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Law Firm Business Development: “Plans Are Useless, but Planning Is Indispensable…”

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Lawyers detest creating business development plans. They delay and resist as long as possible, and when their firm finally brings down the hammer, too often they create something pro forma that lets them check the required box, but is of little practical use, and never gets looked at again.

Former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, when he was overall Commander of Allied Forces in WWII, famously said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

What did Ike mean by this seemingly self-cancelling declaration?

It was that the plan, i.e., the tangible, documented result of the planning, is vulnerable to many forces outside your control. The battlefield is complex, and the many moving parts may not move as predicted.

Markets are no different. The many moving parts include:

  • clients
  • prospects
  • competitors
  • allies
  • colleagues
  • your firm’s leadership
  • the actions of federal, state, and local governments
  • new entrants into the market who may introduce disruptive innovations
  • geopolitical or macroeconomic factors

Any of the above could render part or all of your plan obsolete.

If so, why plan?

Planning (the verb) consists of investigation and thinking that cause you to identify and examine these variables, which raises your awareness and gives you a much more complete and useful perspective.

Planning consists of investigation and thinking that cause you to identify and examine [key] variables…

That, in turn, increases your ability to recognize the earliest indicators of change, anticipate their likely effect, and devise an informed response to them. Without going through that rigorous thinking, you’ll continually be surprised by most developments, with little chance to anticipate or respond effectively.

You can avoid most surprises

Yes, the world is volatile, and things change quickly and often suddenly. But, if you’re taken completely by surprise by an announcement by your clients or a major development in their industry, it’s reliable evidence that your planning was inadequate.

I don’t mean that planning will make you clairvoyant, only that most big developments are the product of many precursors that, taken together, allow you to make some educated guesses about what’s most likely.

Example: General Motors’ factory-closure announcement, November 26, 2018

To the casual observer, GM announcing in late November that they’d close five plants and lay off 14,000 workers was a shock. I’m guessing that many firms and lawyers who do a lot of work for GM, its suppliers, and dealers experienced stomach-roiling anxiety as a result. “Will our work go away, too?”

However, there are many factors that would have allowed affected lawyers to anticipate this and begin to diversify. Maybe not the precise “when,” but that it had to happen.

Technology and connectivity pose the question of whether it’s necessary to own an automobile. Look at the perfect storm of confluent events that led to GM’s production cut, and that is transforming the entire industry:

  • Autonomous vehicles
  • On-demand ride services, AKA “Mobility as a Service (MaaS)”, e.g., Uber, Lyft. (GM invested $500m in Lyft, 2016)
  • Online shopping, free delivery. No driving to stores.
  • Free or low-cost HD video connections that enable facetime without travel
  • Declining interest in driving. For people aged 16 to 44, the percentage who have a driver’s license has been decreasing steadily since 1983.
  • Migration to cities, where cars are a liability. 54% of people worldwide live in cities. Sources estimate this will grow to 2/3 of world population in the next 15-30 years

Anyone aware of even some of these factors wasn’t surprised by GM’s move.

Consequences of these trends

  • Auto Insurance Market to Shrink 60% by 2040, 71% by 2050: KPMG
  • Driverless, Shared Cars to Cut Vehicle Ownership by Half: Barclays (Insurance Journal, May 19, 2015)
  • Online car buying could shrink dealer networks by almost 50% in a decade (Fleet News, Jan 19, 2018)
  • Autonomous Vehicles Will Shrink Auto OEM Collision Repair Revenue by Nearly 50 Percent by 2030 (KPMG, May 17, 2017) OEMs will see a 48% dent in their collision parts business as a result of self-driving cars

What should you do?

So, if you’re a lawyer whose work has come primarily from the automotive sector, how should you plan for developing business during the next phase of your career?

When conditions change for your clients, they’ll change for you, too…

You could start by taking the advice being offered to your automotive clients by observers such as Deloitte. “Carmakers need to make use of the technologies offered by Industry 4.0, the Internet of Things, and data analytics to take advantage of opportunities to manage costs and continue to be globally competitive.”

When conditions change for your clients, they’ll change for you, too, either positively or negatively, depending on your preparedness and response. You can’t keep selling the same services, in the same way.

You must evolve. The good news is that your clients want you to. If you consistently show that you’re paying attention to their business and trying to anticipate their needs, they’ll help you do just that by sharing their knowledge and guiding you to develop the solutions they need.

“But, I’m not in the automotive market”

Please, please don’t feel sanguine because your clients’ industries aren’t on the front page of the business press with unpopular announcements. All products, services, companies, and industries go through maturity cycles. (It’s happening in Legal right now.)

Fortunes change. Today’s Amazon is tomorrow’s GM. Pay attention. Be prepared.

Have a plan, but place your trust in the actual planning, not the resulting plan.

Mike O'Horo

Mike O'Horo is a serial innovator in the law business. His current venture, RainmakerVT, is the world's first interactive online rainmaking training for lawyers, by which lawyers learn how to attract the right kind of clients without leaving their desks. For 20 years, Mike has been known by lawyers everywhere as The Coach. He trained more than 7000 of them, generating $1.5 billion in new business. Mike can be reached at mikeohoro@rainmakervt.com

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Filed Under: Featured StoriesPractice Management

About the Author: Mike O'Horo is a serial innovator in the law business. His current venture, RainmakerVT, is the world's first interactive online rainmaking training for lawyers, by which lawyers learn how to attract the right kind of clients without leaving their desks. For 20 years, Mike has been known by lawyers everywhere as The Coach. He trained more than 7000 of them, generating $1.5 billion in new business. Mike can be reached at mikeohoro@rainmakervt.com

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