Recession-Proof your Law Firm


The worst market crisis in 60 years: "recession or worse"?  Says who? The 80th richest man in the world, George Soros, (estimated net worth of 8.5 Billion according to Forbes).  Is Mr. Soros toying with the "D" word: "Depression" when he says "recession or worse"?

I recommend that you read the entire Financial Times (FT) article dated January 22, 2008: The worst market crisis in 60 years.

This is not a new subject for me - see my August 3, 2007 post Doom and Gloom for the legal profession - it's coming with respect to which Valorem Law founder, Patrick Lamb, kindly called me "an awfully good soothsayer" in his January 19, 2008 post Will The Perfect Storm Fundamentally Alter The Foundation Of The Profession?

Citibank’s Law Group Head and friend, Dan DiPietro, seems to be singing in harmony with Mr. Soros.  Dan believes that US law firms may soon be battling unprecedented economic pressures.

As a law firm leader,  you need to ask yourself some hard questions.  My Edge International partner, Rob Millard, and I believe you need to: Recession-Proof your Law Firm and that Law firms must immediately prepare by reassessing their strategies in order to:
  • minimize the potentially firm-threatening impact and
  • capitalize on competitive opportunities
Managing Partners should consider these SEVEN KEY STRATEGIC FACTORS in order to “recession-proof” the firm:

  1. Strong Leadership ??  In ancient times, the Cherokee Nation had one chief who would rule during times of peace; another during war. The need for hard, courageous decisions, even sacrifice, is common to both recessions and wars. In both, strong leadership is critical if hard decisions are to be taken and actually executed.
  2. Ramp Up the Frequency of Financial Data Reporting   ??Things can change fast in a recession. Clients, under financial pressure themselves, terminate engagements. Revenues may contract. Debtor payment periods and write offs may deteriorate, putting pressure on liquidity. The firm’s key financial metrics must be monitored far more frequently than in boom times.
  3. Make the Hard Decisions Humanely and Fast  ??Layoffs, if required, must be quick and humane not only to preserve capital, but also to get the firm past this trauma quickly and focused on working forward again. Continued employment of underperformers must be carefully assessed. Where the market is no longer buying specific services there are two choices: retool (quickly) or separate. (Do not misinterpret this as a suggestion to rush to lay off people though. Long-term considerations suggest this is a last resort option for all personnel except those who ought to have been asked to leave years ago.)
  4. Get Practice Leaders and Client Team Leaders focused on short-term action plans  ??Actions must be executed more quickly than in “good times” and therefore designed for rapid implementation. Plans must be focused, systematic and disciplined. Those that will actually drive plans must be integrally involved in crafting them and managing their execution. Feedback and accountability measures are critical to ensure that the plans are executed, especially when they relate to the hard, courageous decisions (point 1.) Non-billable time becomes a valuable asset and must be actively managed to ensure that key tasks receive priority.
  5. Involve Your Clients  ??In recessions, client mobility increases. Client needs evolve more quickly as new threats and opportunities emerge. Firms need to go beyond simply expressing empathy and assuring continuing loyalty. They need to actively position themselves to meet emerging key client needs. This cannot be done without actively discussing business (not just legal) issues with clients. If you don’t have client teams in place for your key clients, now would be a good time to start!
  6. Manage Internal Expectations   Business as Usual Could Be Lethal??Remember the tale of the two frogs? The first is dropped into a bowl of hot water. It jumps out. The second is dropped into a bowl of cold water and slowly heated up. It doesn’t jump out and eventually dies. Similar procrastination has been the death of too many good firms. You need to explain internally what is being done to weather the recession and the likely impact on the financial positions of your people. This knowledge will motivate your people to do what is expected of them rather than default to “business as usual.”
  7. This Too Shall Pass   Keep a Balance With Your Long Term Strategy??Think strategically about whether and where to cut short-term resources. Retaining some temporarily unprofitable practice areas and individuals may be advisable if they are important to your long-term goals. On the other hand, a recession is an excellent time to re-engineer or sever areas that have become less profitable but have been tolerated to avoid conflict.
The Chinese character for “crisis” consists of two symbols. One means “danger,” the other “opportunity.” While strategy may be more challenging during recessions, if you grasp the nettle, opportunities will arise to enhance your client mix and your talent base.

Thanks again to Robert Millard for his collaboration on this. 

As always I appreciate your feedback.


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