Ready to start the new year off with new goals and priorities for your firm? Maybe you’re not sure how to get started or you suffer from biting off more than you can chew. In this episode, Stephanie talks with Affinity’s CEO and Strategic Consultant Extraordinaire Debbie Foster about how to plan and achieve more success in 2024.
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Welcome to The Lawyerist Podcast, a series of discussions with entrepreneurs and innovators about building a successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Lawyerist supports attorneys, building client-centered, and future-oriented small law firms through community, content, and coaching both online and through the Lawyerist Lab. And now from the team that brought you The Small Firm Roadmap and your podcast hosts
Stephanie Everett (00:35):
Hi, I’m Stephanie Everett.
Zack Glaser (00:36):
And I’m Zack. And this is episode 482 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today, Stephanie talks with Affinity’s Debbie Foster, about end of the year planning and setting goals for the new year.
Stephanie Everett (00:49):
Today’s podcast is brought to you by Posh Virtual Receptionists, NetDocuments & LawPay. We wouldn’t be able to do our show without their support, so stay tuned because we’re going to tell you more about them later on.
Zack Glaser (01:00):
So Stephanie, obviously this episode is landing right before the end of the year because it’s strategic planning. You can do that anytime is my understanding. But the beginning of the year, the end of the year is really when people start to think about it. And we actually, obviously strategic planning is part of our lawyer lab program, but we have other ways to get connected with strategic planning and Lawyerist as well, right?
Stephanie Everett (01:27):
Yeah. If you’re thinking maybe I could use some help, we talk about this in the show with Debbie in the interview. We give you the steps. I mean, you can go through the process of strategic planning on your own for sure, but there’s something about having an outside voice or a guide that can sit there and listen to what you’re saying and guide you to that next place. And step and consolidate, or synthesize maybe is a better word, the voice is in the room. If you have a partner, if you have other stakeholders that are involved, it can be hard to facilitate this process for yourself. So good news, this happens to be one of my favorite things to do, and our other coaches as well. We can do this with you and we could even do it virtually a true strategic planning session for a small firm.
We can usually knock it out in a day. We have to be intentional with our day. When you get more people in the room, more stakeholders, bigger firms, we really want to see that be a two day process. And there’s some homework or pre-work that will help everybody get really focused so we can maximize our time together, but we can accomplish a lot more than you’d realize in a day. We even do it virtually. I mean, I love traveling and seeing people, but if that doesn’t work out, we can do it virtually. And I think maybe there’s a perception that this is really expensive. And I would say number one, it is worth the investment, the clarity you’re going to have, you’re going to come out of this not just with where the firm is headed, but what the next steps are, which is often the most difficult part.
This is great, but how do I get started? What does this look like? You’re going to come out with that clarity, with that plan, with the scope, with exactly what you need to do. And I mean, we do it for around five grand. Oh wow. That’s the virtual price. It’s a little bit more if you need us to travel, but it is well worth the investment if you’re in lab, and we do this as part of lab, but if you still want a dedicated retreat, which some people do, you get even a discount off those prices.
Zack Glaser (03:31):
And I think of that, it’s the rest of the owl I think is a meme that goes around the internet where it’s like, okay, well here’s step A and here’s step D. We can all sit down a lot of times and say, well, I want my office to clear X amount of dollars per year, but how do we actually get to that? And I think more importantly with this is, okay, well you’re also going to learn how to measure your ROI on these things. So you’re going to know whether or not this is a good thing. And one of the things I love about Lawyerist is that that’s what we’re trying to do. We want you to walk away from these things, whether it’s lab or a course or whatever, and say, man, I just got $10,000 worth of business out of that. That was a $30,000 idea or something like that. And so I think this is low hanging fruit on that. Is it worth your time? Certainly. Is it worth your money? So yeah, if people are wondering what exactly it is and what they would exactly get out of that, they can listen to your conversation with Debbie right now.
Stephanie Everett (04:36):
And if you’re interested, just email me Stephanie at Lawyerist dot com and let’s talk about it. So now here’s my conversation with Debbie.
Debbie Foster (04:47):
I’m Debbie Foster, the CEO of Affinity Consulting, and I spend a lot of my time working with our clients on strategic planning and figuring out how to create a roadmap for them to have a successful next day, week, month, year, three years, five years, whatever that looks like.
Stephanie Everett (05:06):
Welcome back to the show.
Debbie Foster (05:08):
Happy to be here.
