Managing change in an industry of professional skeptics

All of us are engaged in change management, whether we want to admit it or not

When I first heard the term “change management” several years ago, my first thought related to keeping nickels, dimes and pennies out of the cup holders in my car. Admittedly, change management is a tier-one piece of consultant-speak. However, there is no denying that the legal industry is in the midst of significant change, and managing that change is a worthy topic for both law firms and clients.

Some things are constant: Clients always want business-aware service that is hyper-responsive and provides value for the dollar. However, consider the following changing factors that firms must navigate in trying to provide that service:

  • The client's desire for predictable alternative fee arrangements not bad on the billable hour
  • Other client demands, preferences and sources of information about legal professionals
  • The ages, abilities and relationships among the professionals within a firm or legal department
  • Technology, particularly communication-related technology

All of these items are in perpetual flux and impact the practice of law. Thus, all of us are engaged in change management, whether we want to admit it or not.

I don't profess to be a change management expert, but I am engaged in it as the chair of a litigation group of approximately 100 timekeepers in an AmLaw 200 firm. I have been involved in change management efforts of varying success throughout almost the past decade and believe the following points are helpful to those championing change.

Believe in your change, or don't change

Major changes are institutional changes. They must be in the best interest of the firm or client, and management needs to enthusiastically believe in the change. If you are lukewarm to it, or doing it just because a consultant told you it was a good idea, stop and rethink it.

The legal industry (and perhaps all of corporate America) is littered with failed efforts which had, at their core, an effort to solve a hard problem with a misplaced consultant or a piece of software. All too often, the consultant does not understand the business it is consulting, and the software is irrelevant to the core problem or will never be fully used by the lawyers it is intended to benefit. Employing consultants and software are too often lazy non-solutions to problems that management doesn't want to face head-on, but needs to convince (usually itself) that it is addressing.

You need to believe in the change if you are going to convince your colleagues of it.

Have the courage to take the critique

While law firms can have many different structures and cultures, they certainly all have an abundance of smart, trained skeptics who are not shy about sharing their opinions. This free flow of opinions can be a good thing, as long as management realizes the proposed changes are going to be critiqued and doesn't allow that critique to paralyze change efforts that need to occur, or set up an “us vs. them” dynamic. The certain critique can tempt firm leaders to forego change in hopes of avoiding divisiveness. Most law firms are not top-down structures. Many important changes will need to be made over some dissent. Leaders cannot allow the possibility of dissent to stop needed change.

Firm management needs to expect a variety of responses and be prepared to separate thoughtful dissent from unhelpful generalized complaining. Complaints about a proposal that quickly morph into discussions about the partner's individual compensation or status are most often not about the proposal at all. Also, be wary of arguments based on tradition. While many traditions, particularly those tied to collegiality and community involvement, are key parts of the fabric of firms, tradition is also often the last defense against logic. If the only answer is “we've always done it this way,” it's probably time to try a different approach.

Use thoughtful skeptics to vet the change and communicate it

A firm or legal department manager contemplating a significant change should be sufficiently in touch with its lawyers to recognize what the contrary argument will be, and who is most likely to make it. It is critical to engage these helpful skeptics in the process of determining whether to make the significant change. Most often, the skeptic will improve the proposed change, and then be among the most effective advocates for the change.

Stay the course and get to real data

If the change is worth making, it is worth fighting for over months, and often years. Deciding there is a problem and designing the solution is hard enough. However, it is the implementation that matters, and that implementation is at least ten times harder than the planning. All too often, institutions of all kinds follow this path: assess problem; brainstorm; plan; discuss plan; procrastinate about plan; question plan; and repeat again. In this all-too-common cycle, nothing ever gets done.

Change works when we can point to actual results utilizing the changes, even if the results are not 100 percent positive. A speaker talking to a firm or legal department about a change that someone else implemented far away and somebody else wrote about is not compelling. A speaker discussing a different approach that your firm or legal department actually took with real, verifiable results is compelling.

Conclusion

Making needed change is very hard in a law firm or legal department. However, when approached honestly, with discipline and perseverance, change efforts will both improve your institution and improve your institution's future willingness to adapt for the better.

Contributing Author

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Kevin Long

Kevin Long is the national chair of Quarles & Brady LLP’s Commercial Litigation Group. His practice focuses on construction and real estate litigation. He is also...

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