Effective planning and objective setting, involving your office staff or team members, is a good start to countering the recession this year

“You’ve really lost the plot now.”

Early January 2004. A lawyer friend falls about laughing as he asks me what’s happening at Positively Legal® today. I tell him I’m finalising my plan and setting objectives for the year ahead. “But you’re a one man band, what’s the point of that?”

Planning in business is fundamental. It should be the starting point for the way any law firm, department, team or project operates.

Most lawyers need to develop a new attitude to organising themselves and their businesses. Large firms tend to have plans in place, but the degree of implementation at team and individual level is varied. Often they are paid only lip service. Some small and medium sized are very sophisticated at planning; others do nothing.

Transformational change within organisations, or across sectors, often does not occur until external forces trigger an abrupt appreciation of real need. In other words, change or die. That time has arrived for the legal profession in Scotland.

The aim of this article is to improve your awareness of planning and objective setting, illustrate the benefits, and help you get started.

What is a plan?

A plan outlines the key objectives for an organisation or team, and how they are going to be achieved over a defined time. Importantly, it enables everyone in the team to understand what they should not be doing.

So why does this apply to you?

You might be…

  • preparing a major tender to win a job which is critical to your future;
  • about to implement a redundancy programme;
  • a partnership in a medium sized firm with no written down strategy or plan;
  • in a banking or property team with plummeting fees;
  • a sole practitioner finding it difficult to cope;
  • suffering cashflow problems because of unpaid fees.

In each of these cases, a properly thought-out plan is invaluable.

An unstructured, haphazard approach is unlikely to have a great impact other than to increase frustration, tension and pressure. Agreeing a framework, identifying critical issues, key objectives, an implementation plan and a system of continual review will significantly improve performance.

The underlying purpose must be for your plan to become a “live” document, not something that lies in a drawer and is never looked at. You can call it an action plan, development plan, business plan, project plan or whatever – the key to it providing value is that people are aware of it, understand it and act upon it.

Default lawyer behaviour:

“I’ve got too much work to do to have the time for this stuff”

In times of difficulty or crisis, your natural inclination and habit as a lawyer is likely to be to get into your own office, get your head down and “work”. Collectively and individually there is still an obsession with chargeable hours, even where work is scarce. Another block to change is fear of failure: that any new idea or process will not work perfectly first time.

In the current climate these traits need to be discarded, and quickly. Now is the time to show strong leadership, take action and implement change.

In many firms, targets have not been realigned with projected lower income, the result being demotivated lawyers who could be contributing a lot more to the wider needs of the business. Why not reset targets of fee earners who are currently in “quiet” departments? You can reduce chargeable targets for say the next six months and increase participation in other activities which help the business, such as tenders, collection of unpaid fees, IT initiatives, precedent library, quality accreditations, skills improvement, marketing, client relationships.

Creating objectives around these tasks, together with a reduction in billable targets if appropriate, gives people the focus and confidence to carry them out.

If you already have a plan, what action have you taken since the downturn began? Perhaps your core strategic objective has in reality changed from something like “to be recognised as the premium provider of commercial property services in Edinburgh”, to “ensuring our survival over the next 12 months”. This is a time to revisit and reassess.

Who should be involved?

“If we ask for ideas from them they’ll think we’re stupid.”

You will get the best results by engaging as many of the team as you can in the development process. If it is not appropriate to be all-inclusive, ensure the agreed programme is effectively communicated to the whole team.

You might ask what the point is of a secretary or an associate being involved. My experience in facilitating planning initiatives is that people who have not been previously involved add spark and innovative ideas.

Additionally, the current climate has accentuated the need for each individual to have a sense of belonging and purpose within the organisation – and to feel that they are working towards a common objective or vision. Being involved and making a contribution reduces uncertainty, significantly improves performance and increases loyalty to the firm.

This is not about other people telling you how to do your job, it’s about engagement and performance improvement. Tiger Woods’ coach is not a better golfer than Tiger!

