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
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.
on the Walker Clark Worldview Blog.
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