Business Foundations with The Successful Firm Project
ALA partners with new initiative to create a brighter future for law firms
Lawyers know the law, but they may not all have heads for business. The backbone of the legal industry, however, is small, midsize and large firms owned and operated by those very same lawyers. Some continue to try their best to run and grow their businesses on their own, while others have delegated those tasks to more experienced businesspeople, including chief operating officers, executive directors and other legal management professionals.
Whether they have JDs or not, law firm leaders are always in need of more resources and more expert advice for improving operations, increasing profitability and fostering a workplace culture that attracts and retains the best people. That’s where The Successful Firm Project enters the picture.
Launched this spring, The Successful Firm Project is a professional network of law firm leaders, subject matter coaches and solution providers collaborating on what makes firms successful. Its participants — who are growing in number as the year goes on — are looking for and sharing creative ways to improve the business health of their firms today and in the future. The Association of Legal Administrators (ALA), whose members specialize in the business of law, is a partner is this endeavor.
The initiative includes live thought leadership events, pulse-taking polls, useful tools, spotlights on Legal Management articles, and personalized dashboards for participants. “We truly believe that we learn by experience, and our goal is to help firm teams learn from great coaches and each other on how to be successful today and tomorrow,” says Carolyn Shomali, Community Manager for The Successful Firm Project.
One such event was a recent Playbook webcast, Business Foundations Every Firm Needs. It brought together three ALA Past Presidents to serve as subject matter coaches and outline how successful firms are dealing with these five essential areas of business interest:
In a poll of the live attendees, 30% say their firm evaluates or evolves its strategy annually. For the coaches, that’s just about on the edge of sufficient. They coalesced on the need for a strategic plan (favoring 2-3 years over 4-5) and for continually evaluating firm priorities.
“Anyone who has worked with me for more than a week or so will hear me say things like, ‘I don’t care about the past, only the future’ or ‘Blow it up!’ or ‘Let’s reimagine what it should look like,’” says Laura J. Broomell, CLM, Chief Operating Officer at Greene Espel PLLP. “Have a change mentality. Look at everything through the lens of process improvement. Don’t wait for someone else to lead change, like a managing partner — each of us should act like an owner and be courageous about change.”
Furthermore, supplementing a strategic plan with objective-driven plans of work or focus areas can ensure accountability and help the firm pivot to projects that fulfill strategic goals while incorporating new tactics (think custom fee arrangements or virtual client development). After all, the COVID-19 pandemic showed us that we have to be quick on our feet.
“Anytime you learn something new that changes the conditions or the information or the data, you need to be open to changing your strategy,” says April L. Campbell, JD, now Executive Director of ALA.
When it comes down to it, according to James Cornell III, law firms are human-centric organizations. The product they sell comes from the minds of their people in service to clients.
“When we create an environment where people feel valued, where they are respected, they have purpose [and] they are well, they are working harder, they’re profitable and clients really engage with that,” says Cornell, Office Administrator for the Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., locations of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, LLP.
One way to accomplish that is to weave the concepts of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) into everything the firm does, and to be accountable to those values through check-ins, measurement and collaboration with DEIA-aligned organizations.
Another key to becoming a high-performing firm, say the coaches, is having approachable leaders. Approachability is closely connected to trustworthiness, transparency, open lines of communication and empathy.
Sixty-nine percent of the polled attendees reported that their staff only occasionally has what they need to make progress toward important objectives. How does a successful firm approach this issue? Leverage your resources!
“I rely on the business partners that we work with in my firm as though they are team members,” Broomell says. “We can’t do it ourselves so we should lean on the experts.”
Anticipating which resources will be needed to get the job done is its own challenge. “It’s hard to operate in a vacuum and not be creating relationships along the way. That is why our members find value in [ALA],” says Campbell. “You’re constantly surrounded by people talking about … things that they’re doing or trying in their firms. And they may be things that you’re not doing or trying. It kind of opens up these channels in your brain.”
“The most important element in all of [the data collections firms do] is the human component of that and understanding how people are working, what they would like to develop into and how we really give them fulfillment,” Cornell says.
Most poll respondents said that their firm has a budget allocation for professional development. This is a hallmark of successful firms, agreed the coaches, and management can prioritize it through:
- Communicating with employees about finding and developing their strengths
- Improving onboarding and training programs
- Emphasizing attendance of industry conferences
- Implementing DEIA initiatives
Successful firms commit to accepting the concept of failure for the sake of progress, says Campbell. By allowing for some experimentation and fine-tuning of processes, they do themselves a favor in regards to business progression and growth. Design-thinking principles — empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test — can help your teams to adjust and course-correct when something doesn’t go as they hoped at first.
The Successful Firm Project will continue to host virtual events and collaborative discussions throughout the year. To access them, simply sign up for a yearlong subscription. All subscription types are complimentary for ALA members — meaning they can consume the content for free by themselves or share it with their firm colleagues. Subscribers can even go back watch recordings of Business Foundations Every Firm Needs and other events on-demand.
For the next peer-to-peer Huddle, strategist and professional coach Judy Hissong, CLM, PCC, will guide a conversation about Re-Evaluating Your Office on August 10. The next Playbook event like the one described above will take place October 19. How Successful Law Firms Develop a Growth Mindset will be presented by Timothy Lynch, Managing Partner of Offit Kurman, one of the fastest growing law firms in the United States.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Content Specialist, Association of Legal Administrators
Kate Raftery is the Content Specialist for the Association of Legal Administrators, which she joined in 2017. In addition to other responsibilities, she oversees the weekly BOLD Bites e-newsletter and the Legal Management Talk podcast. Raftery has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland.