Managing Strategically, Managing Operationally |

Managing Strategically, Managing Operationally


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One of the most significant challenges for law firms in the current economic and competitive climate is managing effectively both their strategic development and operational performance. The strategic development is concerned with achieving agreed mid-long term strategic objectives and a future market position which provides a platform for building some form of sustainable competitiveness. Operational management, in contrast, is essentially concerned with the current, more immediate, financial and economic performance achieved including the servicing and winning of clients and achievement of other key related performance targets (covering, for example, HR, service standards, etc.).
Managing Strategically, Managing Operationally

At any time balancing these two critical facets of management raises challenges but perhaps now, more than any time in the recent past, in both the US and Europe, this requires a complex balance of analysis, judgement, sensitivity, resolve and courage of commitment.

More immediate, financial, economic and related considerations require firms to focus strongly on achieving particular levels of profitability to meet partners' expectations and to maintain performance broadly in line with peer group firms. A failure to achieve either or both will put at risk, at least to some extent, many firms' competitiveness both in terms of retaining the most ambitious and able partners and other lawyers and in terms of the financial attractiveness of such firms in the lateral market.

On the other hand, focusing very strongly on operational performance at the expense of investing in strategic development is potentially equally damaging. Of course, reducing investment in strategic development can assist firms achieve particular levels of financial performance in the short term. Remaining in cheaper, but inefficient premises, delaying upgrades in IT, cutting back on marketing and business development, reducing commitment to training and recruitment, holding salaries below the market norm and so on can all impact positively on profit margins, overall, profitability and profit per partner in the short term.

Taking 10,000, 100,000 or 1,000,000 Euros, Dollars or Pounds out of costs in this way can deliver a similar, or close to similar, increase in the bottom line.

The danger of any such decisions is that the impact on medium term competitiveness will be adverse and potentially, catastrophically so (assuming that the initial decision to make such investments was sound). Of course, all investment and expenditure decisions should be periodically reviewed and there is perhaps a validity in doing this more frequently in certain economic conditions. However, to overturn previous ‘sound' expenditure and investment decisions simply on the basis of current economic conditions is both short-sighted and potentially highly damaging. Of course, there is a need to be realistic and pragmatic and the adage of ‘cutting-one's cloth' is valid. There may also in some circumstances be some validity in the argument that ‘if we don't achieve particular results in the short term there will be no long term'. (Our experience, however, suggests that this argument is put forward in many circumstances where there seems to be limited justification).

The reality, however, as can be witnessed within both the legal sector and all other sectors of the economy is that those who fail to invest adequately in their development ultimately fail. The world of both fast moving consumer goods and industrial products is littered with examples of sound businesses that in pursuit of short term operational targets were compromised in their ability to invest adequately in their strategic development and consequently ultimately failed. Examples of such failures can also readily be found in the world of banking and financial services and other professional services businesses. (This is not to imply that all such failures in such sectors are due to a lack of investment in strategic development but undoubtedly it is a factor in many such failures).

The ‘balancing' challenge for many law firms between the short term financial demands and the need for investment in medium-longer term strategic development is, in fact, even more challenging than for businesses in other sectors. And the reason for this is as follows.

Some firms are currently ‘underperforming' their peer group and are doing so for reasons that are unrelated to their ‘fundamental competitiveness' (and by this term we mean their innate capability to perform at a level equivalent to their peer group). Instead they are underperforming for other reasons: perhaps they are significantly over staffed or over partnered and/or under leveraged. Alternatively, it maybe a consequence of how hard people do or are prepared to work; achieving 4/5 chargeable hours a day is simply not competitive in any part of the legal market nowadays, yet there remains a belief (or perhaps more accurately a forlorn hope) that because such levels of performance were historically adequate they remain so today. A third such reason for underperformance may relate to poor financial management: too high levels of work-in-progress, inadequate billing and collection procedures and so on - all contributing to unnecessarily low realisation rates. (Any firm that has a significant percentage of its billings and/or collections occurring in the last month(s) of the year (the year-end billing-blitz) is likely, at least in part, to be reducing its performance, and potentially substantially so, as a result).

The reality, however, is that most law firms that are underperforming their peer group are doing so for reasons directly related to their fundamental competitiveness and for such firms not to invest in their strategic development is a deeply flawed decision.

For firms that are generating below peer group average levels of profitability and margin due to a lack of fundamental competitiveness there has to be a significant and priority focus on building profitability back to levels comparable with competitor firms (or accept a market repositioning of the firm in a different, lower position in the marketplace); and to achieve this without investment and hence cost and impact on short term profit is highly likely to be an unrealistic expectation. Such investment is required, quite simply, to rebuild competitiveness to a point where competitive levels of profit can be generated.

