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Bar News - June 12, 2009

Keeping Up in a Downturn: Is Planning Possible?


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One of my favorite quotations is from famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: "Failing to plan is planning to fail." Intuitively we know this is true. Yet, in just the past year, so many old and successful organizations, with such detailed and elaborate planning processes, have failed. Some draw the conclusion that planning is not possible in these volatile times, and that the best any organization can do is a form of white-water rafting as events carry you downstream.
Regrettably, such an attitude is too prevalent in law firms. Itís no secret that lawyers tend to be:
  • individualistic (and thus reluctant to give up personal control or direction),
  • reactive (believing they must be flexible to accommodate variables that canít be anticipated) and
  • short-term (focusing on the contract, case or negotiation they have today).
These traits undermine a successful planning process.

Itís clear that law firms can benefit from a strategic plan, yet surprisingly few firms, both large and small, have a strategic business plan in place. I meet regularly with a group of large- firm managing partners, and at a recent session most of them said they are not fearful, despite the current financial turmoil, because of the strategic planning process they have in place.

A strategic plan is a forward-looking set of goals and objectives, while tactics are ways to implement and achieve those goals, objectives and mission. Those firms without a plan merely hop from one paycheck to another. If theyíre successful, it is quite by accident. As the Cheshire cat said to Alice, "If you donít know where you want to go, just keep going and youíll get there." Tactics, and especially effective tactics, are important to develop. But, these tactics must be in the context of a firmís goals and mission.

For some firms the biggest objection to a plan is that it locks the firm into rigidity at a time when flexibility is needed. But good planning is not static; it is meant to be a guide against which to judge actions or outcomes. If a certain aspect of a plan is not working or needs some adjustment, change it. The beauty of a flexible plan is that it can be revised to better reflect the reality of changing situations to produce the desired outcome Ė so long as you know what outcome you want.

Making adjustments from time to time, is quite appropriate, just as people make alterations to an estate plan as family circumstances change. Even junking a strategic plan is acceptable when circumstances and assumptions warrant. But, a replacement strategy should be developed in its stead, not just a series of jumps from here to there.

Finally, plans are meaningless if people are not held accountable to and for them. One forceful approach would be to determine compensation on the basis of plan development (a realistic and aggressive plan merits more compensation) and achievement of plan goals. That requires measurable goals Ė serendipity and whim are not the best paths to success.

Set objectives and stick to them. Every law firm is a business, and a business that grows without a clear idea of overall goals and specific benchmarks to measure them will soon find itself floundering.

This article, from Lawyers USA, March 2009, is reprinted with permission. Ed Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a nationally recognized expert in law practice management. He recently introduced a new website,, that deals in particular with law practice management in tough economic times. He may be reached at

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