Create a Rolling Planning Process to Manage through the Crisis

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The unprecedented and dynamic changes that have occurred, are occurring and will ultimately occur with the Coronavirus pandemic are creating at least short-term paradigm shifts in the economics and operations of the vast majority of U.S. law firms, affecting firms of all sizes, locations and specialties.  From our law firm clients, we hear that some practice areas and lawyers are very busy; others perceive, sometimes with a measure of disbelief, that their practices are continuing as usual—for now—wondering of course, if yet another shoe will drop. Still others find their practices have decreased or been put on hold. 

While there is widespread confidence that our nation and the legal marketplace will bounce back, there are also concerns that there will be variability and many will bounce back to a new normal.
              
In such a monumentally changing external environment, where additional transformations are likely to occur over timeframes measured in days, weeks and months, I am recommending to law firms that they establish, lead and manage a paradigm shift in their planning to a Rolling Planning Process. Key elements of this shift in planning methodology and emphasis are described below.

Shorter Time Frames

Shift from strategic planning horizons and implementation strategies of one, three and five years, to a much more immediate focus in one to three-month increments. This will include check-ins, reviews and re-evaluations set for even shorter timeframes, which could be monthly in some circumstances, and — with some planning initiatives — could even be weekly.

More Granular and Tactical Focus

Since most firms are experiencing a series of client-driven, economy-driven and other external factors that are resulting in a spectrum of widely varying interim outcomes, they must emphasize more granular and tactical approaches. These will be determined at the key client, client-type, specialty and practice group levels.

De-Centralized—and Effective—Planning and Implementation

This granular approach, with shorter time-frames, more progress reports and likely more course-corrections, compels law firms to decentralize their planning and execution with greater emphasis on practice groups, client teams and client relationship managers. To be effective, this necessarily raises the bar for leaders, managers, client service and marketing professionals at the practice group, specialty, client team and sometimes office levels.

Firm leaders and managers generally need to delegate more planning and implementation, while becoming increasingly active and effective as advisors, coaches, standard setters and Circuit Riders. It will be their responsibility to make sure good practices are being followed actively; assuring effective follow-through; assisting those less experienced; and, making sure the volume of decisions and actions tied to tactical plans are being handled and are not too cumbersome or collapsing under their own weight.

Retain and Publicize Long-Term Goals

Even with the major emphasis on short-term, granular, decentralized goals, strategies and implementation, the law firm still needs to retain a long-term perspective: What defines or makes this law firm? I recommend that the firm retains a series of (e.g., five to ten) firm-wide goals or priorities, which might be appended to each practice group, specialty and key client plan. 

Goals or priorities that succinctly describe what is important to your law firm and its members should serve as touchstones, even as current efforts are focused on shorter term, specific sub-sets of the firm. Publicizing and emphasizing these touchstones can underscore important cultural values as well as performance-directed goals, including teamwork, communication, high integrity and the like.

Use Planning to Play Offense as Well as Defense

In times of upheaval, there are many factors pushing a law firm to play defense: Things are happening to us; Things often appear to be beyond our control. A Rolling Planning Process with short-term focus, more frequent check-ins, decentralized planning, monitoring of clients, etc., and strategies implemented on multi-pronged bases can help your firm to more quickly identify when uncertainties become more certain. This will help the firm and groups within the firm to respond more affirmatively, possibly with strategies already under discussion or in position.

Identify What Additional Information You Need

In times of crisis, firms need to know their cash position, the state of their pipeline, and—with the aforementioned spectrum of impacts being experienced—should in most cases be gathering information at more specific levels. For example, some specialties within practice areas and some services for key clients might be in great demand, while other specialties and services for the same practice areas or clients are not. 
Additional financial, performance and pipeline information can greatly enhance practice mix and client service planning and decisions, as well as budgeting, financial and staffing decisions to reinforce high-demand areas or respond to lowering demand.

A Paradigm Shift

Establishing, leading and managing a Rolling Planning Process is a paradigm shift for the vast majority of law firms, and is not likely to be easy. However, law firms have, for the most part, already been improving their technology, including capabilities for financial and practice analyses. Practice group leadership and management is more embryonic than firm governance and administrative management, but has generally been evolving and becoming somewhat more effective. Rolling Planning activities will carry more volume of information as a whole, more inputs for decision-making, enable higher volumes of decisions and increased numbers of “prongs” for implementation strategies.

If ever an external environmental shift demanded fundamental change in law firms’ approach to planning, this is it.


Alan R. Olson is a principal with Altman Weil, Inc., serving clients throughout the United States and Canada from the firm's Midwest office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For over thirty years, he has advised law firms on planning, practice management and business development strategies.

Contact him at arolson@altmanweil.com.

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