Making IT Strategic to Law Firm Direction
April 14, 2021 in Law Firm Productivity
By: Lorita Ba
Whether your law firm’s strategic direction anchors around referral-based expansion, targeted growth through a defined marketing plan, or a merger & acquisition strategy, Operations and IT undoubtedly plays a critical role to the success of any firm initiative.
However, as functions, Operations and IT are all too often considered tactical enablers rather than drivers that serve as an equal partner in setting and executing firm strategy. This approach may align with the traditional role that these functions have played in years past, but ill reflects today’s reality, where fluency in technology, data, and process can have enormous impact on outcomes.
By not bringing Operations and IT leaders into strategic conversations earlier, law firms can lose valuable time or miss critical opportunities in executing against their long-term firm vision.
In this post, we’ll discuss the impact strategic IT can have, why tactical IT remains so dominant, and how firms can shift their focus from the urgent to the strategic.
The Three-Stage Strategic Planning
While not revolutionary, the first thing we recommend is to break down your strategic planning into three timeframes: long-term (2-5 years), medium-term (1-2 years), and near-term (<1 year). This sounds somewhat obvious, but we often observe that resource constraints and the everyday demands of business often result in long-term strategic planning being neglected in favor of critical near-term priorities. The outcome of this neglect often shows up in unexpected ways – an inability to react quickly to an emerging opportunity or threat, for example, or a delay in taking advantage of new technologies to advance firm strategy.
Oftentimes, we see IT not having a meaningful seat at the table when it comes to long-term firm strategy – a practice that can lead to one of two outcomes: First, a lack of understanding as to how long a strategy might take to implement technologically (or what impact it might have to existing technology), or second, missed opportunities because IT isn’t there to highlight how what’s possible.
The long-term strategy is the end goal – what your firm wants to achieve as a business in the next five years. These “big stretch” goals can range broadly: Some examples include doubling firm size, adding new practice areas, geographic expansion, or establishing regional dominance in a practice area.
Giving Operations and IT a meaningful voice at this early stage can help partners understand some of the underlying considerations, risk, and investments needed to achieve the goal. While the role of technology is just one consideration, the analysis operations leaders and technologists can bring to the table—whether internal or external—guides firm leadership when prioritizing one potential goal over another.
Small Operations & IT-led adjustments could expedite the automation and process improvements necessary for an efficient M&A strategy for example, while including Operations and IT in defining a geographic expansion vision allows firm leadership to have a well-rounded understanding—and realistic expectation—of impact and timelines.
Once the long-term strategy has been set for the firm, IT and operations leaders can then define the technological path to get there. Typically consisting of a series of small- to mid-sized projects, IT and operations leaders collaborate with business stakeholders to prioritize these projects and their associated interdependencies and map out milestones in 6-12 month increments.
For example, if your long-term goal is to add a new practice area through acquisition or absorption, then your first project might be to streamline the speedy onboarding of new employees so you can get them integrated, fully functional, and billing faster. This might include reviewing licensing and policy procedures, speeding technology acquisition, or simplifying the spinning up of a fully functional desktop.
Though this is a high-level roadmap and simplified for the purposes of example, the process can be used for any initiative.
Time and time again, we see that it is neither lack of will or skill that keeps law firms from achieving their strategies, but rather the age-old problem that we all deal with in our daily lives, the prioritization of urgent over strategic.
That’s why for mid- to large-firms we work with, near-term strategy often includes one major initiative: Finding the time and IT talent to achieve your mid-term objectives and advance your long-term vision.
Finding the right capacity is critical. Even if you have internal IT, they are often relegated to a highly tactical, sometimes fire-fighting role. They may have the talent to be strategic, but not the time. For companies with outsourced IT, partners are often chosen for budgetary fit rather than consultative capabilities, resulting in a relationship limited to the tactical, with little room for strategic support.
Driving productivity and profitability
Ultimately, Operations and IT can not only drive both productivity and profitability, but also play a starring role in the achievement of a law firm’s strategic objectives.
However, doing so requires the operations and IT team(s) to:
- Be a strategic partner to firm leadership and aligned with business goals
- Have the capacity to focus on such strategic initiatives
The first may be a mindset change for both parties but can help accelerate achievement of firm goals.
The second can seem daunting. Recent changes in economic and work conditions have profoundly impacted the role and expectations for operations and IT teams, making it difficult to find the capacity needed to focus on strategic objectives.
However, operations and IT teams can create capacity by reviewing and prioritizing responsibilities through a dual filter of which require intimate firm knowledge to advance, and which align to your future goals.
By transferring tactical and specialty (e.g. cloud) tasks that require firm familiarity but not intimacy to an industry-aligned cloud services partner, you can free your team to focus on strategic initiatives.
Ultimately, it’s easy to push off strategic initiatives that don’t have a hard deadline. But achieving your firm’s strategic vision depends heavily on your team’s ability to focus on it and break down goals into time-aligned, manageable initiatives.
By starting immediately to free up capacity and strategically plan, you’ll set your firm up for long-term success.