A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

The 2020’s: time for law firms to take strategy more seriously

Monday, September 24, 2018

By Mitch Kowalski, Strategic Advisor on Legal Innovation

I remember meeting the Managing Partner of a large Canadian law firm and asking about his strategy for the firm. He was quick to respond, “Our strategy is to be the best in every area of law that we cover.” He seemed to be very pleased with himself. And perhaps rightly so; after all, lawyers hadn’t much use for sophisticated business strategies.

Traditionally our monopoly meant that we only competed among ourselves - and we predominantly differentiated ourselves based on quality of legal work, not on different customer experiences. And on a personal level, many lawyers define their own sense of self-worth on labels such as being the best or working with the best. And so, his pronouncement made perfect sense to himself and to his partners.

I, on the other hand, having had training and experience on boards of large companies where strategy was taken very seriously and where the key to success is competing on difference (not different shades of sameness), was stunned. In my mind, I started to pick away at his triumphant pronouncement.

There was the obvious problem of defining what the best means when it comes to lawyers - how does one objectively and accurately determine the best real estate lawyer or best corporate lawyer? Are they the smartest? The most efficient? The one who gives the most value for money? The one who gives the best customer service? And what exactly does it mean to be the best law firm?

Had I been cheeky enough to ask these questions, he might have realised that being the best is not a strategy at all. Most would scoff at a cricket or rugby team saying that its strategy this year is to be the best, or its strategy is to win more. Winning, or being the best, is the outcome of following a successful strategy – it’s not a strategy itself.

To paraphrase strategy guru, Roger Martin, strategy is the framework that holds together a set of integrated choices (where to play; what capabilities are needed; what management systems; what technology), that when taken together, not only give the law firm superior financial returns, but most importantly, give the law firm sustainable advantage over all competitors. Sustainable advantage means an advantage that’s not fleeting because it’s not easily duplicated by competitors.

As we know from sports teams and even law firms, quality is easy to duplicate - it can be bought, or it can be trained. Moreover, quality doesn’t differentiate firms in a market where there are numerous competitors all with the same quality.

Both Canada and Australia are awash in good quality lawyers, so the Canadian Managing Partner’s so-called strategy has little chance of setting his firm apart in such a market; particularly when his own lawyers are easily poached by some firm willing to give them a higher draw.

Having great lawyers is now merely table stakes, in a market place that now boasts law companies, legal process outsourcers, lawyers on demand, massive in-house legal departments, business technology applications that are revolutionising office environments, a new generation of workers that are proving less enamoured with traditional law firm careers, and well-funded legal tech cool kids building applications that can already provide different forms of legal services.

With these changes and opportunities comes the ability for law firms to take a much more sophisticated approach to strategy so as to create real sustainable competitive advantage that not only brings value to clients, but also entices and retains talent.

A successful law firm strategy must be based on something more than just having a bunch of great lawyers who do good work for a bunch of great clients. These ideas will form the basis of future blogs.

About our Guest Blogger

Mitchell Kowalski is the Gowling WLG Visiting Professor in Legal Innovation at the University of Calgary Law School and a strategic advisor to in-house legal departments and law firms on the redesign of legal service delivery.

He is a Fastcase 50 Global Legal Innovator and the author of the critically-acclaimed books, The Great Legal Reformation: Notes from the Field, and Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century.

Twitter:  @mekowalski     |     Email:  mekowalski@kowalski.ca

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