Business plans for gigantic canoes

Business plans for gigantic canoes

For several months now, I and some of my colleagues in the Public and Professional Interest Division of the International Bar Association have been reviewing the business plans of the PPID committees and other entities. These groups range from very small task forces and working groups of fewer than 20 people up to the Law Firm Management Committee, with a membership in the thousands.

Like large law firms, the PPID offers an array of services to the profession and to the clients whom the legal profession ultimately serves.  These include such diverse areas as corporate social responsibility, human rights, law firm management, pro bono practice and access to justice, and war crimes - to name only a few.

How on earth can an organization like that ever hope to develop an organizational strategic plan that is anything more than platitudes and airy aspirations?

As the first step in the PPID's strategic planning process, our working group needed to compile a high-resolution "photograph" of the entire division. We used the business plans, which each PPID entity prepared using a standard format, to identify the goals and needs that the various entities share, as well as the differences that are driven by each group's unique mission.

Our preliminary observations and recommendations, which I presented on behalf of our group at the IBA mid-year officers' meeting in Warsaw, Poland, last Friday, emphasized the standard, but nonetheless very important, functions that business plans perform in setting realistic objectives, implementing actions to achieve them, and measuring the success of the efforts.

These are important in professional organizations and professional services firms alike. Without these basic components of a business plan, even the smartest and hardest-working group of people will find it difficult to achieve success.

I also commented on another important function of business plans, one that is often overlooked in law firms. A good business plan can be a powerful communications tool, by which management can transmit the strategic, business, and financial goals of the firm, in practical, measurable, short-range terms that are relevant to everyone from the senior partner to most junior staff member.

It is good to know the entire firm hopes to go in the next five years. It is better if each person knows what he or she needs to do today to help the group get there.

People who attended that meeting in Warsaw last week have commented to me that it was the first time in the history of the division that they had ever seen the "big picture" of the mission of the Public and Professional Interest Division, or that they had fully understood many of the subtle differences and special characteristics of committees and groups that made up the division.

To help everyone achieve those two levels of understanding, we reproduced all of the components of all of the business plans on a single, giant spreadsheet - literally, a very big picture.

This same challenge - understanding the big picture in detail - exists, to some extent, in most law firms - but especially in large ones.  As the senior partner of one of Walker Clark's client law firms recently told me:

When I became a partner in this firm, we could hold our partnership meetings around a single table in the restaurant downstairs.  Now, 25 years later, I barely know half of my 60 partners, and I surely don't know what they are all doing day to day for this firm and for our clients...

We've become like a gigantic canoe.  We're so big now that I can't even see the partners in the back of the boat, much less know for sure that they are paddling in the same direction that I am.

A business plan is a necessity for every law firm - and, I would argue, even for solo practices. But a good business plan is not enough.

It is equally important that once the business plan has been written, it should be communicated to, and understood by, everyone in the firm.  Junior staff members might not need to know, and probably are not that interested in, all of the financial details. However, using the business plan as a firm-wide communications device is a highly efficient and effective way to help every person in the firm understand what everyone in the firm is trying to achieve together - not just in lofty professional ideals, but also in practical, real-life, business terms.


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