Stephanie Everett (05:09):
As you said, we’re coming up on the end of the year, hard to believe, but 2024, will be here in days.
Debbie Foster (05:16):
Stephanie Everett (05:17):
I think by the time this episode airs, it will actually have be a couple of days.
Debbie Foster (05:22):
Oh, happy New Year. Yes.
Stephanie Everett (05:25):
So it’s a good time for business owners. I mean, I personally love the new year. I love getting my new planner. It’s all fresh paper. I get nervous to write those first couple of things. I have to break the ice and be like, it’s okay to get it messy, but it’s such a great time for reset personally and professionally. So yeah, I guess I just thought we’d kick off a conversation about how law firms can think about entering the new year and how to plan for what they might want to accomplish in 2024.
Debbie Foster (05:55):
As you can imagine, I’ve had lots of conversations about that over the last few months even. And I feel like if we start off with, if we’re thinking about what to do and what not to do, if we were to start off with what not to do, I would say don’t get so caught up in having to figure it all out that you don’t do anything because that seems overwhelming and daunting. And that’s something that I think personally and professionally, I mean even though I help clients with this, it’s something that I struggle with personally when I sit down and think about what are my goals, how can I pick one or two things that really are achievable because you can always add another goal. There’s no limit to how many things we can accomplish in a year. So you don’t have to start off with 25 things and it’s really overwhelming and you feel a lot of pressure.
And I think I encourage our law firm clients to think about it in the same way and in some of the work that I do with our clients on strategic planning, and actually a lot of times I say things like, okay, you have to stop. I know we want to keep talking about this and you want to add more things to the list. But the reality is, if you just were to solve these four things that we’ve already identified, that would give you a great perspective to sit down and look at what you’ve already accomplished and say is the next thing that I should do, still the same as it was if I would’ve added thing number five to the list. I think there’s something to be said about really breaking it up into chunks and just embracing what is actually practical right now.
Stephanie Everett (07:29):
And so maybe I’m going to take us back for a minute. This idea of strategic planning, having a plan, sometimes it feels like big daunting words and maybe sometimes it feels like people just think like that’s consultant speak, but I don’t need that or I don’t really have that. I don’t even know what that is. And so I guess, how would you describe at his heart, what is this process and why should people do it?
Debbie Foster (07:54):
It is a daunting thing for a lot of firms and a lot of the firms that I talked to feel like they need to do strategic planning because they did it once before five years ago or 10 years ago. And I think that it’s much more common for people to have had either great experiences through the process, but not great experiences in execution or a bad experience in the process, which quite frankly has the same end result, no forward motion on the progress. So I do think that it can be really daunting. And I think that when a firm, and a lot of this depends on how big or small is your firm and how many decision makers, and maybe my favorite word, how nimble are you? Can you sit down in a room with one of those big, giant white post-its up on the board and a big marker in your hand and just start writing things down and then execute on that?
Or do you need to have a room of two people or three people or four people? And the simpler that you can make it, the easier it is to grab a few things that you want to accomplish. But the daunting part of strategic planning in my experience has been how do you execute on a 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 page plan that is single spaced and font size 10 and seems overwhelming? And so when someone calls me and says that that’s what they want, I tell ’em I’m not the right person for them. I don’t write 40 page plans. I think those are a waste of money, quite frankly. And I’m sure that I have friends who do that kind of work who would be like, it’s not a waste of money, but I’ve seen too many of them sit in a drawer and collect dust. So the goal here is how do we strategically plan for our future personally or professionally without it being a 40 page document and with it being something that we feel like is realistic that we can wrap our heads around.
Stephanie Everett (09:49):
And I mean, I guess we can share for our company, we have a vivid vision document, which is similar, and I’ll be the one to confess, I put the presentation together. It’s really long because we talk about all the different things we want to accomplish in the next three years. And it was within the last couple of months that you came to me and we’re like, this is too much. Our team can’t grasp it. We can’t grasp it. It’s a lot to keep up with. So you challenged me to do two things, which was you said, first boil it down to one page, and then you said, can you boil it down to three bullet points?
Debbie Foster (10:23):
Stephanie Everett (10:23):
Which is a good challenge, by the way. I think I did it that close.