Sole practitioners too

The plight of the sole practitioner is becoming increasingly difficult and if you’re a member of that group you may be thinking that this doesn’t apply to you. Quite the contrary. I strongly recommend you take a day out of the office with a trusted friend in business, or better still an external facilitator or coach, to identify critical issues and develop a simple action plan.

The day will reap significant emotional and practical rewards for you and the business.

How should you approach it?

“I think we’ll be more comfortable once we start drafting.”

A plan is not an exercise in drafting. It is about thinking, team communication, research, analysis and decision making. Wordsmithing is unimportant. Try to get out of lawyer into business mode to ensure the document is user friendly.

There are two aspects to a plan: structure and framework, i.e. “what does it look like”; and content. Structure is critical. If the document is not accessible, understandable and easily reviewable you are wasting your time and your money creating it.

Tips for successful team planning

  • Involve everyone in the relevant “team”
  • Do it off site
  • Use an external facilitator, particularly if it’s your first time
  • Listen! Allow everyone to contribute without interruption
  • Curtail interpretational debates
  • Allocate tasks
  • Arrange the date of the next meeting before the session finishes
  • Issue tabulated action-based minutes, not pages of text
  • Follow up with agreed action plan within 48 hours
  • The benefits

Identifies critical issues

Aligns individual and group behaviour with the reality of the current business environment

Individuals feel part of a cohesive team because they are talking to each other, shared objectives are being created and they are making a meaningful contribution

People will be working on the right things and have the confidence to do so

What should the plan look like?

“Have you got a template you can give us?”


Yes, but that’s not an effective way to proceed. Unless it is your plan, i.e. you contribute to its design, it will almost certainly be consigned to the filing cabinet. Agreeing a framework and structure need not be a complicated and lengthy process.

Some of the questions you might ask yourself are:

  • is it to be in text or tabular format or a combination of the two?
  • is it a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet?
  • how long should it be?
  • how will it be updated?
  • who is going to be using it?

My own preference is always for a one page document, even if this is a summary distilled from a larger one.

What about content?

The substantive content of the plan can relate to literally anything in connection with the running of the business, department, team or project, from overall strategy to winning more tenders to office relocation.

Whatever the context, the components of the plan may include:

  • fundamental aim or purpose
  • critical issues
  • key objectives
  • specific goals or targets
  • obstacles to progress
  • implementation tactics
  • immediate next steps
  • timetable for review/update.

Try to make the whole tenor of the plan, and particularly objectives, SMART, i.e. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results orientated and Timebound. Otherwise implementation will be difficult.

Now what happens?

“I’ll go along with this, but it doesn’t really apply to me.”

Executing the plan – doing what it says – is what really matters. Success will be driven by the engagement of the team, individual commitment, the quality of the plan and the process, and how the members of the team behave toward each other. Initial momentum can be created by setting a follow-up meeting soon after the first and ensuring that everyone has a task to achieve by then.

I suggest that tasks are allocated throughout the team. This spreads the load, enables smarter execution, and increases motivation. Remember that the “project manager” need not be the most senior person in the group, nor the person with the most input.

If you are a firm that traditionally keeps knowledge and responsibilities tightly with the partners only, take a bold step and widen participation.

Lawyers are motivated by achieving targets and one-to-one contact. Try to encourage yourself and other team members with frequent dialogue. Use of small group “communities of practice” may be helpful, e.g. meeting on a Monday morning and discussing last week’s successes and failures, and improvements and actions for the next week.


One way or another, continually communicate what has been done, what is still to be done, by when, and who is doing it. Show appreciation and acknowledge contribution, at a group and individual level.

There is no magic formula to stop the negative effects of the recession completely. Actions can however be taken to mitigate its impact and allow firms, teams and individuals to develop and strengthen in anticipation of the eventual upturn.

Effective planning is a good way to start.

The Author
Murray Mathieson is a non-practising solicitor and accredited business coach. Positively Legal® provides coaching, consultancy and training to lawyers and law firms throughout the UK. Contact Murray at www.positivelylegal.co.uk or 01292 318256/07714 762510.
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