This is part three of our Leadership for Lawyers series.

What I’m about to ask you to do may initially seem like madness for an hourly lawyer, but I argue that it’s madness NOT to do it.

For the love of all that’s holy, PLEASE spend a day or two (even three) a year, locked in a room away from your office with the most important people in your law firm.

You need a yearly planning meeting like the one I describe below, and without it you’re spinning in circles without a navigation system. You won’t know where you’re going or when you’ve arrived.

Your annual planning meeting is the most critical conversation you will have all year for your law firm. When well-executed, you will emerge with a blueprint for the future direction of your firm. You’ll lay out concrete initiatives and goals that will, in turn, drive quarterly plans, which trickle down to your everyday to-do list.

Thought of in reverse, every activity you engage in on a daily basis should support a quarterly objective which is derived from the road map you draw in your annual offsite meeting.

Why Offsite and Whom Should I Invite?

Any kind of deep, strategic planning needs to occur outside the confines of your office for the simple reason that you need to look at the machine from the outside. You cannot be in the middle of the operations, getting tugged in every direction and hope to have any perspective. If you’re concerned that there’s no way an attorney can spend all day away from the billable time clock, remember that you get away for CLE classes.

You should invite your top managers to your annual planning, whether they are administrative staff or partners. You need to include people who understand all aspects of your operation and will be responsible for the decisions that come out of planning. If you have outside business advisors, you can invite them as well.

NOTE: If you’re a pure solo, you should still hold an annual offsite meeting. It would help if you could bring in outside advisors. If you have no advisors or mentors, get one now, and in the meantime conduct some written exercises with the tools we recommend below.

What Does an Annual Meeting Produce?

At a very minimum, you should leave your yearly planning meeting with the following output:

1. Revenue Targets: How much money are you looking to make next year?

This number alone will drive decisions. You may have to add an associate, for example, or adjust the blend of your contingency and billable hourly matters. Or you might need to upgrade your systems to fix billable time and invoicing leaks, a major common problem among law firms. Or you might need an overhaul to your marketing strategy.

Need help optimizing your billing? Check out our free e-book on legal billing here.

2. Key 3-5 Initiatives: What do you need to do this year to achieve your revenue target? What can you do to help your bottom line? What does your business need to accomplish in the next 12 months to set itself up for success in the future?

When you express your top initiatives, it is critical that 1) they are concrete and not vague and 2) someone is assigned accountability for each of them. And once these initiatives are set, you need to be relentless, judging all of your day-to-day activities on whether they get you to your annual destination or not.

An example of a BAD yearly initiative: “Do a better job collecting for our billed work.”

Example of a GOOD yearly initiative: “Collect 85% of what we bill.”

In this example, especially if it’s a firm with bad collection processes, this single initiative will have repercussions throughout the whole year if the team is truly committed to achieving it. Processes will have to be put in place, education will likely need to occur to determine best practices, software might need to be purchased, or consultants or part-time staff may need to be hired.

An excellent resource for determining key initiatives (and strategic planning in general) is Scaling Up by Verne Harnish. His one-page plans, especially his One Page Strategic Plan, are excellent tools to guide your discussions.

Leadership for Lawyers: Strategic Planning

3. SWOT Analysis: A great output for the law firm is an assessment of its Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT). Conducting a SWOT analysis is a great way to kick off the meeting as it helps all participants surface what they perceive to be major issues and allows you to understand your business on a deep level.

NOTE: You may find SWOT permutations, such as Innovation Games’ speedboat exercise or Verne Harnish’s SWT analysis, a better fit for your organization.

The SWOT analysis is a great homework assignment for your key people in the days leading up to the meeting. Hand out index cards and request that they write down one idea per card, so that when you assemble as a group you can collect them and drive the conversation.

For more information on how to conduct a SWOT analysis, take a look at this quick article.

How do I Conduct a Yearly Planning Meeting?

In my opinion, any kind of intense strategic planning among multiple people should be preceded by a shared meal. It’s important to get on the same page as your colleagues and build rapport as best you can going into the meeting: you want debate to happen, but it should be positive, healthy debate, not a screaming match. Whether you treat your team to dinner the night before or to breakfast, use the time for the team to get relaxed with one another.

Next, stick with an agenda. It can be loose, since the conversations might take you places you didn’t know you needed to go, but you need to make sure you allocate time to identify your outputs. The most critical thing for your yearly planning is that you spell out your key initiatives and revenue targets and understand your business through a SWOT analysis.

A sample agenda might include:

8:00-9:00AM Breakfast
9:15-10:30AM SWOT Analysis
10:30AM-12PM Firm Direction Discussion
12:00-1:00PM Lunch & HR Discussion
1:0PM-3:00PM Determine Key Initiatives for Year
3:30PM-5:00PM Determine Key Initiatives for Quarter

Notice that there is a slot during lunch where you can discuss your current staff and any HR issues you might have. Ask yourself and your team the following question: if you had to start the team over from scratch, would you rehire everyone? If the answer is no, you might have a larger discussion about the individuals holding you back. If the answer is yes, are you incentivizing people correctly? Should the firm do more to retain its valued individuals?

The other thing to notice is that there is no scheduled time to review last year. The reason for this is that you mostly want to focus on moving forwards, and your biggest pain points and challenges should be surfaced in your SWOT analysis.

It’s Not Over When the Meeting Adjourns

Once you’ve decided your initiatives for the year, you immediately need to understand how to move towards them during the first quarter. Your quarter initiatives need to support your annual initiatives, broken down into 12-week operational chunks.

Make your key initiatives visible so they are not forgotten. Refer back to them during your management meetings and your quarterly planning and hold yourself and your team accountable.

Remember, you are not merely holding an annual planning meeting: you are creating a blueprint for your firm’s continued success and evolution. If you are interested in growing your firm, or keeping it around for the long haul, it’s critical to add yearly strategic planning session to your meeting rhythms. You need to book an offsite conference room, and plan for at least a day’s worth of conversation.

Leadership for Lawyers: The Biggest Indicator of Success
A Suggested Leadership Reading List
Leadership for Lawyers: How to Conduct a Strategic Planning Meeting
Leadership for Lawyers: The Fundamental Things You Need to Know