“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

— Wayne Gretzky

The Little League team I coached was ready to face the league’s perennial stalwarts, the Yankees, in a best-of-three championship series. The Yanks were the deeper team, but our fearless squad had the league’s dominant pitcher. We played seven-inning games and, to prevent injury, allowed no pitcher to toss more than seven total innings in the series. I felt that if we could somehow win Game One, while not fully exhausting our young Steve Carlton’s inning limit, we could win the series in three games.

Sure enough, our ace shut out the Yanks through four innings in Game One, as we led 3-0. While parents and fans questioned my sanity, I pulled our stud pitcher and prayed that we could hang on. The Yanks smelled opportunity, went with their star hurler for all seven innings, but we eked out a 4-3 win.

In Game Two, the game was tied in the 5th inning, and I was tempted to go “all in” by bringing in our top pitcher, but refrained. The Yanks pulled out all the stops and narrowly won the game.

I told our team that we just needed to keep Game Three close through the first four innings. At that point, the Yanks would have virtually no one left to pitch and we would bring in our fireballer to slam the door. Almost as if scripted, the Yanks led 4-2 as the game entered the fifth inning. As the Yanks’ top pitchers had reached their innings limit at that point, they were forced to bring in their center fielder to finish the game. We tacked on 12 runs in those last three innings, our flame thrower did not allow a hit, and the championship was ours in a rout.

“Being strategic” is a phrase that is sometimes overused, but pales in comparison to other business maxims such as “paradigm shift,” “pushing the envelope” and “thinking outside the box.” I believe that “being strategic” can merit its usage, as it can make a profound difference. It may not lead you to dwarf the competition (à la Gretzky), but it just may enable you to edge “the Yankees” in your own world. I will discuss two examples of strategic behavior and two others that fell far short of that practice.

Being Strategic: Mapping Career Advancement

Two lawyers I have worked with epitomized how one can get ahead by looking beyond their day-to-day existence. In both cases, critical self analysis and not being afraid to make a change were pivotal to their success.

The first lawyer was a partner and department head in a respected, midsized law firm. He was a key rainmaker and was hailed for his keen legal skills. Despite his ability to close a business opportunity, this partner could not get to the table to make pitches in an important facet of his practice, as companies in that realm resolutely needed firms with broader national reaches and deeper supporting teams.

The partner knew that this sector would only increase in its importance in future years. Even though he would have remained a star in his firm without tapping into this area, the partner realized that if he wanted to evolve, a move to a larger firm was quite important. The partner made the move, more than doubled the size of his practice, and is a rising star in the business sector that, as he predicted, is now crucial to his practice. (It should also be noted that partners making parallel moves — from larger to smaller firms — for corresponding tactical reasons, have enjoyed success, also.)

The second lawyer was a gifted in-house lawyer who aspired to become a general counsel. He was a business lawyer whose path to the general counsel seat was blocked by several more senior lawyers in his company. This lawyer perceived that growth in his industry was likely to occur internationally and specifically foresaw — based on discussions with business leaders in his company — that China was going to become a critical market.

Rather than slog it out with his colleagues and hope that he may become general counsel in a few decades, the lawyer accepted a position overseas that some viewed as a step back, or at least nothing more than a sideways move. Armed with solid international experience, much of which was gained in China, the lawyer returned to the United States several years later as a general counsel with another company in his industry. His former colleagues, by the way, who were so consumed with their internecine battles, never did become a general counsel, as their company was acquired, which resulted in their departures.

Not Being Strategic: ‘We’ve Always Done It That Way’

The refrain quoted above often serves as a mantra for many organizations. I especially found this to be the case while working in several corporations, as they tended not to be as reactive and agile as law firms I had practiced in.

Unfortunately for the adherents of this philosophy, we don’t operate in a static world. I had the privilege of working for a CEO who would recoil in horror any time he heard this dreaded phrase parroted by employees who were asked why they did something a certain way.

In some cases, the procedure may have still been valid, and should have been kept in place, which the CEO fully recognized. But, his point, and it was a good one, was that it was still important to periodically assess why you were doing something a certain way, which helped to ensure that the company was using optimal procedures for today and tomorrow.

The best managing partners of law firms I work with today similarly challenge their lawyers and staff to frequently assess the way that things are done. They do not assume that strong practice areas will remain so just because of name recognition or that the firm will succeed simply by following methods of old. They promote an environment that encourages open discussion and systematic reassessments of procedures, which keep their firms healthy.

