Having spent almost a half century working in and with law firms, I feel I have had a front row seat in watching the evolution of the law office practice. The last ten years have forced lawyers to see that there is the practice of law and then there is the business of the practice of law. To sustain a profitable law firm you had to change or be left behind. You have to embrace the fact that the law firm is a profitable business and adopt best business practices to make it succeed.
Today’s technology is tomorrow’s obsolete. Client demographics are changing. Client needs are expanding. A generational workforce diversity is creating new ways to manage and operate at work. New issues of law can drive different scopes of practice. Social media has changed the face of marketing forever.
If the downward economy taught us anything it is that you must redefine how you operate today’s practice to a futuristic practice starting now! Catalyst started taking a hard line look at what was or wasn’t working to achieve a sustainable profit about seven years ago. We start running many financial and practice projections putting in many variables going forward. We then added in the factors we thought would come into play fifteen years down the road. We realized that for our clients to be successful in say 2025, that they had to let go of the past, recognize that today is fleeting, and begin to transition to a law office practice that will be ready to meet the futuristic needs of the then 2025 law firm.
With the firm’s permission, I want to tell you about Brinkley Walser, a law firm in Lexington, North Carolina. In 2007 the firm was over 120 years old, steeped in rich history and tradition. The firm itself was stalled. If ever there was a traditional law firm that practiced in a traditional, well respected and conservative way, it was Brinkley Walser. Walt Brinkley was in his early 80’s. Highly respected by his peers, he had held the course for the firm. After one partner meeting when the discussion seemed to go nowhere about how the firm had to change, Mr. Brinkley took me aside and assured me that the changes recommended had to happen. And he said to me If they don’t change they aren’t going to be here in fifteen years.” He went back into the meeting and said the same thing to the partners. To the credit of the partners they have embraced the need for future strategic planning. I thought it interesting that someone in his early 80’s saw what was happening now.
Today Brinkley Walser in my opinion stands in the forefront of law firms that are making the change to meet a long term tomorrow’s needs. They created progressive management . They appointed a managing partner. They embraced social media but with small town traditions. They updated their website. They changed their succession practice to meet tomorrow’s life styles. They started looking at alternative billing practices. And they started to expand where their practice areas were needed. They have and are researching new futuristic practices of law that our environment and culture may need. They keep an open mind and welcome all new ideas. And they still retained their identity and their desire to be of service to their community and their clients that was begin over a century before.
We found that most lawyers believed and with some accuracy that technology was going to drive the future and they tended to focus on what investment to make. We continually caution that today’s shiny nickel is probably tomorrow’s throw away penny. We instead recommended that we create a vision of the law firm in 2025.
Before you can plan how to change you have to know what the vision is for the law firm. For example, will the area practices be the same or do you anticipate new areas of law that you can get ready for now. Will the client base that the firm has now change or be different. What kind of needs will the firm have to meet the rapidly changing way the Courts will operate. Will the partners want to transition to different roles based upon personal needs and desires for retirement. What will your workforce be like to support the needs of the firm.
And with the building of a defined vision for how the leadership of the firm wants its 2025 law firm to look like, you should then do a Needs and Assessment (SWOT Analysis) of the firm. This hard look at where you are along with is the beginning of a strong strategic plan for the firm. The strategic plan will be a fluid, changing plan based upon events going forward.
From the strategic plan, you will develop short term business plans (one to two years in length) with benchmarks and accountability for change.
This is not done overnight. Our experience has been with firms we work with that it can take one to two years to bring it together and start moving forward. It requires a strong commitment from the leadership of the firm with a buy-in from the rest of the firm members.
The question you must ask yourself as either a active law firm owner or one contemplating opening a practice is where you want to be ten to fifteen years. This involves not only a hard look at your firm but a hard look at the personal goals and needs of current owners. Build the firm to meet those needs and be competitive and you will have a sustainable and profitable law firm in 2025.