Animating Strategy for Lawyers

From The Practice May/June 2023
Professional training through case studies

When law schools prepare students for the profession, they are often missing a key ingredient: strategy. Law students learn civil procedure, torts, and constitutional law. Students take part in clinics on a broad range of issues and learn legal research and writing. And most important, as is often said, students learn how to “think like a lawyer.” Once law students become lawyers, there are also a host of continuing legal education requirements—often around substantive areas of law. But, when a lawyer progresses through the ranks, makes partner, or is eventually promoted to lead a team, department, sector, practice group, office, or even the firm, are they prepared to lead? Today, even small to midsize firms and legal organizations can have dozens of lawyers, more support staff, multiple offices—not to mention the largest firms, with thousands of lawyers and offices across dozens of countries. There is little question that leaders in these firms and legal organizations are great lawyers, whatever their area of expertise may be. But what does expertise in torts matter when a lawyer is now in charge of managing a complex business in an increasingly competitive landscape? Litigation or deal-making strategy is one thing. Business strategy—how to succeed and differentiate in today’s marketplace—is another thing altogether.

Our goal is to highlight the importance of strategy to lawyers and to equip them with a toolbox to develop and assess their own strategies.

Rebecca Coyne, Assistant Dean for Executive Education, Harvard Law School

Professional development, particularly through university executive education programs, has stepped in where law schools and traditional law firm and corporate and government legal department training has lagged, says Scott Westfahl, faculty director of Harvard Law School’s Executive Education (HLSEE) program. Recognizing this knowledge gap, over the past few years HLSEE programming has increasingly emphasized strategy, a move that has come about because of both the changing nature of the legal profession and “more competition from outside forces,” says Rebecca Coyne, assistant dean for executive education at Harvard Law School. Competition within the legal marketplace has become turbocharged, and the entry of new players, like the Big Four and alternative legal service organizations, means that law firms are realizing they need to find their strategic placement in the market. Firms are also being challenged in new ways, ranging from cybersecurity to ESG to geopolitical risk. As Coyne says, it’s hard to be neutral now, and that influences your strategy. “There are geopolitical events that are going to impact your work. And some of them are so charged that organizations are being forced to make a decision about where they are going to play in that space,” she says. The challenge is that “strategy can be an amorphous concept,” she adds, so the key is to animate it and present tangible examples for lawyers to work through.

How does HLSEE do this? They start with case studies. The case study method shows individuals how companies and industries think about and apply strategic principles in different settings. For instance, HLSEE uses the Harvard Business School case, “Reawakening the Magic: Bob Iger and the Walt Disney Company,” to explore how Disney differentiated itself in the market by zeroing in on Mickey Mouse and the characters as a unifying force around which everything else—theme parks, merchandise—needed to circle. “I like to ask law firms, ‘What’s the Mickey Mouse of your firm?’” Westfahl says. “They may start with, ‘Well, we have a great culture.’ And I press them, ‘What does that mean? Give me some examples.’” Westfahl often implores firms to “get creative” in their expression of what makes them distinct and then pushes them to “double down on what’s special about it.” Their biggest challenge is to move beyond statements like “we provide excellent client service” or “we’re there for our clients 24/7” or “we have deep expertise in all of our practices.” Westfahl challenges firm leaders: “Aren’t all firms saying that? How specifically do you do those things—or other things—better than other firms?” 

The earlier you start to understand how to think strategically, the better you’ll be positioned to add value wherever you are in the supply chain of legal services.

Scott Westfahl, Faculty Director, Harvard Law School Executive Education

HLSEE programs are also less about teaching what a firm’s specific strategy should be, which, as noted in The Practice article “Leading the Way,” varies across a whole number of factors. Rather, they are about equipping participants with the frameworks necessary to develop and deploy a strategic vision—as well as the leadership skills needed to drive it through systematically and coherently. For instance, Felix Oberholzer-Gee, the Andreas Andresen Professor of Business Administration in the Strategy Unit at Harvard Business School, teaches strategy with a simple graph he calls a “value stick,” which displays the “value creation opportunity” for companies. On the top is a customer’s willingness to pay (which has an effect on customer delight) and on the bottom an employee or supplier’s willingness to sell (which has an effect on employee satisfaction and/or supplier surplus). In the middle is the firm margin. The goal for companies is to try to create as much value within that spectrum. Programs also introduce concepts like Harvard University’s Bishop William Lawrence Professor Michael Porter’s Five Forces Model—industry rivalry, the bargaining power of supplies, the threat of substitutes, the bargaining power of buyers, and the threat of new entrants. Other tools presented include McKinsey’s 7S model of alignment and the SWOT analysis. The goal, Coyne says, “is to highlight the importance of strategy to lawyers and to equip them with a toolbox to develop and assess their own strategies.” “None of this is rocket science,” Westfahl adds. Lawyers just haven’t been trained in it in any systematic way. It is perhaps telling, of course, that all these models come from business and public policy schools, not law schools.