Debbie Foster (10:29):
It’s a great challenge because the truth is when you sit in a room, whether it’s with yourself or with other people who are helping you do this, and you are part of the process, when you explain it to someone else, you have the advantage of having lived through it. And so as you are telling the story of what you’re going to do in your mind, the movie is playing of everything that went into getting those words on the piece of paper. And for all the people who are listening to what you’re going to do, they don’t have the advantage of the movie. And it’s hard for us to imagine that people don’t get it. We get it because we know it so intimately. So I wanted to say, how do we really boil this down to a one pager? And then how do we boil it down to actually, it’s even simpler. It could just be three bullet points. So I love that you did that.
Stephanie Everett (11:21):
Yeah. But I also will say, because we’re a big fan of the vivid vision, I love that we have the longer document that tells more of that movie. Because if I had to describe to you an entire movie, pick a movie, I don’t know, fours Gump, could you really tell the movie of Fours Gump in three bullet points? Probably not in a way that would give them the whole flavor. So the vivid vision allows you to go read that whole movie and see the whole story. But then as we’re working each quarter, each week, each day, whatever it is, in that shorter period, we have this shorter document to kind of come back to and say like, are we where we’re supposed to be?
Debbie Foster (11:58):
I think that’s such a great analogy because if someone said to me, what do you think about the movie Forrest Gump? I’m thinking about watching it this weekend. My three bullet points would be in the case of Forrest Gump, selling them on watching it because it’s a great movie. I don’t know what my three bullet points would be, but every person who’s listening to this who’s seen Forrest Gump probably has an opinion about what those three bullet points will be. And so the goal should be someone reads the three bullet points and they want to watch the movie. And if we can get them excited about watching the movie, that’s when they also have the same story playing. If you’re not familiar with Vivid Vision, I know you’ve interviewed Cameron Harold on the podcast, but the book is an excellent book. It’s really about telling the story which stories can turn into movies. It’s about telling the story about what would be true about your company in three years if you accomplish the goals that you set out. And so I hope that our too long didn’t read version of the Vivid Vision really does encourage people to read the story so they can start to feel it the same way you would if you watched a movie versus getting the Rotten Tomatoes review bullet points.
Stephanie Everett (13:13):
So for some people, they even struggle. I don’t even know what the story in three years is going to be. And so you have this exercise you’ve done before, I think you call it remember the future?
Debbie Foster (13:24):
Yeah. So one of our good friends, Matt Homan, introduced us to this exercise, and I ask this question a lot of our clients, if you were thinking about one year from now or three years from now or whatever that timeframe looks like, and you are waving your hand in the air, great success, you’re happy, you feel like you’ve accomplished things, what is the one thing that you could point to and say, it’s a good thing we did this because it allowed us to do all of these other things. If you can fast forward, so let’s use an example. Let’s say that you’re struggling with right person, right seat, or you’re really looking for a key role in your firm, whether that be an integrator or a key role in a paralegal that’s really helping you take great care of your clients and do amazing work.
If you were thinking about adding that role at your firm and you’re thinking about one year from now, I’m telling myself the story, we’ll use integrator. I have an integrator, I have someone who’s helping me accomplish my goals. I have someone who’s helping me stay on track. I have a doer, I have a superstar employee. That would be a great example. If you’re sitting here today and you feel like, Ugh, I’m not moving forward, I want to be, and you bring in that person who’s going to help you, and you could imagine in your mind one year from now, we are firing on all cylinders. I’ve got my right hand person who’s really helping me, even though that’s just in your mind and you’re imagining it, you would rewind to today and say, what would I need to do to find that person? And it starts with a job description, and it starts with a job description that doesn’t look like every other job description that’s on Indeed or LinkedIn or pick a place any place. And then it starts with a really stringent hiring process. What questions are you going to ask? How do you know if they’re going to be a culture fit? And then you go through and you create your plan. So that thing that you imagined one year down the road can actually be true in a year.
Stephanie Everett (15:24):
Yeah, I love that. And I think a lot of firms would benefit, right? It’s just such a simple process, and I think that’s where sometimes we get hung up. Now, I guess I started this conversation by saying it can feel hard and daunting, but then when you boil it down to that, it seems really simple, but still not easy.
Debbie Foster (15:44):
Yeah, it’s a challenge, especially if it’s a people challenge, whether it be adding someone or dealing with a current situation that you have with a person. Because anytime there are people involved, there’s emotions involved and you’re connected in one way or another versus a technology problem. You might be sitting here today and saying, if I was imagining January 1st, 2025, I have a practice management program that is the single source of truth for all of my client matter data. And you might be sitting here today saying, I have spreadsheets, I have post-its I have legal pads, I have Outlook. Like everything is everywhere. Well, imagining what that looks like, it’s still hard, but it’s a little bit of an easier problem to solve because it’s not necessarily about people. There’s a people component to adding technology. There always is, and there’s a change management and process, but hiring a person, we want to do that quickly. Once you’ve made the decision, you’re like, let’s just get somebody in here. But getting the right person is so much more important than getting a person.
