Developing Successful Strategies for Your Law Firm

In a dynamic legal market that is constantly innovating, developing a successful law firm strategy is more important than ever. How do you set your firm apart? How do you shut out the noise and create your own unique brand and firm strategy?

As an ex-corporate lawyer and principal consultant of global legal industry consulting firm Edge International, Sean Larkan is well versed in developing strategies for the legal industry. More importantly, he’s adept at implementing strategies and seeing substantial results, which is where most law firm strategies fail.

Having undertaken managing partner and CEO leadership roles in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa for more than 20 years, Sean now helps organisations develop relevant creative strategies to achieve growth, dominance and strategic market positioning. Sean is particularly focused on helping law firms achieve strategy implementation, results and profitability.

We chatted to Sean about how to create a winning law firm strategy and make your firm stand out in a crowd.

You began your career as a corporate tax lawyer and managing partner of leading law firms in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Why did you make the move from private legal practice to consulting and providing strategic business advice?

It was a new adventure. I wanted to try something different, and I wanted to try consulting to prove to myself that I could survive. We moved from Pietermaritzburg to Johannesburg (a huge leap in those days), then to New Zealand and then to Australia. A move from traditional law firm leadership to consulting and advisory work was just another adventure for the family and for me. We have loved it and have had many rich experiences. I also wanted to help firms (not just my own) succeed and build confidence, strength and wellbeing, which I had tried to do for the firms I helped run. That remains my focus and passion. I love it.

Many years ago, when I was a managing partner, I saw an iconic photo of this guy, Gerry Riskin, in a Hawaiian shirt with a parrot on his shoulder. It talked about him living in the British Virgin Islands and being a law firm consultant and advisor. I said to my wife, with surfing and fishing in mind, “That’s what I want to do one day!” Now I find myself 10 years into living in the idyllic surfing paradise of Crescent Head and, believe it or not, being part of the great firm Gerry founded 30 years ago!

In your experience, what’s the biggest strategic challenge most law firms face?

There are plenty, but one of the biggest challenges for firms is to recognise the talent and potential that is already in their firms, often right under their noses. Countless times I’ve been asked to assist firms with growth strategy or the like and found many examples where firms can tweak or change what they are already doing and achieve significant, sometimes incredible, results.

How can legal practitioners look to the long term in their business, rather than just working day to day and ‘putting out fires’?

Firms should have someone to explain to them carefully what strategy is all about, why it’s important, how to implement it and, most importantly, how to get results from it. That naturally gets people thinking long term. Also, partners who play a major role in their firms need to have thinking long term in their DNA. They should be constantly thinking about how they can grow their teams, develop their people, build the firm’s ‘capital fabric’ (the long-term fundamental strength of the firm) and naturally build succession behind them. This also gets them thinking differently and more ‘long term’.

What are your three top tips on developing a strong law firm business strategy?

  1. To recognise that there are many things outside the strategy document that are crucial to the success or failure of a strategy. Some of these come before development of the document, some during and some after in the implementation and stress-testing stages. Without this, strategy is doomed to a dusty life on a shelf.
  2. You need to take your partnership and management group with you – without them, a strategy will only get done in bits and pieces, if at all. This requires strong, trusted leadership and commitment to maintain momentum and see this through.
  3. Strategy is a way of realising your vision (where you want to go and what you want to be) so without a focus on implementation and results in achieving those, a strategy doesn’t have value.

What role will technology play in shaping the way we practise law, and what part should it play in our overall firm business strategy?

Technology is a wonderful supporting act, both at an individual and at an organisational level. It’s no longer just ‘nice to have’ but essential to a successful practice. It’s expensive and it can be complex, so carefully think through how technology can support your firm.

There are some wonderful offerings out there. At times, the use of technology can provide strategic differentiation and competitive advantage, however firms that achieve this soon realise that other firms quickly play catch-up and that’s probably the biggest challenge with technology-based differentiation.

The other thing about technology is that it’s one thing to acquire it, but it’s quite another to implement it successfully, which often takes months or years of blood, sweat and dollars. And then it’s about working further ahead to actually achieve differentiation or competitive advantage out of it. What all this means is that it calls for strong and persevering leadership that believes in the concept of the technology-enabled law firm.

Your Legal Leaders blog contains interesting and valuable thought leadership on legal industry topics. How would you define or describe the ‘new law’ era in the legal industry?

I see the ‘new law’ era as a sort of codification of many things that have been going on to a lesser or greater extent for many years in law firms and legal service providers – essentially, thinking of new ways to deliver services to meet demanding client needs, new flexible ways of billing those services and doing all this in a more businesslike way rather than as a ‘legal professional’. Of course, there are modern twists to this and some wonderful new ideas have been brought to fruition in recent years.

This all developed great momentum when organisations outside the traditional legal profession suddenly realised there was a massive market crying out for more flexible, lower cost and more businesslike legal service delivery, and that this could be supplied by non-traditional legal entities. I think this really grew out of the massive US market where clients became sick and tired of the arrogance and inflexibility of law firm service delivery models. When new options came to the fore, these clients jumped at them and at the same time ‘jumped ship’ from their traditional service providers.

How can law firms stay relevant and competitive in this ‘new law’ era where many firms are doing things differently, and ensure that’s reflected in their long-term strategy?

The fact remains that the basics are still as important as ever – recognising first and foremost that legal service delivery is about people, your staff, partners, clients and key third parties who contribute to the mix. Nothing will substitute looking after them and getting the best out of every relationship. This is why many of the so-called ‘new law’ firms in Australasia have done so well. They’ve taken advantage of new ways of delivering services and new ways of billing those services in a flexible way to match client needs, but they’ve never forgotten their people and their clients.

No question, there are some new exciting models for law firm practice and service delivery, which have evolved very successfully. Firms would be nuts not to take these into account and think about whether they can use some of these structures and principles in their own practices.

They need to talk to their clients and understand what they are looking for. Clients are usually honest about this, but sometimes they don’t know what’s on offer. It’s up to law firms to explain the different service-delivery models and flexible ways of delivering service – clients can then decide whether any of those work for them.

It’s not always about what works for clients. It’s also about flexible delivery models for one’s own lawyers. There are now various models for their employment and development, which provide exciting options that can, in turn, benefit clients. In this way, many firms in many jurisdictions have become far more businesslike in the way they structure their firms and deliver service. It’s a credit to the various organised legal professions and their members how quickly and willingly they’ve adapted.

If you’d like to learn more about Sean, you can visit the Edge International website or tap into his inspiring thought leadership on the Legal Leaders.

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