Not just for the executives

Having a clear strategy is essential to building strong relationships; it helps in both the market for clients and the market for talent. “My students will tell me when they’re looking for jobs that every law firm kind of looks the same, and that’s a problem. When the market all looks the same, that means talent has more power and you’re in salary wars to attract associates,” says Westfahl. Transparency, in other words, is important. “When I teach about strategy, I’m always trying to make sure that law firms understand that there’s two markets they’re competing in,” Westfahl says. And it isn’t necessarily a state secret; everyone knows that Mickey Mouse and Disney are synonymous. “If competitors know what your strategy is, you can carve out your lane and make it clear what you do and what you don’t do,” says Westfahl. This allows organizations to attract great clients and great talent because everyone is aligned around a clear understanding of the organization’s purpose.

Executive education offerings and strategy

Each HLSEE program explores strategy in different ways:

  • Accelerated Leadership Program: A mini intensive designed for new partners or practice leaders. These new leaders learn the fundamentals of strategy and how to apply it to their teams and units.
  • Leadership in Law Firms: This flagship program is aligned to the goals of managing partners, senior leaders, and others with 20 years or more of experience. Participants explore strategy and organizational alignment to strategy through case studies of leading businesses and professional service firms. The program focuses on setting firm-wide strategy and how that impacts both internal and external stakeholders.
  • Leading the Law Firm of the Future: Designed for law firm leaders who already have experience in the fundamentals of strategy, this new program also pushes participants to think about how the external world and forces like ESG, globalization, and political tumult interact with and impact strategy. HLSEE also emphasizes that firms will be more effective at serving clients if they can understand and advise them about strategy.
  • Leadership in Corporate Counsel: Designed for in-house counsel, this program helps internal legal teams answer questions like: How is our distinctive strategy successful in meeting the internal clients’ needs? How well is our strategy aligned with the overall company’s? How can the in-house lawyers and general counsel work more effectively with external firms?
  • Women’s Leadership Initiative: Designed for women in law firms and legal teams, this program helps women think about personal strategy and professional development, including prompting participants to think about individual branding, self-advocacy, and personal leadership styles that can impact themselves, their teams, and their organizations.

Recognizing an increasing need for lawyers to learn about business strategy earlier, law firms are helping associates get into the game. “Strategy is not just an exercise for those at the top,” says Coyne. HLSEE frequently develops custom programs for early-career attorneys at firms and companies. For more than 12 years, this has included the law firm Milbank. Each year, groups of associates come in the fall and spring to learn business fundamentals, including strategy. In these custom programs for Milbank, each of their associates worldwide is introduced to strategy so that they can “understand the business concepts that their client counterparts would’ve experienced,” says Coyne. But this education also provides excellent grounding for associates in their own careers. If young attorneys understand ideas around strategy, they are primed to ask questions around how they fit in within their own organization and its goals. “The earlier you start to understand how to think strategically, the better you’ll be positioned to add value wherever you are in the supply chain of legal services,” says Westfahl. “You’re going to be better aligned, you’ll have more creative ideas, and you’ll understand the why of what you’re doing better too.”

HLSEE teaches that leadership is not just thinking about strategy and helping the organization set its course, but communicating to everybody and obtaining support so that everyone can move forward in the same direction.

Other firms are also investing in younger lawyers. Firms like Debevoise & Plimpton and Proskauer Rose have associates enroll in “mini MBA” programs, which teach some of the strategy concepts common to business school graduates. “Everybody needs to understand business strategy and how it’s developed, and what the impact of transactions are on earnings per share, because you can’t deliver high-quality legal advice unless you can put yourself in the shoes of your client. And since our clients think like that, we have to think like that,” said former Proskauer chairman Joe Leccese in Forbes. Not to be left behind, there are also programs in-house, including at Boston University.

Strategy and leadership

As Robert Couture writes in “Leading the Way,” there is a close relationship between leadership and strategy. You need both elements for success. HLSEE teaches that leadership is not just thinking about strategy and helping the organization set its course, but communicating to everybody and obtaining support so that everyone can move forward in the same direction. Sometimes this involves helping people accept loss and change. Strategies shift. When that happens, Coyne says, “You have to figure out a way to acknowledge the loss, let go, and help everybody continue to move forward. If you’ve established buy-in across the organization and communicated the why of your strategy, it’s easier for people to pivot and move along with you.” She continues:

Your strategy is important, but your culture and communication are just as important. If you don’t understand how to leverage your leadership to help people understand and buy in to the strategy, you might as well have no strategy at all. As the old saying goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”