By Scott Levine, Found / Managing Member

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

                             —Dwight Eisenhower, President and General

As lawyers representing clients, we are always told to plan ahead. If we don’t properly calendar matters, anticipating every deadline, we are committing malpractice. How many times have we been admonished something like, “Never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to”? We think like lawyers, after all: We turn on a dime, anticipating any fact pattern, surprise, twist, or turn that comes our way.

At least, that’s how it is when we’re working for our clients.

We aren’t necessarily as good at planning for ourselves—at strategizing our own careers and firms.

How do we know if and when it is time to adopt a new business strategy for our own practice? How do we know if our Plan A is working or that we should switch to a new strategy? And what does a Plan B for a solo practitioner or small firm look like, anyway?

In their new book Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick, McKinsey & Company reveals their analysis of thousands of companies; they’d looked to see what predicted which companies were consistently growing and why.

McKinsey concluded that most companies either persistently operate at a loss or they get by, with no real growth. Only 20% of companies grow at a significant rate.

Now, what was the secret strategy they used to do this?

It turned out, it wasn’t about any single strategy, per se.

Instead, what made the difference was that firms that grew had to conquer natural human biases. These companies had to defeat people’s desire to be overly optimistic about the status quo. They had to break through our preferences for inertia. They overcame risk-aversion so that they were willing to make bold moves.

They had to do what you’re doing right now: Have painful or frustrating conversations about what it will take to be more successful and, when needed, to come up with a new plan.

Keep in mind that, whether you’re a transactional attorney structuring a deal, or a litigator negotiating a settlement, you give a client projections of possible outcomes. Even if they make the same choice as before, they can do so, having made a more informed decision. That’s how you should be thinking about your firm.

Start by getting the facts about your practice. Make sure it’s an unbiased assessment, just as you would prepare for a client.

Global consulting firm EY advises that companies do a meaningful forecast at the beginning of their strategy development. Those who take the time to work through possible scenarios “will be best positioned to understand and take advantage of opportunities to change or enhance their core business in the face of the current crises. They will position themselves to be ahead of market disruptions and innovation breakthroughs that are being incubated at this moment.”

EY recommends asking yourself hard questions such as:

  • If you’ve had a drop in the demand for your services, how much of it do you expect to come back and when?
  • How has client behavior changed, and how might it change again, post-pandemic?
  • Do you have any immediate needs for short-term liquidity?
  • How many weeks of cash should you have on hand to cover needed expenses? Will you need to raise longer-term capital?
  • How has the pandemic impacted your firm practically? (E.g., access to resources or facilities, staff, business development, travel)
  • Are any of your clients or vendors at risk of bankruptcy?

Now that you have a better forecast of your business, take out that Plan A of yours and really study it.

What was your original vision for your practice? How has that concept changed over time? Have you already fulfilled any of your early goals? Maybe you hadn’t realized it, but what if at least part of Plan A is already moot, and you’re ready for a new challenge?

If you haven’t yet accomplished your goals, does your forecast suggest that you will be able to meet those goals in the future? If not, what will need to change in order to make them happen?

Have you changed any goals as life and the reality of your practice got in the way?

Be honest in these assessments. Push yourself to see your practice’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s not about identifying mistakes or failures; it’s about finding concrete ways that you can improve.

McKinsey’s analysts warn that, while you should never let facts get in the way of a good story, you should let facts get in the way of a bad strategy.

And if during this process, you find yourself unsure of exactly what’s the best next course of action, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Paul Graham is the creator of the Yahoo Store, the first web-based application, and he has seen many start-ups come and go. Graham believes that successful leaders need to have a vision of what they want to accomplish, but it’s okay if a leader’s vision is a little blurry. What’s important is having a sense of the general direction you want to head into, allow yourself the flexibility you need along the way.

In fact, if you’re too clear in exactly the way you think things must go, says Graham, it can be more difficult to adjust those plans when you need to. If someone’s too insistent on following the plan to the letter, they may feel like they’re failing if they adjust.

It’s not failing to change the plan. Because the plan is not the goal. The goal is the goal.

So, ask yourself, with your forecast in hand, do you see that Plan A is taking you in the general direction that you want to be headed in?

If not, it might be time for Plan B.

If you want to explore a new set of opportunities for solo practitioners, consider the opportunities at AEGIS Law.

At AEGIS Law, we’ve disrupted the traditional practice of law. Our firm offers the same quality and sophistication as larger firms, but we do it more efficiently and with a better attitude. We’ve created a new kind of law firm by focusing on recruiting top legal talent and giving our clients superior service. If you’d like to learn more about us and how we work, let us know. Send us a message or call us at (314) 454-9100.  Or, take a look at our Recruitment Guide