Effectively Managing Change in a Law Firm

Change is a reality of business. Client needs shift; legal expertise shifts due to retirements and new hires; legislation and case law create new opportunities and close down previous legal practises. Change is hard for most people, but particularly for lawyers. The lawyer personality doesn’t like change; it likes the expected, precedent and tradition. Lawyers tend to be risk-averse, and change represents risk.

Yet managing anything, be it a practice or a law firm, is all about managing change. Files conclude. Clients come and go. Volume of work fluctuates. Files have different levels of complexity. Support staff may shift over time. Even a lawyer’s practice changes as their skills and experience grow.

This kind of change is expected, and even anticipated and celebrated. Another year of development means a higher billable rate, more credibility, perhaps more responsibility. These things lead to higher compensation, and yet more credibility. So, some change is OK by lawyers. But ask any law firm administrator and they will tell you that while lawyers will accept the change associated with personal growth, most will be resistant to changes within their business culture. Getting adherence to new technology, new processes, new strategies can be a diplomatic and logistical nightmare for most administrators. Lawyers fight the argument that a change is needed; they argue over the best solution; they drag their heels in implementation and some point-blank refuse to comply.

This is not always the case. There are some issues that are seamlessly and efficiently resolved in some firms. But in most instances, change comes somewhat painfully.

If this is the case for obvious needs – such as the need for new technology – imagine how difficult it can be to usher a firm through more conceptual changes. Way back in my in-house days, I recall the incredible challenge of moving a firm used to one assistant/one lawyer to a three-on-one process. The move made sense because technology enabled lawyers to type their own letters and emails and no longer required assistants to transcribe letters from Dictaphones. I thought the Director of HR was going to get fired for even suggesting the firm start to adopt this more efficient use of staff, especially given that it was already employed by half of the marketplace. It took years to implement and some older lawyers simply refused to comply.

Many of the processes that exist in a law firm serve it well. Everything in a law firm does NOT need to change. But where change is in fact needed, here are some ways to help it along with the least pain possible.

  1. Start by focusing on the issue, not the solution. A mediation teacher told the class that when they went home the previous evening, their partner had announced “I need a new red convertible”. “No” my teacher told his wife, “you need a new car”. It is human nature to jump to solutions when considering an issue. Perhaps it’s that we believe we must solve an issue before we bring it up. Perhaps we think that rushing to a solution will make the decision easier and the change less painful. Unfortunately, moving too quickly to a solution can make it even more difficult to move forward. People need time to accept that change is needed and they can’t do that if you’re pushing a pill down their throat. Start by examining the issue to ensure you know what’s really wrong (and that you aren’t simply dealing with a symptom of the real issue). Ask around to see if this is an issue for one person, or many. See if there’s a simple answer, or if there needs to be a more exhaustive exploration. Consider how the issues fits in with the firm’s values, or strategic plan. Do the work required to frame the issue in a way that will make sense to the firm if you decide a change is needed moving forward.
  2. Form a task force: I love task forces (as opposed to committees) for discrete issues because task forces have a beginning, middle and END! Why do you need a task force? A single person may be able to resolve this issue and decide on what change is needed but that’s not the point of a task force. The bigger issue is getting buy-in, and you can only do that when the firm feels that a variety of perspectives have participated in the process. It’s unrealistic and horribly inefficient to engage the entire firm in this process; but it is possible to create a team that represents a cross-section of relevant stake-holders. And don’t be afraid to include a naysayer or two on this task force. The best way to get a vocal opponent on-side is to ask him or her to be part of the team that resolves this issue. Along the way, they’ll ask questions that the rest of the task force might not, forcing the group to take in perspectives that will ultimately make for a stronger solution.
  3. Do the research: Start by interviewing anyone in the firm who feels they have some information to contribute to the project in terms of the issue, ramifications, and potential solutions. Some of this might result in repetitious information and that’s OK. You want people to feel heard, you want to see the volume of comments for the various aspects of the issue, and you want to hear what people think the solution might be. This doesn’t mean you’re going to use their solution. But it helps when explaining the choice that you did make to explain why you didn’t go the other routes suggested. Ask other firms if they’ve experienced this issue and how they resolved it. If relevant, you could even look into other industries to see how they have handled it.
  4. Prepare to defend your choice: Once you know how you want to proceed, do so in a way that will allow you to defend your choice. Find several solution options. If appropriate, get pitches and quotes. Document why you went with the solution you did.
  5. Implement carefully and clearly: Many projects lose the respect and confidence of a firm not as a result of the decision, but as a result of poor implementation. Don’t let your change project suffer this fate after working so hard to get to this point. Put as much or more energy into planning for a smooth change implementation. It should include lots of communication, timelines, a logical shifting process (from the old way of doing things to the new way), a quick response process for anything that goes sideways, etc.
  6. Communicate during the process, and six months later: Throughout the process it’s important to keep people informed without pestering them. On a project that is going to take six months to implement, you may wish to report to the firm every two months on the status of the project. What’s been done to date, what’s up next, who to contact if there are any issues. Do a report at the end of the project, and then put a bring forward in your calendar to do another report about six months out that focusses on the results. This needn’t be a long report – just a few sentences to wrap up a strong change management project.
  7. Thank those who participated. Make sure – in your end of project report and your six months later report – that you take time to thank those who were involved in the change management project. They didn’t do it for the thank you, but it’s sure nice to get one anyway. And thanking those involved demonstrates to the rest of the firm that helping out with such projects is valued. So next time you need to assemble a task force, it will be a little easier.

The need for change in a law firm is inevitable, but this process doesn’t have to be painful. Change – well managed and implemented – can be accepted and appreciated, even in a law firm. We just need to do it well.

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