As is typical for Q4, many law firms are finalizing budgets, collecting data on 2022 efforts and engaging in strategic planning for the coming year. It’s a daunting long game where the nebulous comes into focus through developing a vision statement that is simultaneously aspirational and credible; identifying and documenting the goals necessary to achieve the vision; and listing and documenting the action items, including roles, responsibilities, milestones and metrics.

Even strategic plans born of meticulous thought, research, forecasts, controllable factors, historical evidence and stretch objectives can fall prey to power dynamics, shifting market conditions and losing sight of the goal. For example, this year sees building recessionary headwinds as an element to consider, further complicating an already complex process.

For insights during this time of great activity, I reached out to law firm strategist Clinton Gary, chief growth officer at Gardner & Co., founder of Credo Consulting, former chief strategy officer for an Am Law 200 firm and a guest lecturer on the business of law at Georgia State University.

According to Clinton, most strategic development methodologies espoused in the industry emphasize “prioritization.” As a legal marketer, you’ve experienced “prioritization” dressed as everything described above (and then some!), including selecting specific practices, professionals and places to emphasize with respect to hiring, investment and marketing. The process commonly includes a listing of high-level values. It almost always includes identification of a few “initiatives” that were time-bound and addressed a very specific area of the business.

What’s the goal of strategic planning, then? “Implementation,” Clinton sighed with feigned laughter.

Historically, some law firms have also used strategic planning as a “pruning” process based on profitability, according to Clinton. This approach, which is understandable given the ebbs and flows of organizations and the need to maintain focus, can also lead to “silos if not supported by a collaborative culture.”

What are law firms missing? 

“I see a ‘collaboration component’ missing in strategic development,” Clinton lamented. This element of the development process seeks to answer the question, “How are we maximizing our collective capabilities to deliver greater value to our professionals, our firm and our clients?” The collaboration component is paramount when market indicators about engagement, loyalty and proximity are at an all-time low.

The collaboration component includes designing a business model and management process to maximize the collective potential of the organization to achieve its vision and strategic objectives, as well as the inclusion and opportunity of all its professionals. It maximizes the collective capabilities of the organization by improving the engagement and performance of all professionals through reducing complexity and orchestrating connectivity.

Clinton’s insights on collaboration are illustrated in “Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change” by Chris Zook and James Allen of Bain & Company. They define the collaboration component as a business model and management process that defines four key areas.

  1. Core Capabilities — These are capabilities that drive significant value when performed consistently at a high level and usually in the form of collaborative processes and assets. Remarkably successful law firms outperform their competitors when they excel at four to six capabilities. The authors define excelling as repeatable, scalable processes accessible by all professionals to produce a competitive advantage. Fostering collaboration through core capabilities creates clarity in roles and responsibilities in key areas where a firm can find differentiation from competitors, such as client service, knowledge sharing, sector initiatives, lateral hiring, etc. The core capabilities must withstand internal and political pressures because they are the foundation of the firm and client brand.
  2. Your Non-negotiables — These are approximately 10 principles that guide behaviors across the organization. These principles form the social contract between professionals that lets each have clarity and accountability. Setting non-negotiables and communicating them clearly and frequently can fuel a collaborative spirit and mindset. Non-negotiables should be the same for all professionals within the organization, regardless of title or stature.
  3. Decision Criteria for Resources and Rewards — These are guidelines by which decisions can be made quickly and without ambiguity. The guidelines should include rewards for collaboration and decision-making. For example, not every request has to be an email to a practice leader or managing partner stating its case because these guidelines align with the firm’s strategy. The criteria include budget allocations for accountability, along with a transparent process for how to access “opportunity funds” at any time to capitalize on unbudgeted, unforeseen opportunities, especially those involving multiple professionals and multiple practices. Decisiveness is usually critical in these instances.
  4. Measurements for Responsive Management — This is the selection of a few core metrics that answers the question “How do we make sure we are collaborating to achieve our strategy?” Instead of incorporating all financial metrics and measuring once a year, create a dashboard that represents the performance of the core capabilities, collaborative culture and ROI alongside the financials on a continuous basis.

Each of these four items streamlines collaboration throughout the organization, which produces efficiency, boosts morale, aids implementation and promotes accountability. Harnessing the cooperation from collaboration becomes the glue that defines the “One Firm” mantra many firms desire to live. “As priorities change, which they will and should, the collaboration layer ensures a high-performing firm with reduced complexity and consistency in delivering strategic value for individuals, the firm and clients,” Clinton said. 

“The key is,” Clinton added, “these are not just initiatives. They start as initiatives and should lead to sustained ways of work that orchestrate collaboration to deliver significant value.”

You’ve probably found your work to be more productive, efficient and meaningful by collaborating with others, be it across practice areas, geographies or departments. What collaborative methods have worked best for you? How did collaboration propel you to fulfill your vision statement? Drop me a line at and let me know.