Over the years -- and especially in the past eight years -- our firm has observed a direct positive link between the skill with which a law firm manages change and its return on investment in strategic planning.

Strategy implies change.  A so-called "defensive strategy," which focuses on resisting change, might be necessary sometimes; but it really is more of a response to factors that planners believe that they cannot influence, rather than an effort to achieve positive, sustainable results. (Moreover, in our firm's experience, such "defensive strategies" seldom are worth the effort involved in trying to execute them.)

We have observed that the ability to manage the changes needed to achieve strategic goals is as important as the content and quality of the goals themselves.  When we have been engaged to help a law firm "try again" with strategic planning, we usually have found that the most significant factor in the failure to achieve success was the inability of the partners to lead and manage the changes in assumptions and practices that were needed, both inside the firm and in the firm's relationship to its clients and market.

My partner, Lisa Walker Johnson, in Good Governance in Law Firms: A Strategic Approach to Executive Decision Making and Management Structures (Globe Law & Business, 2014), has identified six key components of effective change management in law firms:

1.  committed leadership, which communicates four clear leadership messages to the entire firm:

  • The change will be reinforced and rewarded.
  • The change will improve the strength and profitability of the firm.
  • The change will make everyone's professional lives more satisfying and financially rewarding.
  • The change will be achieved only through collective firm-wide commitment and actions.

2.  data and evidence, which are critical to well-informed decisions about what changes are necessary, how to implement them, and the ability to spot implementation issues before they become a crisis

3.  a compelling business case with financial markers, which include an honest assessment of the value of partner time and any opportunity costs

4.  a well-informed process that maintains a steady reference to the firm's strategic priorities

5.  alternate actions and solutions that fit the unique characteristics of the firm

6.  shared measurable results

The right blend of these six elements can be highly firm-specific, but thoughtful examination of the presence or absence of each of these is essential to ensure that your next strategic plan does not become a dusty item on the managing partner's bookshelf. In rapidly changing markets for legal services, the firm that does not master change management concepts, tools, and methods, will find it increasingly hard to survive.

Norman Clark