Law firms are getting better at planning.  This includes a strategic plan, and marketing plan, plans for practice groups, even plans for individual lawyers.  Firms can feel pretty sanctimonious about having taken the time (and money) to develop such plans.  But more often than not, by the end of the year the plan has been misplaced, and very little of it has actually been accomplished.  Why is that?  Because no one put an accountability process in place.

The secret to getting things done in a law firm is to make people accountable for getting those things done.

Law firms don’t like the “A” word.  It’s one of the reasons that law firms have taken so long to learn to do what every other business does as a matter of course: business planning.  Because if lawyers state a target, they’ll feel badly when they don’t hit it.  If we don’t plan, we won’t have to feel badly about not actuating the plan.

It starts with a plan:

Some firms can be cajoled into writing a plan because it’s the right thing to do.  Firms might even start the implementation process.  But very few finish it because there’s no recognized down-side to finishing it.  And spending time on implementation of a plan takes time away from billings, which are ultimately more closely monitored.   I would point out that there is, in fact, a recognizable down-side to not finishing implementation on a plan.  Most notably, your business goals probably won’t be achieved.  But as few firms run themselves by setting and achieving annual business goals…they don’t miss them.   In the absence of business goals, what do law firm’s aim for?  Well….nothing.  Most firms run themselves by adding up what they achieved by the end of the year, and figuring out how to distribute it.   I appreciate that most firms have target budgets for production and expenses, but those are not the same thing as business goals.  Or perhaps you can think of them as the elementary-school version of business goals in a University world.

Worse yet, some firms taking the time and effort to create a plan, ignore it for the remainder of the year, and then declare the process a failure, which serves as justification for never doing planning again.

The problem with law firms…

This is an enormous missed opportunity for law firms because the lawyer personality – more than most –  MUST meet or exceed their goals.  If you can only find a way to harness this determination, amazing things can occur.  The best way I know to motivate lawyers to actually accomplish a plan is to hold them accountable for doing so.

The problem is, law firms are not good at accountability.  For example, Partnerships are typically bad at holding Partners accountable for bad behaviours.  They’re not bad at holding Associates accountable for productivity expectations…but it’s difficult to demonstrate respectful compliance when an Associate sees that the Partners are incapable of policing their own.  The accomplishment of a strategic plan is up to the Partnership.  The accomplishment of a practice group plan is up to the practice group – represented by the practice group leader.  Yet Partnerships find it uncomfortable to hold these entities accountable, they way they would find it uncomfortable to tell an acquaintance they needed more deodorant.  Law firms are a business, not a club.  Appropriate people within the firm – regardless of title – should be held accountable for achieving their assigned tasks.

What does accountability look like?

  • Be clear on who is ultimately responsible for each plan. An operations plan will be the responsibility of the general manager.  A marketing plan will be the responsibility of the marketing manager.  A practice group plan will be the responsibility of the practice group leader.
  • Ensure that all goals in a plan have a sufficient number of action items that speak to how those goals will be achieved.
  • Ensure each action item has a due date, and identify who will do the task.
  • Check in at last quarterly on the plan to ensure things that were scheduled to have been done that quarter were in fact done. Ask about lessons learned, results, and next steps.

A quarterly report enables the plan owner to check in with those responsible for action items to place the timing on the report.  “Irene, how are you doing with those cross-selling letters?  I need to report on your progress in the upcoming Q2 reporting meeting.”  If Irene realizes that if her task isn’t done, that’s what will be reported, chances are high that Irene will ensure her task is done on time.    Note that the plan owner is not responsible for doing all of the plan’s action items: just reporting on them.

An accountability process ensures that the time and effort that went into planning doesn’t go to waste; that the firm’s declared business goals will likely be achieved; that lawyers prioritize these goals and are ready to report on them regularly; and that lawyers understand their responsibility to the firm goes beyond their own personal practice.

You want to get things done in a law firm?  Put in an accountability process.

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