(This post first appeared in SLAW).

I provide a wide range of services to law firms, so I can always tell what’s happening in the industry by the run on certain types of services.

Sometimes I seem to do nothing but coaching; lawyers wanting to improve their personal skills in a range of business areas. Other times, it seems that everyone wants to sell their firm.  We’re sort of in the middle of that right now.  But the real push this year so far has been for strategic plans.  Normally, each plan looks completely different because each law firm is different.  They are in different stages of their lifespan, they have different practice areas, their firm has a different personality from the next.  So normally, each strategic plan is very different.  The funny thing is, this year’s plans are all pretty similar.  They aren’t about growth; instead, their focus seems to be on surviving into the future.   They need to figure out how to keep up with the work they have, given how difficult it is to hire and keep lawyers.  They need to determine how they will survive any upcoming retirements. And they need to sort through how their operations and culture will change as a result of the demand for remote work options.  Given these conditions, everybody wants to have a game plan for how they’ll survive the next five years.

Of course, that game plan will look different for every law firm, but I thought I would give you a summary of things to consider if your law firm is thinking about this same concern.

  1. Critique your firm. There’s no point in planning a series of actions to help the firm move strongly forward without first understanding where your problems are.  And they aren’t necessarily where you think they are. If you can, engage an outside provider to do this analysis as lawyers can tend to look for data that corroborates their existing belief systems.  Objectively determine your firm’s current strengths and weaknesses and predict what those things will look like in the future, too.
  2. Consider your client base. Law firms tend to plan in a very ego-centric fashion: only thinking about themself.  As long as this is a business requiring sales, we need customers.  And those customers may have changing needs and realities that can shift what, when, how and how often they might need your services.  There’s no point creating a firm of the future that is no longer relevant to its client base.  Take some time to think about your shifting customer base, and their needs.
  3. Consider your workforce. Many Associates don’t want to become a Partner.  Many lawyers might prefer to be on contract. Many young Associates don’t believe in a linear experience path, and there aren’t as many LA’s and paralegals graduating as there used to be.  Don’t assume that you’ll have access to a traditional law firm workforce going forward.   Plan for the workforce you know can be there, not the one you hope will be there.
  4. Reconsider your logistics. With remote work, law firms won’t need the same real estate footprint.  With increased use of technology, lawyers might not need as much staff assistance.  Think ahead to what logistics will look like five years from now. Don’t plan a future for your existing processes if there’s a good chance they’ll be changing.
  5. Create a process for determining when to say yes, and when to say no to different types of work. Many lawyers – particularly those in smaller firms – are having to turn away work right now because they simply don’t have the bodies to do it.  These should be strategic decisions.  What type of work is the most profitable or leads to the most profitable work?  What type of services do you need to have around to ensure your top clients remain happy with the firm?  How could certain practices be made more efficient so you can continue to do them without sacrificing your bottom line?  Don’t just say no when you get too busy. Ensure that what you’re doing to keep you busy is all for good strategic reasons.
  6. Plan to do a better job of holding onto your people. Do better hiring by searching for specific capabilities, not just a pulse.  Do better on-boarding.  Have a killer training program in place, and also a good mentoring program.  Be transparent: let everyone know what you can about the firm: its wins, its challenges, its goals.  Have a strong morale program – we often call these “glue,” for good reason.  They make people stick with the firm.  Pay people decently.  Most lawyers and staff don’t need to be the top paid in their profession, but they need to know they are being paid fairly.   And say thank you as often as you can stand it.  It probably won’t be enough but it will be considerably better than what’s happening in most law firms right now.  A little thank you can go a long, long way.
  7. Now, create a detailed plan and ensure members of the firm are accountable for its implementation. Having a list of to-do’s in your head is not a plan.  It must be written, and agreed on by the Partnership.  It must have detailed action items, with responsible parties and due dates.  There must be a process in place to review action items that were supposed to have been done, and a report on the outcomes and lessons learned.  Further, the planning process should be annual.

This is not how most law firms run.  This is how most other businesses on the planet run.  Law firms don’t have to re-invent the wheel here.  We just need to piggy back off of some very basic business processes from other industries.  But mostly, we need to take action by thinking about what our future could and should look like, and then starting to build toward that vision.  That’s how law firms will survive the next five years.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms, lawyers and administrators.  She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com