Such investment may be in terms of restructuring, development of know-how and precedents, recruitment of new, higher calibre partners and other lawyers, targeted business development, upgrading of IT to improve service and/or reduce ‘unit' costs, development and implementations of new services and/or more effective and efficient means of delivering existing services, and so on. Clearly, such investment has to be directed at those areas that are most important in terms of building or re-establishing competitiveness and client research can here fulfil a critical role in helping identify such areas. Irrespective, however, of where the investment is required, it clearly will be required somewhere and to expect to regain competitiveness (and this we define as performance at least the equal of any competitor in the perceptions of target core clients) is blatantly naïve.

However, achieving such investment is no straightforward task when profitability is already below that of peer group firms and/or below partner expectations. It is, however, possible.

It requires above all else a partnership willing to accept reduced profit in the short term (in much the same way that some corporate businesses have to do so at times) in order to be able to invest adequately in building medium and longer term competitiveness and hence profit. Such investment maybe in terms of greater expenditure or in terms of reduced income - a consequence of some partners focusing increasingly on non-fee earning activities to build strengths and/or develop new opportunities that will contribute to the building of greater competitiveness, or it maybe a combination of the two.

In our experience those firms that have or currently are making such investments, even though current performance is below partners' expectations and/or that of peer group firms share a number of common characteristics. In particular such firms:

i) have a high degree throughout the partnership of commitment to a well thought out strategy;

ii) have a high level of loyalty throughout the partnership with shared values and ambitions;

iii) have an appropriate compensation scheme that encourages and recognises high levels of contribution and performance supporting the achievement of the firms strategic objectives;

iv) have a highly respected and trusted management that is closely in ‘touch' with the sentiment in the partnership but is nevertheless prepared where necessary to make and implement unpopular decisions.

In the absence of such characteristics it is far less likely that any firm will be able to make and sustain the level of investment required to build competitiveness and without such investment the future is likely to be one of failure.

Hence, a critical challenge for any firm is to ensure that it pays substantial attention to maintaining its internal fabric and cohesion, making it more likely to be able to make and implement difficult decisions should the firm find itself in the position where it needs to do so.
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About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is a prominent figure in the legal placement industry, known for his expertise in attorney placements and his extensive knowledge of the legal profession.

With over 25 years of experience, he has established himself as a leading voice in the field and has helped thousands of lawyers and law students find their ideal career paths.

Barnes is a former federal law clerk and associate at Quinn Emanuel and a graduate of the University of Chicago College and the University of Virginia Law School. He was a Rhodes Scholar Finalist at the University of Chicago and a member of the University of Virginia Law Review. Early in his legal career, he enrolled in Stanford Business School but dropped out because he missed legal recruiting too much.

Barnes' approach to the legal industry is rooted in his commitment to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. He believes that the key to success in the legal profession is to be proactive, persistent, and disciplined in one's approach to work and life. He encourages lawyers to take ownership of their careers and to focus on developing their skills and expertise in a way that aligns with their passions and interests.

One of how Barnes provides support to lawyers is through his writing. On his blog,, and, he regularly shares his insights and advice on a range of topics related to the legal profession. Through his writing, he aims to empower lawyers to control their careers and make informed decisions about their professional development.

One of Barnes's fundamental philosophies in his writing is the importance of networking. He believes that networking is a critical component of career success and that it is essential for lawyers to establish relationships with others in their field. He encourages lawyers to attend events, join organizations, and connect with others in the legal community to build their professional networks.

Another central theme in Barnes' writing is the importance of personal and professional development. He believes that lawyers should continuously strive to improve themselves and develop their skills to succeed in their careers. He encourages lawyers to pursue ongoing education and training actively, read widely, and seek new opportunities for growth and development.

In addition to his work in the legal industry, Barnes is also a fitness and lifestyle enthusiast. He sees fitness and wellness as integral to his personal and professional development and encourages others to adopt a similar mindset. He starts his day at 4:00 am and dedicates several daily hours to running, weightlifting, and pursuing spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Barnes is a strong advocate for community service and giving back. He volunteers for the University of Chicago, where he is the former area chair of Los Angeles for the University of Chicago Admissions Office. He also serves as the President of the Young Presidents Organization's Century City Los Angeles Chapter, where he works to support and connect young business leaders.

In conclusion, Harrison Barnes is a visionary legal industry leader committed to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. Through his work at BCG Attorney Search, writing, and community involvement, he empowers lawyers to take control of their careers, develop their skills continuously, and lead fulfilling and successful lives. His philosophy of being proactive, persistent, and disciplined, combined with his focus on personal and professional development, makes him a valuable resource for anyone looking to succeed in the legal profession.

About BCG Attorney Search

BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit

Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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