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Written by Norman Clark
Published: 30 December 2014
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Due to the surprising response to the Walker Clark WorldView post yesterday, 3 suggestions for planning for the new year, I am beginning a series of posts about frequently overlooked issues in law firm business plans and marketing plans.  

Our firm advises our clients that business planning should be an intellectually rigorous and disciplined process, not just the last-minute production of a spreadsheet.  Today's post reminds us that network affiliations should be one of several unifying and coordinating themes in planning.  In too many business plans and marketing plans, however, they appear to be little more than afterthoughts.

So, what do your business plans and marketing plans say about your firm's participation in the networks and other professional associations in which you participate?  

Do they present a persuasive business case for being a member?

Do they describe, at least in general terms, the results that you expect and how you will achieve them?

What is the business case?

Many -- arguably most -- law firms either undervalue or overvalue their affiliations with professional services networks. In both instances, the result is a disappointing return on investment, either because the firm has under-invested in worthwhile network relationships or has over-invested in marginal ones.

As you prepare for 2015, be sure that your plans begin with a realistic projection, based on past experience and not wishful thinking, of the value that each affiliation can contribute to your firm's bottom line. Most law firms should be able to quantify this value within as reasonable margin of error. If you can't make a convincing business case on paper to continue in a network or organization, the chances are almost zero that you will be able somehow to make it financially worthwhile in reality.

For the network affiliations and organizations that have proven to be worthwhile for your firm, and for which you can make a good business case for continued participation, consider whether you committing enough resources to  produce the results that you want.

two common omissions

One of the most common mistakes that law firms make with respect to resources is to allocate a general amount to network participation -- usually based on the previous year's expenditures -- without also documenting two critical financial factors:

Probably the most important investment is partner time. Committing only one partner to be the firm's representative to a network is the most frequent example of under-investment.  However, it also is the most valuable asset in any law firm. In small law firms especially, every partner, as well as some senior associates, should be active in network activities and events.  Does your business plan strike the right balance for your firm?

Network conferences and meetings are expensive and time consuming. They also can generate tremendous value for a firm that understands the specific opportunities that each one provides and plans to pursue those opportunities in an organized, thoughful manner.

With all due respect to many conferencing planners, "networking" is not a very persuasive rationale for attending a conference. However, if a firm identifies and documents specific contacts and projects that it wants to pursue, and the goals of each of those activies, then a very compelling case often can be made for the investment.  With good planning, the return on investment can be many times the travel costs, registration fees, and value of the time of those who attend.

even if it appears to be a "slam dunk"

All of this is not as difficult as it appears. It is a very useful and reliable test, however, of the continued validity of the strategic decisions that a law firm has made about network affiliations.  It should be applied even when continued membership would appear to be beyond debate.  

Documenting this intellectual process in a business plan or marketing plan, or both, is the best way to ensure that you can actually begin now to manage your success in a network, rather than rely on whatever opportunities might serendipitously appear later.

Norman Clark