Strategic PlanningA way too short, but link-bait worthy titled article, is making its way into the conversation of legal marketers this week about law firms and strategic planning.

In fact, I am certain that Rita McGrath‘s article in the HBR Blog Network, Creative Destruction Visits the Legal Profession, is sure to be a topic of conversation and buzz at this week’s Marketing Partner Forum (follow along on Twitter at #MPF2013), as well it should be.

We’re chatting about it in my Legal Marketers Extraordinaire group on Facebook (A private group I started. PM me via The Legal Watercooler‘s Facebook page if you want to join).

In many ways I have to agree with Ms. McGrath’s initial paragraph:

Some years ago, I had the rather thankless task of directing a program on strategy for law firms. It was thankless in part because about half the participants didn’t think law firms needed a strategy. They figured if you were smart, served your clients well and worked hard that things would be fine, as they historically often have. Just keep billing those hours! The other half might have been open to the idea that law firms needed a strategy, but completely opposed to having anything other than a consensus-built, senior partner-friendly mechanism for making strategic choices, which almost by definition is doomed to fail. Tough decisions such as which clients to serve and which not; which partners are creating value and which are not; and where to focus in terms of practice expertise and geography are nearly impossible to make by committee.

Over the years, I have been in those meetings. I have sat in on those calls. I have worked to build strategic plans, only to see them fully ignored. Or, better yet, fail because those who did not buy-in picked up their toys and went to another sandbox to play.

Here’s my (short) take on Ms. McGrath’s article from our conversation on the LME group:

Of course she had a less-than-receptive audience. And, speaking with my peers, it’s still not the most receptive audience. Definitely getting better. Still room for lots of improvement.

The good new is that the concepts and implementation of true strategy can be found in large, small, regional firms (but not all). It’s no longer the purview of a few “forward thinking” firms.

And, for the firms that do invest the time, energy, money, and emotional capital to prepare a strategic plan, how well it is carried out, and how many barriers are faced, is still open to debate.

So why is this buzz-worthy considering Ms. McGrath’s experience took place “some years ago”?

Because it is still true today in too many firms.

Yes, there are some firms — mega, large, small, regional, boutique — that really get it and are operating at a highly strategic level. But how many of those firms were driven to this change by the recession? How many will willingly slide back into complacency now that things are looking up again?

And not to mention the rest of the firms that either fell apart during the recession, or squeaked their way through it. They continue to operate as usual, even though the world has completely changed.

I believe that one of the reasons that strategy is so hard to implement in a law firm is because of the emotional investment it requires.

We’re not selling widgets or cans of soda. We’re selling services provided by people. Those people are friends and partners. In many firms, these partners grew up together, joining the firms as summer associates 20 some odd years ago. It’s hard to challenge assumptions and make changes when you are that emotionally invested.

Let’s face it. They just don’t teach this shit in law school. They don’t teach that one day you might be the chairman of a multi-billion dollar operation. Hell, even the most modest of firms are multi-million dollar operations.

One of the roadblocks to strategy, I have found, is that at the end of the day, with all the good advice given and shared, we, as legal marketers and outside consultants, are not shareholders or partners. We are not the owners of the business. We are not personal friends.

We can be impartial because we are not emotionally invested in these people. We’re there to do a job.

If they do not take our advice, or seek our counsel, there is nothing we really can do about it. Sure, we have a seat at the table. But how loud is our voice?

I’ve been doing this legal marketing thing for 15 years now. The industry has changed completely in so many ways. But in other ways it really hasn’t changed too much.

We are still relationship driven, but how we create and manage those relationships is different.

Technology and innovations have changed, but they are still supporting the core of what we do: providing a service.

Lawyers are still skeptical. Clients still hire on the theory of know, like, and trust. We’re still herding cats.

And I am still the Pollyanna out there. I believe if we are moving the ball forward, even at a micro pace, we are making progress. And, readers, we are making progress.

Maybe not to the outside world, but in the inner world of legal marketing, we have made leaps and bounds of change. And we still have so much more to accomplish.

I hope that Ms. McGrath’s article continues to be a beacon of conversation. As it is a conversation I know we are having behind closed doors, in the lobbies during industry conferences, on private Facebook message threads and groups, and hopefully around the conference room table in our boardrooms.