Stephanie Everett (16:51):
Absolutely. And we’re going to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors.
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Stephanie Everett (19:14):
All right, and we’re back. So what else do you see people maybe do wrong when they start to tackle goal setting and planning for the new year?
Debbie Foster (19:25):
Well, one of the things that I think is most dangerous is not finishing what you start and proclaiming to your team that these are the three things that you’re going to do and then not doing them because that just tells your team that you don’t do what you say you’re going to do. And so sometimes I might have a little goal of something that I want to work on for the business that I’m not telling anyone about because I want to make sure that I really get it done and I’m invested. And so it becomes a little bit more of a, Hey, look what I worked on my dining room wall this weekend, which has happened before. You’ve been a recipient of that message or walkthrough of that conversation. But I think doing what you say you’re going to do and setting some goals and talking to people about what you want to accomplish, enlisting their help, gives people do love to help, and then following through and getting it done because you know what success looks like and that success actually makes your life your job, your just general, how you feel day to day, a little bit easier, a little bit simpler.
And that’s I think one of the big mistakes. The second big mistake I would say I see all the time is the boiling the ocean mistake where I’m going to do these 56 things between now and March 31st, and there’s too many things and you’re distracted and there’s shiny objects, and we still have a day job and you still have to take care of your clients. And then there’s just so much on the list that you end up not getting any of the things accomplished. So I think it’s just that approach of doing something that is realistic, a shorter list of things is really important.
Stephanie Everett (21:09):
And as you were talking, I think too, a good reminder of you’ve picked the thing one, two, maybe three things, but probably one or two. And then you really need to ask yourself, what resources do I need to actually accomplish this? Which could mean time or people, or maybe you need more technology or maybe you need outside help, you need to go learn something. But I think sometimes it’s easy to just put this goal up on the board and be like, I’m going to do this, and I’ve seen firms do it before, and I see ’em do it a lot when they assign it to another team member. I had a Labster once who was like, oh, I asked my receptionist to do this project in her spare time and it’s still not done. And I was like, well, yeah, you just messaged to her to do it. You made it unemployment. And she was like, oh, yeah, I didn’t actually carve out any time for her to do the project, so we had to shift that. So it’s like, how much time is this thing going to take, and then are we making that space for it to really happen?
Debbie Foster (22:06):
That’s a great point, and it reminds me of a complimentary point to that, which is help your team understand how much time you want them to spend on that project. Instead of just saying, Hey, can you work on a new client intake form? Say, I would love for you to spend two hours in the next two weeks working on a new client intake form, and then let’s sit down and look at what you’ve come up with and really putting some time boundaries around how much time you want someone to spend on something because we know that work expands to fill the time allowed. And I think that’s a great way to help your team understand what you’re expecting from them.
Stephanie Everett (22:50):
I love that. It also probably signals to them how important or not important, but how big of a project you’re envisioning this because if you told me spend two hours versus spend 12 hours, I’m going to approach those two projects differently. Oh, Debbie wants me to spend 12 hours on this thing. I’ve got to really dig in. She wants me to do more than put together some bullet points
Debbie Foster (23:14):
For sure. And I think if you think about getting help, I think that’s another great point. And help doesn’t have to mean you’re going to hire someone. Do you have a virtual assistant? Can they help you? And if you don’t have a virtual assistant, someone once told me, if you don’t have an assistant, you are the assistant. True. So could you maybe have a virtual assistant that could help you? Could you go on Upwork or Fiverr or Law Clerk or one of those websites and you probably have other ones that you could rattle off, but could you go to one of those sites? Let’s say that you decide that you want to be really focused on writing 12 blog posts. Well, you don’t have to sit down with a blank piece of paper. You can use AI to help you with that. There are AI tools that you can use. You can go on Upwork or Fiverr and you can buy a package of 12 blog posts and it’s not very expensive and you’re not starting with a blank piece of paper. I think we should really be thinking about how we could leverage the other resources from a technology and a services perspective that are available to really help us maximize the number of things that we can get done.
Stephanie Everett (24:22):
I love all of that and great reminders. All right, as we wrap up, anything else we should let people know?
