Denver Bar Association
December 2007
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Choose Your Future: The importance of strategic planning at your firm

by Ken Stern

A version of this article was previously published by the American Immigration Lawyers Association Practice & Professionalism Center.

I can remember distinctly the first time I realized our firm needed strategic planning, although I certainly did not think of it in those terms. I was working out on my cross-trainer and contemplating the fact that the practice of immigration law did not seem to be as much fun or as rewarding as it once was. Restrictive laws and regulations, post-9/11 security measures, a downturn in the economy, and a culture of "no" on the part of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had resulted in an increasing level of dissatisfaction with the practice of immigration law.

I realized that the status quo wasn’t working and that we needed to do something to improve the situation. A friend who is a lawyer strongly recommended that I contact Grant Partners, a firm in Denver specializing in strategic and succession planning, retreat facilitation and executive coaching. The goal of any strategic-planning process is to help the client organization be proactive and intentional in determining what it wants its future to be, and how it can achieve that vision rather than having events and circumstances determine its fate.

Strategic planning can be a powerful tool for any size law firm, even a solo practitioner. Our facilitated strategic and succession-planning processes have yielded much fruit, including the transition of Emily Curray into the role of managing partner, the acquisition of another practice, and our merger with the firm of Carter & Alterman. Our collective job satisfaction has increased dramatically, and we have met or exceeded our financial goals and targets. In fact, I have enjoyed the process so much that I have completed basic and advanced coaching training and I now am splitting my professional time between immigration law and working with Grant Partners as an executive coach and a facilitator.

In my work with Grant Partners, I have designed my own process. The first phase involves confidential interviews with key members of the firm to learn their different perspectives on the strengths of the firm, and the challenges and issues that need to be addressed. A report is then prepared for the partners summarizing the findings in a way that protects confidentiality.

The individual conversations are followed by a group process, usually a retreat, which involves several stages or phases. The first step is to create agreements among the participants regarding the need for open and honest communication. The next step focuses on the reasons the firm came together and includes a discussion of the firm’s values. It is always interesting to ascertain how the values of the firm have changed over time, and to name the values and culture of the firm as they really exist in the present.

The next phase involves creating a collective vision for the firm’s future. Each participant articulates where he or she would like to see the firm in five years, and his or her role in that future firm. There are a number of techniques to deepen the visioning process and to weave the individual perspectives into a collective vision for the future.

After it has been determined where the firm wants to go, it then becomes critical to identify all of the issues and factors that must be identified, addressed and surmounted for the firm to reach its long-range goals

At Grant Partners, we often use a "dot" process, where each participant will use different color dots to rate the importance of various issues. The result of this exercise is a very graphic demonstration of the most pressing issues that must be addressed to make the vision of the future a reality.

The final process involves creating specific goals, objectives and action items to address each issue, including who will be responsible for championing the different action items and how accountability will be measured and ensured.

At the end of the strategic planning process, the firm has a very specific blueprint for reaching its long-term goals. A follow-up meeting normally is scheduled six to eight weeks after the group process to review, and perhaps revisit, the specific action items.

Although it is well-documented that strategic planning is a highly successful tool for creating and implementing a vision and a plan for the future of an organization, it is noteworthy how few law firms take advantage of this extremely valuable tool. The process can be adapted for any size firm and virtually any budget. Engaging in regular strategic planning can lead to increased fulfillment and enhanced success.

We are available to assist law firms of all sizes in the strategic planning process; however, there are a number of other capable professionals who also work in this field. We recommend that firms interview several different service providers and obtain references before choosing a consultant.

Contact Ken Stern at kenneth.stern@secalaw.com.


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