Almost daily, lawyers come together and open new law firms.  High expectations accompany such births.  With owners committing to work hard, promising to exercise given and acquired skills, and counting on a little (but not too much) luck, the newly created institution teases with the prospect of success.

The positive vibes at inception may be tempered when reverberations from the occasional law firm closing resound.  But law firms can close for any number of reasons.  The ending of a firm by its owners may simply be desired, planned out, and then executed.  In other cases, a firm’s demise can result from factors never intended, frequently unanticipated, and often bemoaned.  Whatever the reason, a closing law firm’s record will be starkly different from the law firm that gets passed from one generation to the next.

With intentions among law firm founders not much different at the time of creation, what explains the dissimilar outcomes?  Why do some law firms last while others seem to blow away in the wind?  One word: focus.  A firm’s ability to enjoy stability and longevity, and avoid a premature end, frequently turns on leadership’s ability to focus on five key fundamentals.

Shared Aspirations.  Whether a firm is getting started, is seeking to grow, or is somewhere else on the continuum of law firm life, long-term success depends on shared aspirations among its owners.  Shared ideas about the values held dear and objectives sought creates a commonality of purpose.  When agreement about goals and the reasons to be practicing law together is shared, owners will be on the “same page” and stability and success becomes more likely.  For that reason, leadership should constantly assess the mood and outlook of its owners to test the continued uniformity of their aspirations.  When aspirations seem to be fracturing, leadership’s focus and corrective action is required.

Planning.  A focus on planning is essential.  Only through commitment to planning can the shared aspirations of a firm be realized.  But planning is not easy.  It requires time, discipline, and vision.  By focusing on planning, leadership can initiate strategies that help achieve articulated objectives.  Through planning the firm can adjust its blueprint for the future as needed and identify individual performance expectations for the firm’s attorneys.  A focused firm reviews its plans frequently, can assess the firm’s performance against the plan, and adjust its plan as it and the market evolves.

Leadership.  Almost all successful firms enjoy high quality leadership.  Leadership at law firms is a complex brew of ingredients including knowledge, personality, persuasiveness, vision, trust and support.  Effective leadership not only strives to earn the owners’ trust and respect but works hard to preserve it once gained.  Quality leadership pursues the firms articulated goals, follows through on promises and enlists others in the firm in meeting the firm’s objectives.  A firm’s focus on maintaining high quality leadership is essential.  But focusing on present leadership is not enough.  A firm committed to its future will work hard on identifying the firm’s future leaders and paving the way for their seamless succession.

Communication.  An important ingredient in law firm stability and longevity is communication-it is the multi-dimensional key to connecting, understanding, and fostering inclusiveness.  In a time of client and lawyer mobility, good communication protects a firm from potential instability.  Both external and internal communication should be a part of a firm’s focus.  But communication is not simply a one-way exercise.  Focused leadership listens carefully to its clients, its people, and its industry to make informed decisions.  Understanding what clients are thinking, and what the rank and file is feeling, is critical to building a stable service model that can evolve over time.

Awareness.  A stable firm that has enjoyed a good run is one that understands its place in the law firm industry, can see trends emerging, and understands the challenges ahead.  In sum, a stable firm is dedicated to understanding the world around it and its place in that world.  That awareness will be displayed by a deep curiosity in the prospects for clients, progress in the industry, competitors’ actions, and professional service firm best practices.   A law firm that keeps its head on a swivel seizes opportunity, avoids surprises, and solidifies its foundation while other firms struggle.

Giving these five elements frequent attention is a sure way to improve your firm’s chance at stability and longevity.  In this day when the stakes are high, is there any reason to not give your firm that needed focus?