Law Firm Articles

Assembling a Strategic Planning Committee that Works

A Strategic Planning Committee is charged with a critically important task—therefore, it is critically important to get the right people together to do the work. A law firm’s strategic plan should give the firm’s stakeholders a unifying sense of purpose and direction; but, handled poorly, a firm’s planning process can have quite the opposite effect. This article presents practical tips for assembling a Strategic Planning Committee that works.

Committee members should meet the following qualifications:

1.  Strategic orientation

Committee members should be naturally suited or capable of big-picture thinking and taking a long-range view. Avoid stocking the team with partners whose focus is too narrow, detail-oriented or internal. The committee’s primary task is to formulate strategy, not define operations. The committee chair or facilitating consultant must keep the focus external and strategic as much as possible, addressing opportunities in terms of practices, clients and industry segments. The committee may deal with governance, compensation and operational issues only insofar as they represent alignment issues that need to be addressed to achieve successful implementation of strategic goals.

2.  Openness to new ideas

The firm’s future success may look different than its current and past successes. A demonstrated intolerance for new or challenging ideas should disqualify a prospective committee member from service.

3.  Respected by other committee members

Each member must demonstrate trust and respect toward other members of the committee. This does not mean that everyone has to like each other.  Spirited debate will be helpful as long as it is respectful.

4.  A firm-first mentality

Committee members must focus on the best interests and best course for the firm as a whole, and not be motivated by personal agendas. Every partner has his or her own client relationships and influence base to protect, but sometimes a “single issue” committee member will try to use the planning process to achieve a particular result. Be wary of partners who are a bit too eager to serve—they may simply be afraid that their personal wishes will not carry the day.

5.  Ability to listen as well as talk

Avoid blowhards who will dominate discussion as well as those who listen well but are not likely to contribute.

6.  Willingness to discuss brutal facts

A frank discussion of the firm’s capabilities, opportunities and weaknesses often leads to unpleasant truths about the firm. The firm’s reputation, market position or outlook may not be as positive as was assumed. Practice group failings and limitations may be exposed. Committee members must be able to receive and deal with criticism and make hard choices in a constructive way.

7.  Understanding law firm business

Committee members should understand basic law firm economics and the drivers of law firm profitability.

8.  Having a long-term stake in the game

Planning for the future requires not being overly bound to the past.  Including the firm’s esteemed but aging Chair on the committee can be counterproductive if his or her presence will stifle the free sharing of thoughts and observations about the firm and its desired path. Include one or more younger partners who are strategic thinkers with leadership potential.

9.  Willingness to invest the time

The total commitment of time and effort that committee members are being asked to make should be estimated and communicated in advance. In addition to attending meetings, members’ responsibilities may include assigned reading, thought exercises, client interviews, industry research and the like.

The Committee should follow these guidelines:

10. Committee size

Despite the politics of committee selection, try to limit membership to six to eight partners. It may be desirable for your administrator or senior marketing professional to attend and contribute as well. Some firms struggle to contain the membership to a workable number—they just don’t like to leave anybody out! Try to keep your numbers down (and billable hours up) by limiting the committee to a core group and consulting with others informally or through a survey.

11. Committee meetings

The Strategic Planning Committee is a working committee and continuity is important. Committee members should plan to attend every meeting from start to finish and be fully present during meetings. Meet off-site if such discipline is lacking. Meetings should be scheduled with sufficient lead time for members to schedule around them.

12. Committee leadership

A committee chair should be named as point person for the planning project. The Managing Partner may chair the committee or this function may be delegated. There should be adequate representation from the Executive Committee, but in a firm of sufficient size, the Strategic Planning Committee should not be the same as the Executive Committee.

A final word of advice to the committee chair, who is normally a highly influential person in the firm and a proven leader: successful leaders of high-performance teams understand that they do not need to make all key decisions. They realize that they neither know all the answers nor can they succeed without the other members of the team. A leader who genuinely believes in the purpose of the team and the team itself can lead the group to high performance and set forth inspiring strategies for the rest of the firm to follow.