The Big Ten had a tough go of it last weekend in college football. Both Michigan and Michigan State failed to step up to challenges against non-Big Ten teams. In the Horseshoe, Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech in a contest pitting the Big Ten against the Atlantic Coast Conference. The weekend’s results again raise doubts about the strength and quality of Big Ten football. If today’s business concepts are applied to what is going on in the Big Ten, one might say that the storied conference is feeling the effects of “disruption.”

The disruption in college football has similarities to the disruption being experienced in the legal industry. While there is debate about disruption in the legal industry, many law firm leaders, like Big Ten coaches and athletic directors, are dealing with the impact of change. Smart law firm leaders, like Big Ten football leadership, will take pro-active steps to deal with disruption. And while tailgating and marching bands are as unique to football as billable hours and lateral hiring are to law, capable leadership in college football and at law firms will deal with disruption in similar ways. The Big Ten leaders and law firm managing partners will:

Think Short-Term and Long-Term.  Big Ten coaches and athletic directors, being among the best in the business, know that nothing gets fixed overnight. Most will develop short-term strategies for success (get some wins) while pursuing a long-term strategy to assure excellence in the years ahead. Astute law firm leaders will do the same. The short-term goal to deliver steady financial success will be joined with long-term preparations for “new law.”

Focus on Financial Issues.  Most people don’t feel sorry for the Big Ten when it comes to financial issues because its stadiums, boosters, and sponsors create a financial strength most schools only dream about (okay, the SEC doesn’t have those dreams). Yet you can be sure that member school’s current financial fortunes will not result in complacency. Ideas and strategies on how to maintain and improve upon the present financial girth will dominate leadership’s thinking. Similarly, any competent law firm leader knows that one good year does not guaranty another, and great attention will be dedicated to achieving future financial performance.

Invest.  Big Ten schools invest in talent and infrastructure and already have among the best of both. As for talent, university presidents will push to retain or hire the best athletic directors, the athletic directors will strive to retain or hire the best coaches, and the coaches will pound the pavement to find and recruit the best players. But that is not all. The competition for superior talent will motivate schools to build state of the art facilities (locker rooms, weight rooms, indoor practice facilities, booster reception areas). Law firms seeking to compete and survive will do likewise. Hiring the best associates, hiring the most desirable laterals and retaining the firm’s best producers will be a focus of any committed law firm. Leaders at those firms will also promote or hire the best management minds available. And while spending lavishly on dramatic offices has less utility than ever before, smart firms will invest in infrastructure that aids the efficient delivery of legal services.

Communicate.  When performance is down, communicating with anyone having a discernible impact on success is vital. Sharing the current status, future initiatives and hoped for results keeps people engaged. Simply “giving hope” won’t cut it long-term, but nonetheless contributes to keeping the people engaged. Big Ten leadership will inundate alumni, boosters and the public with information about the “good” in the present and the “great” expected in the future. A law firm leader dealing with or implementing change likewise will communicate to the firm’s lawyers and non-lawyers about the firms’ solid present and exciting future.

Remain Faithful to Core Values.  In the turnaround effort, Big Ten leadership will consider the best practices of other successful programs but only with alumni and boosters constantly in mind. Smart leadership will remain true to core values that go to the heart of a school’s identity. A law firm facing change should do likewise. Law firm leaders can learn from the best practices of others, but should never lose sight of the firm’s strengths and core values. Whether in football or law, the “latest and greatest” may not be for everybody.

Big Ten football’s stumble will not continue forever. Focused steps like those above will lead to its resurgence. Challenged law firms can use the same steps to arrest a decline and turn things around. Can the Big Ten and law firms facing disruption do more?