Debbie Foster (24:29):
I’m a big fan of those big white post-Its that go up on a wall somewhere and a chisel tip, sharpie marker, and just putting a white piece of paper up there and starting to write it down. And then when you fill up that one, put up another piece of paper and write it down. Just keep writing things down and then grab another piece of paper and distill down what you wrote on those first two into one or two or three things. And really just getting it out there. It is so helpful. It can also feel overwhelming. And one of the things that we do at all of our strategic planning workshops is we get a law firm’s issues up on one or two or three, normally three or four of those big white pieces of paper. And there’s often 12 or 16 or 22 issues on the list.
And when we finish with that, I often see people kind of sit back in their chair and go, oh my goodness. And I’m always turning it around and saying, but now you have a list and there’s something really helpful about having a list and looking at that list and saying, what is one thing that I could pick from that list that would be a needle moving thing? And you’d be surprised how often fixing one thing makes two or three other things on your list better. And so just sitting down and it doesn’t, you don’t have to wait for, you don’t have to hire a consultant. You don’t have to wait to have the right amount of time, pick a 30 minute window and just start writing things down and maybe leave them up in your office. And every time you think of something, you just get up and go write it down and just build a list and then call the list down to something that is one or two or three things that you can stay focused on in 2024 or the first part of 2024 that are really going to be impactful for your firm.
Stephanie Everett (26:22):
Yeah, we actually have a tool like that inside of lab. We built the place where here’s the list. So every time we’re on a coaching call or things come up, you know that you can just go pop that issue onto the list. And then when we do our quarterly strategy planning, we look at the list and say, now what’s the next thing? We’re going to pull off the list? And then interesting enough, I’ll just share with everybody, the list becomes after you pull the one or two priorities for the quarter off of it, we call the list the avoid at all costs list. And that comes from Warren Buffett because he says, once you capture it, you got it out of your head and it’s on the list, you can ignore it. And it’s the avoid it all costless, because those are the shiny things that are going to pull you away from that one or two priorities. So you want to stay focused on the thing. You actually pulled off the list, but it’s there. It’s waiting for you. You can add to it. You just don’t want to get distracted by it.
Debbie Foster (27:16):
I love that. And this is true. I know at least for me, maybe not for everyone, but for me, when I’m looking at something really challenging and I’m getting ready to sit down and get hard work done, it is so easy for my eye to just let go. Is there anything else I’d rather do instead of this? And I love the avoid at all costs, and I think that that’s really true. When you’re thinking about how do you get a strategic objective or a strategic priority, how do you make forward progress on that? It is turn everything else off that is a distraction, and whether it’s the Pomodoro timer or a timer on your phone or whatever that looks like, just do 30 minutes of focused work on it, just 30 minutes of focused work. And you’ll look at that and say, I accomplished that in 30 minutes. What if you did that five times a week? You could make huge progress on your objectives for the year.
Stephanie Everett (28:13):
Absolutely. And in fact, I’ll just give my little plug here at the end. It is the new year, so if you’re curious about this, when you join Lab, we do this work with you. So we’re going to walk you through essentially a strategic planning process. We’re going to help you map out those things, pick those priorities, put everything else on the avoided all cost list, and then guess what? We have time every month that you can come into a work session and basically get shit done. So it’s really powerful and people are always amazed. They think, well, I’m just working on one or two things. And then at the end of the year when we look back, they’re like, oh my gosh, I got so many things done. And like you said, needle moving, things that you can really see the results in your firm.
Debbie Foster (28:58):
And having a guide to help you with that is so valuable. You can’t even describe, we sit down to do it ourselves and it just feels overwhelming. But having a guide who’s like, let’s just start. Let’s just throw some things on the list. Let’s just start talking and be so helpful.
Stephanie Everett (29:15):
Yeah. All right. Well, thank you once again for joining me today. It was always fun to talk to you. I mean, I talk to you all the time, but I’m glad that our audience gets to hear from you. So thank you, Debbie.
Debbie Foster (29:25):
Thanks for having me.
The Lawyerist Podcast is edited by Britany Felix. Are you ready to implement the ideas we discuss here into your practice? Wondering what to do next? Here are your first two steps. First. If you haven’t read The Small Firm Roadmap yet, grab the first chapter for free at Lawyerist.com/book. Looking for help beyond the book? Let’s chat about whether our coaching communities, are right for you. Head to Lawyerist.com/community/lab to schedule a 10-minute call with our team to learn more. The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said in this podcast is legal advice for you.