The goal of every law firm should be leadership status in the markets (practices, industries and geographic locations) in which it has chosen to compete. As businesses with significant revenues operating in a highly competitive environment, most law firms recognize that they need strategic plans to help them

achieve their leadership aspirations. Strategic planning is the process through which the firm identifies its most important markets, agrees to a vision for achieving leadership in those markets, and develops and implements a plan for achieving the vision. It is how a firm decides where it wants to go and how it will get there.

Strategic planning is a discipline that takes time, experience and expertise. Ideally, the process is led by people who can devote a substantial amount of time to the task. Necessary skills include business acumen, strategic agility, project management, relationship-building, analytical expertise and a drive for results. Law firms that have succeeded in adopting robust strategic plans find that charging a team of lawyers and staff with creating the plan works best, sometimes employing experienced consultants as well. Recent surveys indicate that about two-thirds tap their chief marketing officer (or highest-ranking marketer) and the marketing and business development staff to be an integral part of the team. Partnering with other key staff groups, the CMO can help drive the planning process to completion, relying on the lawyers for substantive input but providing the structure and project management necessary for a robust planning process.

Let Strategists Lead

Why involve the CMO in the firm’s planning process? First, the marketing and business development team at the firm should be led by someone with strategy in their DNA. Arguably, strategic agility is the most important skill the CMO brings to the firm, with leadership and management skills a close second. The CMO’s job is to help the firm achieve profitable revenue growth. This means the CMO must have a deep understanding of the firm’s clients and how best to achieve greater stickiness with those clients. The CMO must be able to identify the best strategies for enhancing client relationships and building the firm’s brand. The CMO brings to the strategic planning process a critical component for law firm success: the voice of the client.

Project management is another critical skill for driving a successful strategic planning process. Being able to scope the process, document the key milestones, assign responsibilities and ensure completion of all deliverables is essential to a complex project like strategic planning. In law firms, many project managers are found in the marketing organization. That’s because so much of the work the marketers do is challenging and complex and involves multiple people with conflicting priorities. There are many parallels between marketers’ core responsibilities and leading a strategic planning process.

Planning Creates Glue

Strategic planning is not only a means to an end. The process itself can also help strengthen a firm in fundamental ways. To provide a strategic framework for decision-making and achieving future growth, the plan needs to reflect the aspirations and goals of the firm’s owners and other stakeholders. It is an exercise in building consensus, which helps create organizational glue.

To the extent that a plan calls for significant changes in the way a firm operates, it is also a tool for achieving those changes. Organizational savvy and emotional intelligence are essential to an inclusive strategic planning process and to achieving significant change. From the CMO on down, these are skills that marketers and business developers rely on every day to be effective. It is the secret sauce essential for herding cats, and strategic planning is the pinnacle of cat herding. In addition, marketers have their ears to the ground and a deep understanding of how the firm works that can be leveraged in planning.

The Planning Process

Strategic planning is a continuous ­process that starts with gathering and analyzing information.

Sophisticated marketers are both the gatherers and analyzers of many types of information that should be considered in the planning process. They routinely deal with client trends as well as practice, sector and geographic market developments. They are analyzing the competition and gathering insights about the firm’s value proposition compared with the competition. Along with financial benchmarking, technology assessments, human resource metrics and governance information, marketing information is a key input in the planning process.

Once the planning team has collected and analyzed the relevant inputs, usually employing a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis to refine the inputs and set priorities, a vision statement is prepared that captures what the firm aspires to build. A strong vision statement will be as clear as possible about the firm’s aspirations by market. It should be achievable but require the firm to stretch for that achievement. It requires hard decisions about what the firm will and will not do. A vague or unrealistic vision is a weak vision that cannot be implemented. A strategic CMO can play a key role in helping firm leaders pin down the components of the vision: the markets the firm wants to lead in, its source of competitive advantage, and its value proposition for clients and talent.

Strategies That Determine Outcome

Once a firm has settled on a vision, its planning team tackles the goals and strategies necessary to achieve that vision. The firm may need to address an array of issues, from finance to technology to recruiting and professional development. Almost certainly, marketing and business development will be among the strategies the firm will need to employ to achieve its vision. The marketing and business development team typically leads the identification and implementation of effective plans for improved market presence and strengthening client relationships, working closely with the lawyers involved.

As goals and strategies are turned into specific plans with clear deadlines, roles and responsibilities, the marketing organization can help guide those conversations, document results and lead the implementation. Exercising their strategic muscles and project management skills, they ensure that the tactics match the goals, avoiding random acts that sound exciting but are not likely to yield a return on investment.

The plan will only yield success if it becomes a living, breathing document. Many firms use strategies and plans as a management tool, organizing meetings of the executive committee, the practice groups and the lawyers as a whole around their core goals and strategies. Firms schedule progress reports and discuss new information, resources needed or barriers to ­implementation. These are opportunities to ensure plans are being implemented and the firm’s course is corrected as needed, thus ensuring accountability for the plan. The marketing team has the organizational skills and drive for results to help track results, organize reports and solicit feedback during the implementation phase.

Once a firm has agreed to a strategic plan, practice groups, sector teams, offices and individual lawyers are often asked to create plans as well. The firm plan provides important guard rails for those plans. Everyone knows what the firm’s stakeholders aspire to build together and how they fit in. Again, the marketing and business development team can be instrumental in helping to guide and implement those plans.

The CMO and a team of seasoned marketers and business developers are often well equipped to help lead and manage the planning process. They bring to the table important skills and knowledge, including strategic agility, business acumen, analytical skills, project management, client understanding and emotional intelligence. Marketing can and should be a critical partner in the strategic planning process from inception to implementation. The challenge is ensuring that the marketing organization has the necessary skills and experience, which are also necessary to successfully execute their daily responsibilities.

Mary K Young is a principal with Zeughauser Group and a member of the ALM Intelligence Fellows Program. Her practice focuses on developing and implementing successful growth strategies and branding plans for law firms. Her work for law firms builds on six years as a CMO and 13 years as a business executive for Kraft and the distilled spirits industry.