Williams

©Williams Wroe

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