Opinion: A good business plan should be the weapon of choice

The “knee-jerk slashing of partnership positions” (The Lawyer, 11 May) this year was kind of inevitable, given the torrid economic conditions in the global economy.

Mark Brandon

Mark Brandon

When war comes, you pull up the drawbridge, batten down the hatches and gird your loins, but few in the profession were prepared for quite this level of attrition, with high levels of redundancy on one hand and decimated promotion prospects on the other forcing lawyers on to the ‘market’.

Legal recruiters have been the Florence Nightingales of the current mayhem, nursing a steady stream of shell-shocked redundant lawyers coming in through their doors – careers amputated, egos shot to pieces. Some of them will not see battle again.

Equally, there have been those thwarted for partnership, wounded but not in the same way. Years of hard work ending in broken promises.

The solution the market requires for either group to return to the fray in ­anything like the condition they left it is the same thing: the ability to generate fee income. For while they are ridding ­themselves of unwanted resource through one door, law firms are recruiting through another. And they are buying one thing: business. The bigger the better.

If you don’t have a following/practice/ portable business big enough to pay your way – think three times your salary – you can pretty much forget moving at a senior level in this market. Anything equivalent to your salary or below and you are going to struggle. But if you can count on guaranteed fees of about twice your salary, there are firms that may consider you.

But beware: desperate times should not mean making desperate promises. In fact, the harder climate of the recession is steadily removing the fudge, fog and ­flannel from the business planning process. This is in stark contrast to what went before. One HR director remarked to me recently that of all the lateral partner business plans he had analysed two years on from the partners joining, 80 per cent had failed to meet their projected targets.

The candidate, the recruiter and the law firm must all take the rap for the failure of lawyers to match up to the promise of their plans.

Most lawyers have never had to write a proper business plan, and certainly not one which values their own practice (read: self-worth) with brutal clarity, so first drafts are often a bit of a mess. Projected fee income is often ‘finger-in-the-wind’ or simply ignored. Little is done to explain the business to a non-specialist lawyer, and competitor analysis is almost always entirely absent, as is any proper sense of likely vulnerabilities and ­weaknesses for future income growth.

All too often, lazy or inexperienced recruiters simply act as a postbox, ­forwarding shambolic, half-cooked ­documents straight to clients without
even commenting on them.

And inexperienced, hurried or charmed firms have historically taken too little time to delve into the detail of the plan, reject poorly written ones or pick holes in them.

The business plan is – ultimately – ­simply an exercise in mitigating risk. The better it is, the less risky the proposition looks, the more likely it is the hire will happen and the greater the likelihood of a successful hire at the end of it. As risk-analysts, lawyers should be much, better at writing them and reading them.
Your business plan is your sword: if it is poorly forged and dull-edged it is likely to fail you when put to the test. Craft it finely, hone it until it’s sharp and spar with it before you take it into battle, and it will be your best asset. It’s a war out there: make sure you’re properly armed.

Mark Brandon is author of Moving as a Partner