Being Strategic: Looking Beyond Dollars Coming in

A significant challenge, especially with law firms, is looking beyond the current year, (or two). This has only been exacerbated by the recession, as the downturn has understandably heightened the focus on maintaining current revenue. After all, important immediate priorities include covering expenses, compensating everyone fairly, and particularly making sure that key rainmakers are paid well.

Firms that are strategic look beyond the dollars that are coming in today. They understand that today’s rivers of revenue could become tomorrow’s tributaries that can dry up rather quickly. Who can forget all the business that was generated during the heyday of the Resolution Trust Corp., the government-owned asset management company created in 1989 to cope with the fallout following the savings and loan scandal, or during the tech boom, when firms couldn’t hire lawyers quickly enough?

It is said that the best strategic decisions are ones that are in alignment with the needs of a firm’s clients. As such, firms that are close with clients, talk to them about the future — and where they think their business may be going — and then adapt their own models to be in synch, are the ones that are best positioned for success. With respect to pricing, for example, this could mean that some firms may have to change, or at least modify, their pricing structure if clients they want to keep are hyper-focused on hourly rates. For other firms that are going after higher-end work and higher profits, it may mean jettisoning good work that is not profitable enough or of the type that still fits their model.

In order to be forward thinking like this, it sometimes means stepping back (to make an investment), which can be quite difficult when a particular revenue stream is going strong. A firm needs to have a culture that will embrace change in order to effectuate such changes or investments.

Not Being Strategic: ‘I’m Too Busy; It’s Not the Right Time’

These refrains are often heard in a recruiting context. A busy partner, who intuitively knows that a move makes eminent sense, allows inertia to block him, as he laments his busy workload as a reason why he needs to stay put. The partner wistfully hopes for that “perfect time” at a later date, when the sun, moon, and stars align to enable him to focus on his future.

Similar justifications can arise at a firm level, too. Firms that are stretched decide that it is not the best time to focus on expansion into a new market, or to make a major capital investment that could be transformative, or to even hire a partner/group that may push the bounds of the firm’s metrics or culture. It is much easier, and more comfortable, to maintain the status quo, especially since that is a defensible decision (at least at that moment).

In some cases, these objections are valid and rational. For example, a partner who is in the middle of a long trial (or series of trials) really cannot uproot a team in midstream, as it could be calamitous for the client. Similarly, if a firm is not on sound footing, it may not be the time to make a risky move, especially if it is one laden with cost.

I have found, though, through discussions with many individual partners and managing partners, that most rationales for sitting tight really are excuses. I spoke with a partner recently who ran through the names of his key competitors in a particular market, all of whom he presumed make much more than he and now have bigger practices. In each case, this partner bemoaned that he was smarter than one, a better lawyer than another, a more effective business developer than yet another (and so on).

After verbalizing this, he seemed to finally understand that the common thread was that each of these other lawyers found the time to make changes, either in their firms or with their practices, which had vaulted them ahead of him. This partner originally shrugged this off to being risk averse. To his credit, though, he ultimately recognized that he had actually taken a bigger risk by doing nothing and had obscured that truth by proclaiming that he just was too busy throughout his career to alter its course.

I have had comparable discussions with several managing partners. They commented that their respective firms had been on par with other firms of a certain level/type in their markets many years ago. They recognized that those other firms had passed them, at least with respect to size, depth of practice areas, and profits. This troubled them, as they knew that the lawyers in their own firms are just as good as, and, in some cases, even better than their counterparts at these other firms. There were a host of reasons as to why their former peers had separated from them, but if there was a unifying thread, it was that their own firms had become too tied to their status quos in years past and weren’t ready at critical times to buckle down to make changes, as many of them would have required significant time commitments.

The irony here is that the busiest lawyers and firms are the ones that have the ability to find the time to effectuate change. I recall a discussion with a managing partner early in my career that was held at that most sacred of locations: the elevator. During our descent late one night, I asked him why certain lawyers in the firm, who had the highest billable hours, were given more new assignments than others who were not as busy, and seemingly were just as talented. His answer was telling: “I give that work to the busiest people because I know they’ll figure out a way to get it done well and on time.”

The same principle holds true here. Individual achievers and firms that aspire to greatness can always find the time to make it happen, even if it seems like they have no capacity to do so. These persons and firms have learned to operate much more efficiently than others and soar to new levels if they want to do so. It may have been a challenge, but that didn’t stop them, for, as Edward R. Murrow opined, “Difficulty is the excuse history never accepts.” •

Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm.