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12 Tips for Implementing a Small Law Strategy

12 Tips for Implementing a Small Law Strategy

Note:  The following is a guest post by Charity Anastasio.

The firm has spent months devising its strategic plan. It decided on a vision and mission, a team was assembled that looked at the environment internally and externally with a PEST analysis and a SWOT analysis, tried to apply the Porter Five Forces rivalry analysis and narrow its plan by the Porter Generic Strategies. The firm is excited and trepidatious! (Or the firm has decided it wants to change something big – same difference!)

Now the real work starts. That was just the development of the plan, but now the firm must implement the plan, analyze the results, and modify it where necessary. The importance of communication in this part of the process cannot be overemphasized. It is essential that transparency be the rule and that everyone in the firm be compliant with the changes, at a minimum, and optimistic and excited about them as an ideal.

Here are twelve tips to improve implementation success:

1. Culture.

A law office is made up of work and workers, technology used to do the work, and history. All of this equates to an office culture and that office culture is far from simple. Office culture is made up of relationships and family of origin stuff (people’s FOO), of leadership ranging from failed to magnificent, of anxieties and joys, of money concerns and time constraints that have shaped the employees and how they relate to their work.

That culture is the toughest nail affixing everyone to the “this is how we have always done it” story (i.e. the enemy). The office culture must be addressed authentically in the strategic plan and any issues in the culture must be overcome implementation to prevail.

2. Get Buy In.

Buy in from everyone is crucial. While buy in from partners is essential, key staff can kill a wonderful plan subversively or sabotage it beyond repair if the changes are not messaged transparently and positively, and failure to comply is not addressed properly from the beginning. If, for example, the strategic plan includes tech or process changes, larger firms should have a beta group that works with the products or processes first.

Smaller firms will adopt all at once, but buy in is still essential. Processes are like a quilt designed of all the staff and what they do for the clients. If you have that one hold out (“Bob will never make the change to the new software. We’re going to have to wait until he retires” or “Lisa won’t use cloud computing. She heard it’s not secure enough from her brother-in-law”) then the blanket has a hole shaped like that hold out.

The change will lag behind or feel unfair to the rest of the employees. Staff will get dejected and stop applying the changes or learning the new workflow. I even see this with solos who buy a product but do not invest time and money into training. Eventually the person blames the product, even though it was rarely opened and never properly implemented. We do not bake without getting our hands fully into the dough. And, yes, everyone must bake. Do not tolerate the hold out.

3. Invest in the new direction.

Training is ultra-important in almost every strategy implementation, whether it be explaining the new way that things will be done, to learning how to use a new product. Do not skimp on this step.

4. Focus on the goals.

Focus on the goals of why the strategic plan was devised. Message it to the staff often, consistently, and copiously before the plan gets started and during the implementation. What end are we aiming for? Firm growth? Efficiency advances? More public exposure? More clients? Happiness, speed, or agility and grace at work? It could be one, more, all, or others.

5. Split the plan into actionable tasks.

Let’s assume there is energy to improve and grow, that the culture is aiming to make changes for key reasons. The strategic plan included a revamp of processes, so someone in the strategic planning team downloads the LOMAP Self-Audit Checklist from the Washington State Bar Association website and finds the firm could improve many processes and systems.

The team meets and works up a huge list of old things they want to change—from slightly modified to entirely revamped or do away with. The team wants to do them all now. Instead, take from that list 10 Tiny Things everyone can agree should change. Then set up a reasonable timeline for the changes to be rolled out.

6. Start with the right tiny thing.

Take that 10 Tiny Things list and place each thing in one of the four hemispheres:


Then select one of the most simple and often done processes to start with. Examples are such things as answering the phone, checking the mail, sending the mail, setting email notifications, or managing voicemail. Work on one process and improve it before moving on to any others.

7. Practice.

Do several simple-often processes before delving into the other hemispheres or the longer list? Implementing a plan is often a new skill that takes time to learn.

8. Measure success/failure.

When you create the plan, also create a plan for how success or failure will be measured and determined. Pull quarterly regular reports on hours billed and what practice area they come from, or gross fees. Ask for client feedback on new systems. Request staff report on training needed, what works and what doesn’t. Revisit the goals of the strategic plan religiously and ask whether they are being met.  Ask a copious amount of questions and smash assumptions as implementation proceeds.

9. Avoid giving into the defensive.

A colleague says she always starts a lean-analysis with someone new by saying “At some point in this you are going to feel really stupid. Don’t. We have all been there.” When looking at their processes people can get defensive because it feels personal when a team digs through all the actions someone spends their time doing day in day out. If you feel defensive it only means you are human. Say how you feel, get it out, and then do your best to focus on the goals again.

10.  Value dissention.

Ever been at a company where your boss came up with a really bad idea? Did the team start to run with it because they were too scared or worried to object, despite whispered concerns? Don’t blindly run with it. Speak up if you have that bad feeling in your gut. And conversely, listen if someone speaks up with a bad feeling in their gut. It may save everyone massive time and energy. And please reward ingenuity and curiosity, the rarest of commodities.

11.  Adopt and adapt.

One of the grave mistakes firms make is to think that once the strategic plan is made and implementation is underway, there is no reason to look at it again. There must be a process of reviewing results and making course corrections where tactics and strategies are not panning out as predicted. While the ship is well on its way, it would be a shame to discover that the coordinates were wrong and dock in the wrong port (or worse, no port at all). Therefore part of the implementation is measuring progress and being flexible and thoughtful, adapting the plan where appropriate.

For example, say a law firm had two routes it was going to go. If one of the routes (differentiation though becoming the leader in the community on certain legal issues) does not bring in more clients while the other strategy (growing through lateral hires and expanding services to current client base in wraparound model) does, then it should be prepared to analyze the data to tell them this and change course by bolstering the current client wraparound campaign and ceasing to put funds into the greater cost for the Cadillac lawyers goal.

If the leader of the latter argues not enough time has been given the effort, that is fine and the firm can make an informed decision. But too often a law firm does not look at the statistics to make that informed decision. Stay with the goals and continue to monitor them. Change course if something does not work.

12. Apply old fashioned patience.

Sometimes it may seem this was not a great idea. It was, but the firm is going through growing pains when it implements. Give it the same patience and understanding you give a child learning to walk or read. The child gets frustrated just before she “gets it” and throws a fit. Sometimes segments of the firm may too. Take it as confirmation of a near break through instead of a tantrum, and move on.

* * *

Charity Anastasio is a Practice Management Advisor with the WSBA Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP) where she consults with and educates lawyers on practice management issues. Charity is a Seattle University School of Law graduate who was a solo practitioner before she joined the LOMAP team in 2013. She is on the Board of the Eastside Legal Assistance Program’s Domestic Violence incubator program and regularly contributes to the NW Lawyer, NW Sidebar and the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center’s Law Technology Today blog. She is presenting more on the topic of Small Firm Strategic Planning at the Georgia State Bar’s Power Up, Solo and Small Firm Institute and Technology Showcase on July 18, 2015.   For questions on this or other topics you may reach Ms. Anastasio at charitya@wsba.org or 206-733-5949.

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Photo credit:  Flickr, Beverley Goodwin, Anyone for chess? (CC BY 2.0)

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