Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Media and Journalism, Partner Issues

Inside Straight: On Lawyers’ Business Plans

Breaking news to lawyers at firms: In-house, we have these things called “business plans.”

Our business units prepare those plans at least annually. The plans typically contain both general objectives (such as achieving a specified level of organic growth, or margin, or whatever) and concrete steps that the business will take to achieve those objectives (such as introducing new products, controlling specified expenses, or whatever).

In-house law departments may create those plans, too. We commit to implement controls, or improve response times, or give a specified number of training sessions to a specified number of people, or the like. Depending on the corporation, a lawyer may be paid less than his target bonus if he doesn’t achieve his objectives and perform according to plan. A system like that is pretty good at grabbing folks’ attention and causing things to be done.

Do law firms (or individual lawyers at firms) prepare business plans?

My experience (and the anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered) suggests not. I had lunch last week with another in-house lawyer — a veteran of two Am Law 100 firms — who was laughing about this: “How could my two firms never have had business plans? Why did we think anyone would actually do anything if we didn’t set goals? If you had asked me what my business plan was when I was at a firm, I probably would have said: ‘I hope I’ll win my three big pending cases.’ That was it! How can lawyers possibly hope to get someplace if they don’t know where they’re going?”

I understand that it’s hard to impose rigor when rainmakers can always threaten to pack up and leave if they’re unhappy: “How can we make Joe Heavyhitter commit to a business plan? At the end of the year, we have to treat him right. If we don’t pay him enough (because he didn’t hit his objectives), then he’ll walk out.”

But riddle me this: There are lots of corporations that are also professional services firms. Many investment bankers can take their business next door, as can accountants at many firms, and management consultants, and many other folks. Those establishments nonetheless insist that business units and individuals create and implement business plans. Law firms typically do not. Would it really be impossible for law firms to require business plans?

Those plans would not be hard to write:

1. I will introduce four of my corporate partners to in-house lawyers at my litigation clients, because those introductions may create cross-selling opportunities.

2. I will have one lunch monthly with a prospective client who I had not previously met.

3. I will publish one article this year.

Consider what that third objective would do for a law firm: Each lawyer commits to write one article over the course of a year. (For those of us who crank out silly little ditties for Above the Law at the rate of two per week, we don’t view writing one [slightly more substantive] item per year to be a particularly burdensome commitment: Gin up a thesis. Sit down at a computer on Saturday morning with three cases spread out at your desk. Read. Think. Type. Stand up on Saturday afternoon, and send the finished product to the target journal.)

What would that small effort — multiplied by 1,000 lawyers — do for the firm? One thousand lawyers times one article per year equals 19 articles per week for the firm as a whole. The name of a law firm publishing 19 articles per week would be ubiquitous: Every other law firm would be talking about it; legal periodicals would notice the effort and publish additional articles talking about the firm’s new ubiquity; clients would notice; the firm’s profile would skyrocket. The firm wouldn’t have to pay for that publicity (other than with a little effort). In fact, the firm probably couldn’t pay for that type of publicity; this is the type of publicity that money can’t buy. By requiring only a day or two of sacrifice by each lawyer, a firm could make a huge splash in the legal (and, if the articles were placed properly, corporate) world.

Would this proposal be slightly difficult to implement? Sure: Some senior partners would swear that they can’t write articles without having junior lawyers prepare first drafts. Other lawyers would insist that it’s too dangerous to say anything in print, because your words could come back to haunt you. And many people would worry about quality control, fretting about precisely what some of their colleagues might write. But those obstacles are not insurmountable.

So this blog post didn’t give you the whole solution. It did, however, give you two ideas — one general and one specific. Generally, have your lawyers prepare business plans: Set goals, and insist that lawyers achieve (or, at a minimum, strive for) them. Specifically, take the “thousand articles” concept and run with it. See how it works.

One column. Two ideas. Check.

That was my objective for Monday. Next up: Thursday.

Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link) and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide. You can reach him by email at

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