Challenges ahead warning road signSuperficial solutions to the long-term challenges law firms face are seldom lasting. The right answers only come through disciplined strategic thinking that projects beyond a looming horizon. Unfortunately, some thinking in the guise of being strategic is anything but. And for the law firms trying to position themselves past that horizon, misinterpreting motion for progress can be a bad thing.

A recent piece by Ivan Rasic entitled Law Firms vs NewLaw: How to face the future of legal services? is loaded with interesting and provocative thoughts about today’s law firms readying themselves for life in a NewLaw world. It is commended reading.

An interesting discussion in Mr. Rasic’s article, among many, credits Casey Flaherty for some insightful thoughts about technology and innovation. One of Mr. Flaherty’s points is that in this high technology age some law firms wrongly view technology as a giant step towards innovation. He cautions that the use of technology can be an aid to innovation, but it is not innovation itself.

Mr. Flaherty’s view about technology and innovation highlights the danger of confusing tactics for strategy. Leaders in the legal services market trying to unlock the future and how their firm will fit in it have a formidable task. In seeking the answer to that puzzle, however, it is imperative that leadership not be fooled into thinking that action is synonymous with progress.

But because every law firm’s place in the future is unique and leadership prescience is not a certainty, sometimes it is helpful to start by thinking about what not to do. Avoiding common mistakes won’t necessarily deliver a visionary strategy for the future, but it can be helpful in eliminating distractions, false starts, or missteps.

Some of the more common ways firms mistake tactics for strategy follow:

Overinvest in Technology. Just as Mr. Flaherty argues that technology is not innovation, it is true that investing heavily in it does not assure long-term progress. Investing in technology without understanding the goal it will help achieve misdirects the potential advantage technology can provide. It can waste capital and misdirect a firm’s focus.

Pursue Growth. Similarly, while in a cursory fashion law firm growth connotes action, it is not always aimed towards an articulated purpose. Before growth is to be embraced, it is critical that the time consuming and financially expensive tactic be tied to a strategic objective-hopefully one that is premised on a desired long-term result. As action packed as growth may be, it often is nothing more than a tactic whose promise is overblown.

Add Substantive Capabilities. Focused firms do not try to be all things to all people. Even many “full-service” firms eschew serving the full range of potential clients but instead play to their strengths by doubling down on their expertise. With one exception, new substantive capabilities should be added to a firm only if they augment or enhance current offerings. The lone exception is when the new and unconnected substantive capability furthers a mature and well thought out long-term strategy. Otherwise, the new substantive capability should be carefully scrutinized if not declined.

Copy the Competition.  Just because “everybody’s doing it” does not mean your law firm should follow a competitor’s lead. Law firm leaders should be wary of trying to copy the same steps taken by other firms, especially since the quality of a competitor’s reasoning and analysis largely will be unknown. What a competitor does may be useful in stimulating thought, but it should not be a substitute for an independent consideration of your firm’s status, condition and place in the marketplace.

Preparing a law firm so that it can compete and endure is no small task. Understanding the difference between a tactic and strategy helps in tackling such a daunting challenge. As you have positioned your firm for the future, have you been able to keep them straight?