Challenges ahead warning road signFor followers of the law firm industry, there never is a shortage of opinions about its current state or what the future holds. True to form, the recent publication of Professor Ben Barton’s Glass Half Full: The Decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession is a provocative take on where the law firm world is today and where it is headed.  Professor Barton’s book has stimulated discussion already and no doubt more will come.  Whatever one’s view regarding whether the industry is in decline, on an upswing or just treading water, few would argue that the last 10 years have not been a time of significant change.

The challenges facing law firms (not to mention the battle being waged by solo practitioners to keep pace as noted by Professor Barton) cause some law firms to abandon past practices in favor of trying something new and more effective.  Indeed, The Wall Street Journal’s Sara Randazzo profiled Quinn Emanuel’s new approach to finding fresh lawyer talent (Quinn Emanuel to Scale Back Summer Associate Program).  The highly regarded firm has decided to greatly scale back its summer associate program.  Instead, Quinn Emanuel is focusing its new attorney recruitment on third year students and graduates headed for or coming off judicial clerkships.

Change needed to meet today’s challenges is not always as simple as replacing a summer associate program with different hiring practices.  The challenges faced by law firms today are so varied that no “short-list” of solutions exists or is even imaginable.  Meeting today’s challenges is more a question of process-dealing with transition methodically and with a purpose.  For today’s law firms and its leaders, five fundamentals are essential to success in the days and years ahead:

Develop a Long-Term Plan and Stick to It. Smart firms have developed a long-term strategic plan after careful and thoughtful consideration. If such a plan does not exist, it is time to get one. But any long-term plan’s value is undermined if it is cast aside in favor of the latest trend. So develop a long-term strategic plan (sound strategy) and couple it with the discipline to see to its execution (strong leadership). If it begins to appear flawed, recognize the flaws, rethink the plan to make necessary fixes and create a new or better long-term plan. It likely will represent a tweak of the earlier plan, not an entirely new direction. But above all, don’t manage “on the fly.” It will only disappoint.

Emphasize Your Strengths. Face it, not every practice area at your firm is a world-beater. Play to your strengths and consider phasing out anything that is weak or not critically complimentary to your strengths. As Basha Rubin wrote for Forbes in her The Business of Law: Is the Mid-Tier Law Firm Dying [?], specialization allows you to distinguish yourself in today’s ultra-competitive world. In contrast, little that a generalist does is unique.

Recognize that Growth is Neither a Solution Nor a Strategy-It is a Tactic. Refrain from thinking that growth itself is a great plan. Too often growth plans are viewed as a strategy that solves problems or stimulates opportunity. Unfortunately, growth is mostly a tactic, not a strategy. If growth implements a firm’s strategy, great. If not, it is action packed but aimless.

Understand that Not All “Best Practices” Suit Your Firm. Another law firm’s success with an initiative does not mean it is something to be emulated. Studying industry best practices is good, and thinking about them introspectively is better, but implementation should only happen if the fit is right.

Be True to Your Firm’s Culture. Trying to be something you are not is destined for disaster. A firm that has a distinct culture should manage, hire and practice consistently with that culture. If lateral hiring occurs, leadership should give as much attention to integrating the new hires as catching them. Integration means inculcating the additions into the firm’s culture. They will benefit, your legacy people will benefit and the firm will benefit.

Strong leadership and sound strategy will guide law firms through challenges and transition.  While there may not be any easy answers to the difficulties faced by law firms, these five fundamentals can go a long way towards guiding leadership to the right result.  When your law firm has faced challenges, what approach has worked best?