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How law firms can plan for strategic success in the year ahead

The Coronavirus pandemic has hit almost every industry in some way – and professional services has not been exempt from this shock. In the early months of lockdown many firms responded by furloughing staff and looked at ways to cut costs in. Uncertainty meant these short-term, survival-based tactics were prioritised and strategy, understandably, took a backseat.

In the UK, both media coverage and the insight we’ve gathered from our customers suggests that law firms have successfully adapted to this remote-working tempo – at least operationally.

Moving forward firms need to transition into ‘strategy-first’ mode and start looking at ways to grow, adapt and keep adapting to the new environment.

From survival tactics to strategic thinking

But is there even an appetite for going on the offensive?

Research from the recent 2020 law firm strategy and investment survey report from HSBC, in partnership with Briefing, shows that there’s currently a refreshing sense of confidence in the market.

  • 40% of UK law firms plan to grow internationally
  • 12% will maintain a ‘steady as she goes’ approach and review their strategy as the situation evolves
  • 1% planned to retreat from international growth plans

The inevitable question then, is: if firms are confident in their ability to grow or maintain their current position within the market, how will they achieve that?

It’s time to shift to strategy

Strategy needs to be in the driving seat – and it needs to be flexible enough to adapt to changing situations. There are indications firms are succeeding here. Our customer data suggests firms have been adopting a more agile strategy, with many setting objectives with shorter timeframes than the typical 12-month period.

This is great news! Objectives should never outlive their usefulness and re-assessing priorities is only a good thing. Or, as Dr Pippa Malmgrem, co-author of The Infinite Leader said on The Bunkerpodcast: leaders tend to think they should approach strategy by picking a target and saying, ‘let’s go there.’ Instead,  leadership should be thought of more as like surfing than hiking, with leaders forced to adapt to a shifting target.

So, strategy, really, should always be agile – not just during a pandemic.

Where should firms be looking to grow?

Over the first few months of the pandemic, firms may have found themselves dealing with a somewhat unexpected swell of legal work related to the disruption in the economy– but this short-term slew of work won’t help firms make progress in 2021 and beyond.

One well-documented strategy for growth involves greater internal collaboration to develop existing clients and offer more joined-up services to them. The key method for achieving this is knowing exactly what your clients’ needs are and not to take them for granted. Pick up the phone, or reach out via Zoom, and talk to them about what they need.

Secondly, or perhaps more importantly, you need to have a clear understanding of the relationships within your firm with the client in question. This might, in fact, be a bigger barrier to success than you realise. The 2020 law firm strategy and investment survey, also found COVID-19 wasn’t perceived as big of a deal as you might expect in terms of barriers to growth – only 20% of respondents ranked it as the most significant factor. Regional differences in profitability and local competition were the number one reason given, at 33% of respondents.

Firms need a clear relationship map within, and among, their fee earners to find the required expertise that will help them make inroads with existing and new clients, plus a plan of how those relationships can be leveraged and built upon. One client may be served by multiple practice groups, but there may not be much, if any, joined-up collaboration occurring between those practices.

You can set out a plan to rectify that – so long as you make it very clear exactly what you’re hoping to achieve with those clients or new markets.

Set ambitious but achievable goals for which you understand the payoff, the route to success and have a measurable target.

Set and deliver strategy through the right objectives

Implementing and cascading goals clearly and transparently through your organisation requires a well-thought out process and methodology that can be followed by everyone and that can be measured accurately and persistently.

Though every firm has different needs and methods, what we’ve just described is  essentially the definition of SMART objectives. Translating your strategy into goals and objectives means people become clearly accountable to specific aspects of the strategy. You can still retain flexibility by clearly communicating new objectives, if the situation demands it, to ensure everyone knows you’re charting a slightly different course.

This gives individuals the flexibility to pivot their tasks – how they fulfil their goals – to suit changing objectives. Having to write down objectives also means you have to think about what you’re really trying to achieve – never a bad thing.

There are plenty of other useful methodologies for planning and executing strategies, of course: Gartner has a useful set of goal-navigating tools (gated).

The most important thing is to have a thought-out, scalable process that allows you to define your goals without relying on cluttered task-lists. This is how objective-setting works in Objective Manager – though you can optionally add tasks against objectives, they can’t grow out of control and obscure your real goals. Explore how Objective Manager can help you with your objective setting today.

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